Decision by Derby: The Pioneer League Joins the Experimental Rules Bandwagon

The idea has long been a refrain for both proponents and critics of extra-innings baseball, though often voiced with tongue in cheek: instead of drawing out contests to 10 or 12 or 17 wearying innings, or starting each extra frame with a runner on second base, why not just settle the matter via a home run derby? This year, as the affiliated minor and independent leagues implement a variety of experimental rules, the Pioneer League will do just that. The “Knock Out” rule, as the league is calling it, is just one change from among a slate that should garner the league some attention — though that doesn’t mean it’s coming to major league ballparks anytime soon.

The idea of ending games that go beyond nine innings with some kind of home run contest has been in the ether for awhile, to say the least, and it’s even been implemented in some places:

As best I can tell, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, an amateur summer league akin to the Cape Cod League, has taken a variant of this rule for the longest spin. Introduced for the 2017 season, and applicable only after the 10th inning, the FCBL reported that 10 of its 238 games that year were decided via a derby, and the format proved popular enough to retain. With the exception of the aforementioned use in the Eastern League All-Star Game in 2015, it doesn’t appear to have received a trial in the professional ranks.

Enter the Pioneer League, which until MLB’s ham-fisted reorganization of the minors had operated within the affiliated minors in the Rocky Mountain area, first from 1939-42 and then from ’46 onward. From 1964-2019, it was a rookie-level league with a rich history that included a bonanza of talent coming through the Dodgers’ pipeline via their Ogden, Utah affiliate — Bill Buckner, Steve Garvey, Tom Paciorek, and Bobby Valentine were teammates on a legendary 1968 team managed by Tommy Lasorda, for example — and a Salt Lake City team that set the professional baseball record with 29 straight wins in 1987. Amid the recent contraction of the minors, the circuit was left on the outside looking in, but in November agreed to become a partner league, an independent circuit whose operating expenses are fully funded by MLB, which is additionally providing scouting technology to its eight ballparks.

“To avoid excessive strain on our pitching staffs, the Pioneer Baseball League will not have extra innings, but rather will employ a first-of-its-kind ‘Knock Out’ rule that resolves tie games with a head-to-head, ‘sudden death’ home run duel,” wrote the league in its press release, the full text of which is below. For each round, each team chooses a hitter, who in turn chooses a pitcher or coach — a detail that Heather Luna, the Pioneer’s director of league administration confirmed to FanGraphs — to throw them five pitches. Whichever team’s hitter hits more home runs in that round wins the game. If the two teams are still tied, they continue with another round. Teammates can use the same pitchers if they choose, according to Luna.

Here it’s worth a reminder that as independent teams with 25-man rosters, the Pioneer League’s clubs can’t simply call up a pitcher from another level if their pitching staffs get overtaxed via extra-inning games. Rather than use the runner-on-second rule that’s been in place in the minors since 2018, the league is trying something different in the name of entertainment.

Via the Billings Gazette:

Billings Mustangs owner Dave Heller said the change is part of a league-wide plan to make the game more entertaining for fans in the coming years.

“Our new league is fan-centric and the home run challenge is just another way to put our fans first,” Heller said. “We’re going to use these next few years to innovate, to try new ideas, push the envelope and implement fan-friendly changes to make the game more fun for our guests.”

Said Missoula PaddleHeads vice president Matt Ellis: “It adds excitement and drama to the game. It makes our product better. We believe fans will stay to watch the home run contest when they may not have stayed for extra innings. It adds a great wrinkle to the game and saves pitchers’ arms. Everyone wins except the team that doesn’t hit a home run.”

If you’re hoping that this turns into a fireworks show along the lines of the All-Star Game Home Run Derbies, you’ll probably be saddened to find out that there aren’t likely to be many Giancarlo Stantons, Bryce Harpers, or Pete Alonsos lurking in a low-level indie league whose player pool will consist of recently undrafted players as well as those released from affiliated ball early in their professional careers. And even in an eight-team league where the host cities’ elevations range from 2,730 feet (Boise, Idaho) to 6,035 feet (Colorado Springs), the ballparks in use generally aren’t homer-conducive bandboxes. I don’t have minor league home/road splits, but in 2019, the Pioneer League averaged 0.89 homers per team per game even while teams scored 5.26 runs per game; by comparison, major league teams averaged a record 1.39 homers per game that season even while scoring just 4.83 runs per game. Of the seven ballparks that will be carried over from that league, only the Ogden Raptors’ Lindquist Field played host to a team that hit more than one homer per game, and only Lindquist and the Idaho Falls Chukar’s Melaleuca Field have center field distances shorter than 398 feet; the rest go as high as 415 feet.

If you’re worried that this is a rule change that Major League Baseball is actively considering, you can stop yelling at that cloud. While the Pioneer League is a partner league, MLB has no involvement in the implementation of this rule or the others being tried out; in other words, this is being done independently. That’s not to say that Commissioner Rob Manfred and friends won’t keep an eye on the rule’s reception, but whatever’s going on in the Pioneer League is at least a few tiers removed from the experimental rules being used in the Atlantic League (which will utilize an electronic strike zone and, in the second half of the season, extend the pitching distance by a foot), and in the affiliated minors (which in various leagues will use larger bases, an anti-shift rule, a step-off rule, pickoff throw limits, and a pitch-timer).

If you’re wondering how often you’ll see this, I don’t have extra innings minor league splits, either, but we can extrapolate from the majors. In 2019, extra-innings games made up 8.6% of all games, while last year, they similarly made up 8.5%, though this year, they’re up to 11.1%; that’s 8.8% over the 2019-21 period, which comes out to about eight extra-inning games per team over the course of each Pioneer League team’s 92-game season.

As for the other rules the Pioneer League is introducing, one mandates the expansion to a three-man umpiring crew to provide “better coverage of fly balls, check swings, double plays and other game situations.” That’s a significant upgrade putting the league in line with Double- and Triple-A levels. Another addition is a revised check swing rule that allows a hitter to appeal a swinging strike call to a base umpire, instead of limiting only the pitcher and catcher to calling for them. This could restore a bit of balance in a game where ever-increasing strikeout rates are diminishing the number of balls in play and thus the amount of action in the game.

Having said that, the steady stream of relievers throwing in the high 90s that has fueled MLB’s soaring strikeout rates isn’t likely to turn up in the Pioneer League or any other indie, and so the strikeout rates might not be as high. Case in point, while major league pitchers struck out 23.0% of batters in 2019, the six independent leagues for which we have enough data from that year (the Atlantic, American Association, Canadian-American Association, Frontier League, Pacific Association, and Pecos League) combined for a 20.7% rate. For 2018, where MLB struck out 22.3% of batters, the indies struck out 19.4%. That said, while the 2018 Pioneer League — whose players are likely to be similarly aged to the ones in this year’s league — struck out at a 20.8% clip, in ’19 that spiked to 24.9%. Maybe the rule will have an impact.

More experimental are the designated pinch-hitter and designated pinch-runner rules, not to be confused with the now-standard designated hitter, which the league will use. The designated pinch-hitter recalls the terminology in use when the AL, NL, and the affiliated minor leagues experimented with various forms of the DH rule starting in 1969. The Pioneer League’s rule allows each team the once-per-game use of a pinch-hitter to bat for another position player, who may then return to his defensive position unless or until he’s otherwise substituted out of the game. The designated pinch-hitter however, cannot return. In other words, if you have the Pioneer League equivalent of Jeff Mathis (let’s call him Meff Jathis) coming to bat in a key situation, you can call on your top bench option (Sablo Pandoval) to hit for him once, but bring Jathis back to continue catching.

Similarly, the designated pinch-runner rule allows the once-per-game use of a runner to substitute for a player who can then return to his defensive position unless or until he’s otherwise switched out of the game; the designated pinch-runner cannot return. If your Pioneer League equivalent of Salvador Perez (Palvador Serez, of course) hits a double and you really need him to get home as the game-tying or go-ahead run, you can substitute someone fleeter of foot (Gerrance Tore?) while still retaining Serez’s game-calling aura.

Together, the rules might induce teams to keep an extra position player on the bench instead of a pitcher, a welcome change in the day of ever-expanding pitching staffs. They’re interesting in that they could potentially add a layer or two of strategic intrigue to games, but they’re hardly essential, and rather gimmicky. At the major league level, a fan might get a bit excited at the entry of a specialist such as Terrance Gore or Pablo Sandoval to substitute for the plodding catcher, but at the indie level, such roster nuances are likely to escape the casual fan. What’s more, it probably doesn’t bode well for the professional prospects or at least the self-esteem of the guy whose turn at bat is being skipped.

While the Atlantic League’s pitching distance rule raises concerns about injuries, and while the experiments in the affiliated leagues may have minor effects when it comes to player development — a prospect may have to learn and unlearn rules as he climbs the ladder — it’s difficult to get too bent out of shape when it comes to the Pioneer League’s experiments. Are they gimmicky? Of course. Could they add a bit of fun to the games? Perhaps. If a league that was nearly steamrolled out of existence via contraction wants to try something new in the name of attracting fans in what would otherwise be one of the most baseball-poor areas of the country, I’ll wish them luck with their experiment while hoping that Manfred doesn’t get any big ideas out of it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I like the idea of different leagues having different rules. Baseball rules weren’t delivered on stone tablets. Having said that, I don’t like using a HR derby to decide the outcome of a game. It takes a multifaceted game and boils it down to one skill of one player. Gone are defenses, pitching, base running, working a count, defensive shifts, etc.

1 year ago
Reply to  fijisiv

Kinda like hockey shoot outs maybe? I have no idea if hockey fans like those, though, or how longstanding they are.

1 year ago
Reply to  BurleighGrimes

I think most don’t like shootouts. They were a cool gimmick when they first started, but I think they’ve overstayed their welcome. The NHL changed their OT rules a few years ago to try and get more games to end in OT (3 v. 3, which is also a more exciting version of the game), because I think they even realize most don’t like shootouts.

1 year ago

From the 11th inning on, both teams have to play 7 on 7. Teams can pick which positions to eliminate. Clever managers eliminate the catcher.

1 year ago
Reply to  Multiphasic

Phase it in. Play the 10th normally. Teams have to remove one player each inning after that. So the 11th is 8v8, the 12th is 7v7, the 13th is 6v6. If you get to the 17th, you’re basically playing a backyard wiffleball game, where every ball in play is a race between how fast the pitcher can chase down the ball and how fast the batter can get around the bases…

1 year ago
Reply to  BurleighGrimes

Many hockey fans also deride the shootout as a mere skills competition, and the standings point earned for going to OT as an abomination as well.

1 year ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Yep. If they’re going to keep the shootout, make it worth two points and a regulation win three. A loss in overtime is nothing, a win in overtime is two. Would see much more urgency.

1 year ago
Reply to  BurleighGrimes

Many hockey fans don’t. The shootout turns a team sport into an individual competition.
The real function of the shootout, however, is artificial inflation of the standings. Hockey win gets you two points in the standings. A shootout win also gives you two, but the losing team gets a point. So late in regulation in tie games, teams often get conservative to at least snag a point out of it. The end result is more teams end up over .500 and artificially boosted into the playoff race.