MLB’s mound experiment an underwhelming minor league innovation
By Ken Davidoff
September 20, 2021
Doomsday didn’t come to Fairfield Properties Ballpark or its Atlantic League neighbors this summer.
Then again, neither did salvation.
Do you recall the hubbub of concern that emerged upon Major League Baseball’s announcement that the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, a group of eight unaffiliated teams that now holds the status as an MLB “Partner League,” would experiment by pushing the pitcher’s mound back a foot — that’s right, 61 feet and 6 inches from home plate — for the season’s second half?
Well, about a month and a half into this endeavor, the predominant reaction to this seemingly radical alteration might be … apathy.
“Nothing huge,” Long Island Ducks manager Wally Backman said recently, prior to a home game in Central Islip. “I’m shocked, because I thought there’d be a big difference. But there hasn’t been.”
Said Scott Harkin, who pitched six innings of one-run ball for the Ducks that night, picking up a 4-2 win over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs: “Honestly, I don’t even notice it.”
That aligns with the overall impressions sent to MLB’s central command. Said Morgan Sword, the league’s executive vice president of baseball operations: “What we’ve seen in the data and the feedback gathering, it has just not been that big a deal. The impact is very muted. We probably want to reserve judgment until we get the full sample to talk about that.”
Pushing the mound back six inches didn’t seem to affect pitchers’ approach — nor create any overwhelming result.
MLB wanted to try the change, with consultant Theo Epstein a significant champion, to see if it would lower strikeouts and increase action and run production. The small sample has proven about half-successful. From the adjustment’s implementation on Aug. 3 through Sept. 19, as per MLB:
• Run scoring is up by .22 runs per game.
• Slugging percentage is up 26 points, a by-product of home runs being up from 2.9 percent of all outcomes to 3.6 percent. “I think that’s probably the most meaningful thing that has happened,” Sword said. “Twenty points of slugging is not a lot, but directionally, it’s what we were hoping for.”
• Strikeouts are up a tick, from 18.3 percent to 18.4. “I couldn’t explain that one to you,” Sword said In conjunction with that, the batting average on balls in play has dropped from .324 to .320.
• There’s a “slight increase” in the percentage of fastballs thrown and a “very small decrease” in the number of sliders and curveballs thrown, Sword said in an interview on Sept. 14.
In all, “It’s a very mild effect that we’ve seen,” Swords said. “’I’m very glad that it hasn’t required a dramatic adjustment for players and hasn’t resulted in a lot of injuries. That’s all good news.”
Said Ducks outfielder LJ Mazzilli, the former Mets prospect (and son of beloved Met and Yankee Lee Mazzilli): “I think a lot of people got ahead of themselves before it actually happened. They really were opinionated early on, and I was just trying to take it in and let me see for myself. And then as soon as I got in, that first game, that first fastball I saw, it was like the exact same as what I’ve been seeing my whole life. I was like, ‘This is not as crazy as people were making it seem.’ ”
Not everyone took to it like a duck to water, though. Ducks pitcher Joe Iorio, a native of West Islip, said he had to adjust his arm slot to throw his off-speed pitches: “I’m trying to get it to a different spot now, because he’s a foot back. The hitter obviously has a little more time to see it.”
Yet Iorio added: “It’s definitely an adjustment, but at the end of the day, we’ve been pitching our whole lives, so you feel like you can figure it out pretty quickly. But once you get in the game, it’s a constant adjustment, and that’s pitching, anyway. Whether it’s the regular distance or not, you’re always adjusting and trying to fine-tune your pitches.”
Mazzilli and his fellow Ducks outfielder Daniel Fields, who played in one game for the 2015 Tigers, said independently that they noticed more high breaking balls being called for strikes since the switch, which also could be a by-product of the switch integrated into the Trackman system — robo-umps, the more fun terminology — that governs the league’s balls and strikes.
The much ado creating very little to date carries a trade-off with it: If it winds up as this low-impact, should this experiment be ceased with this 2021 Atlantic League season? Must other avenues be introduced to add action?
“That’s probably for other folks to decide,” Sword said. “What we’re planning to do is go back to the [MLB] Competition Committee, share with them what we’ve learned after interviewing a lot of players and coaches and doing a lot of analysis. We’ll see what of the stuff we’ve tried this year should survive, what should be modified and what should be on the cutting-room floor.”
They’ll have plenty to discuss thanks to the slew of innovations introduced throughout the minor leagues. Here’s a check on some of the others:
1. Robo-umps, in their second season at the Atlantic League (they started in 2019, then the pandemic canceled 2020), seem to be gaining momentum.
“The hitters are going to tell you they like it because it’s consistent, as opposed to some umpires being way more consistent than others,” Backman said. The former Met added, “There are pitches that are called strikes that you couldn’t hit if you knew they were coming. High breaking balls are called strikes and stuff. Those are the question marks. They’ve got to figure all that stuff out. But trust me, I believe that’s going to be in the big leagues.”
2. The bigger bases. Used at Triple-A as well as the Atlantic League, the bases — increased from 15 inches square to 18 — were introduced with the hope of increasing action by shortening the distance between bases, thereby making it easier to reach on an infield single as well as steal bases, as well as avoid collisions.
“For somebody that steals bases, baseball is a game of inches, right? There it is,” Backman said. “But it’s safe, is what it is.”
Said Sword: “That’s a very easy one. On the continuum [of rules changes], the bigger base is easy to implement. There are health and safety benefits, and it nudges us toward higher batting averages on balls in play. We’ve had players, middle infielders, tell us they didn’t even notice.”
3. The double-hook rule. The Atlantic League plays by this, which asserts that, once you lift your starting pitcher, you lose your designated hitter (whom you can switch into a defensive position at the expense of another player). This emanated from the desire to return to the days of a starting pitcher going long and deep into the contest, which would be rewarded by the retention of a ninth hitter.
“The double-hook rule that we’re doing is absolutely useless,” Backman said. “You make more double switches with the designated hitter in this league than you would in the National League. And we have a DH.”
Said Fields: “People haven’t been too big a fan of that one.”
Sword, who laughed upon hearing Backman’s thoughts on the double-hook, said, “It’s less about what it does to the game and more the way that managers behave within that context. Are we getting starting pitchers left in the game a little bit longer? Are we creating more double switching, interesting strategic elements on the back half of the game?”
Based on the data, not really. Although as Sword implied, baseball isn’t as married to the double-hook rule as it is interested in mitigating the strategies of “bullpenning” and the opener.
4. The reduced pitch clock. In Low A West (formerly known as the California League), teams play under a 15-second pitch clock that can be stopped only twice per at-bats for a maximum of two step-offs or pickoff attempts.
The result? A reduction in average game time of more than 20 minutes since the switch in early June, from 3:02 to 2:41, as well as a decrease in walks and hit batters per game. That sounds like a winner.
“It’s pretty amazing. It’s a very well-paced game that all of the people involved have responded very well to,” Sword said. “The operators of the teams, initially they were concerned about having 20 minutes less to sell beer or popcorn is a concern. But the quality of the game on the field has improved so much, it’s kind of worth it.”
The reduced pitch clock will be utilized in the upcoming Arizona Fall League.
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