For a couple years now, Major League Baseball has had an affiliation with the independent Atlantic League, whereby the league gets some support and benefits from MLB, and in exchange, MLB can experiment with rules changes before porting them over to Minor League Baseball (and then, ultimately, MLB).
For this coming season, the Atlantic League will take on two CRITICALLY IMPORTANT (in my opinion) rules changes:
1.) The designated hitter will be tied directly to the starting pitcher, so that when the starting pitcher leaves the game, your DH is gone.
2.) The mound will be moved back by one foot.
For me, that new designated hitter structure has always been the best of both worlds. The DH, which is so deeply ensconced now in the American League, is not going away. But a lot of National League traditionalists still push back against the idea of losing the strategy associated with pinch-hitting, late-game changes, etc. In this version of the rule, you still are going to have to make strategic decisions about relievers and pinch-hitters later in the game – because once the starting pitcher is out, that spot in the order goes to the next pitcher, so you’ve gotta let that reliever hit or use a pinch-hitter – and you will ALSO have to make strategic decisions about how long to leave your starting pitcher in.
Think about the positive implications of that second part. Not only would it mean protecting the health of starting pitchers who don’t really bat anymore at the other levels of professional ball or in college, it would also mean openers go out the window. And it would also mean starting pitchers who can go deeper into games will once again be emphasized in the sport. The idea of a manager having to delicately decide whether he wants to risk losing one of his best bats (or moving him into a defensive spot), or wants to see if his starter can get him just one more inning … I love it. And the NL gets the DH. Kinda. The AL gets to keep the DH. Kinda. Everyone wins! KINDA!
The latter rule change is pretty self-explanatory, and I think Theo Epstein did the best job selling me on the idea:
As he so often does, Theo Epstein articulates the best version of an explanation behind wanting to move the mound back a little bit. This definitely nudges me toward buying in (The Athletic):
On why he’d now consider moving back the mound: “I think it’s impossible to talk about how to restore the right balance between modern pitchers and modern hitters without giving consideration to the dimensions. And I don’t even think that you need to (move it back) 2 feet. To learn a lot about potential solutions, I think even if you did half that amount, if you move the mound back a foot, you would give hitters an extra 100th of a second (to react). … And that 100th of a second corresponds to basically like a tick and a half of velocity. Which would sort of mean that you’re restoring velocity to where it was maybe eight to 10 years ago, when the contact rate was a little bit better, the strikeout rate was a little bit more under control. So it would certainly be a worthwhile experiment.”
The mound distance hasn’t been changed in 128(!) years, despite all the other changes to the game and the players. That seems awfully silly.
We know that moving the mound back will decrease the perceived velocity on pitches, as Epstein said, but one thing we don’t quite know is how it will impact a pitcher’s ability locate his pitches. And how about the extra perceived movement on pitches? Will this change actually help increase contact, or hurt it? That’s why you have these kinds of controlled experiments in the Atlantic League, and then in the minor leagues (where other rules changes are already going to be experimented with this year).
The strike zone will also see some experimentation on its shape (wider, shorter). The strike zone in the league is already guided by automated balls and strikes, so changing the shape of the strike zone is a lot easier there.
I really love this. As long as there isn’t health risk to the players in the Atlantic League, then it’s a perfect place to try out these tweaks and get real, live game feedback on what the changes mean for the way the game is played. Because it’s easy for me to say “YES! I LOVE THESE RULES CHANGES BECAUSE I THINK THEY WILL DO X, Y, AND Z!”, but it’s a very different thing to actually have data, and then see if there are unexpected consequences that cut against the very thing you’re trying to accomplish.