The Atlantic League Will Experiment Again, This Time With the Pitching Distance and DH Rule

Building upon a suite of experimental rule changes for the affiliated minor leagues that Major League Baseball announced in March, the independent Atlantic League has agreed to implement a couple of radical changes to the rulebook this season as well, one involving the pitching distance and the other the designated hitter rule. Via’s Anthony Castrovince, the eight-team league will increase the pitching distance by a foot for the second half of its 120-game season, and will implement a “Double Hook” designated hitter rule, in which a team loses its DH spot after its starting pitcher is removed.

Like several of the experimental rules MLB announced in March — larger base sizes in Triple-A, anti-shift rules in Double-A, a step-off rule in High-A, an electronic strike zone in the Low-A Southeast League, a pitch timer in the Low-A West League, and pickoff limits in all three Low-A leagues, all of which Brendan Gawlowski and Kevin Goldstein discussed here — these changes are a chance to examine the real-world effects of implementing rules that have been discussed in recent years as ways to liven up a game that has become increasingly geared towards home runs and strikeouts. The pitching distance change is an effort to counter the trends of higher pitch velocity, higher strikeout rates, and fewer balls in play that have reduced the level of action and — to the eyes of many — the level of entertainment as well, the latter despite the incredible athleticism of the players involved. The DH rule change is an effort to counter the trend of decreased workloads of starting pitchers and the corresponding increased reliance upon bullpens, which have stoked the velocity and strikeout trends throughy a steady stream of relievers throwing an inning at a time at maximum effort.

This isn’t the first time MLB has gone to the Atlantic League to test out radical ideas; instead, it’s the latest stage of a three-year agreement put into place in 2019, allowing MLB to test new rules and equipment in the country’s top independent league. The three-batter rule that was introduced at the major league level last year was first tried in the Atlantic League in 2019. That same year, the league became the first to implement an electronic strike zone, and debuted larger bases and an anti-shift rule. All of those changes are now being subjected to further testing in affiliated ball, though the shift rule has taken a different form.

The Atlantic League planned to introduce a 62’6″ pitching distance — a two-foot move, twice the distance of this year change — in the middle of the 2019 season, but that plan was greeted with a chilly reception, with some pitchers threatening to leave the league. The plan was soon delayed until the second half of the 2020 season, which itself was scrapped entirely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As with the new rules being tried in the affiliated minors, it’s fair to be nervous about the effects these changes will have upon the game, both in terms of intended consequences and unintended ones, particularly as MLB has sometimes appeared to overlook the latter. For example, the introduction of instant replay to review umpires’ calls has not only led to debates over the propriety of calling a player who inadvertently loses contact with a base for a fraction of a second out, it led to the technology being exploited by teams in the service of stealing signs illegally, creating a scandal that rocked the sport while calling into question the validity of the 2017 and ’18 World Series outcomes. And then there’s the ongoing saga of changes to the construction of the ball itself, which has pushed the game further into a three-true-outcomes cul de sac amplifying some of the conditions the league is attempting to counter.

Likewise, it’s also fair to worry about anything that makes the jobs of pitchers more difficult given that they already get injured with greater frequency than position players. They’ve been fine-tuning their deliveries and their arsenals for a 60’6″ distance since high school, but suddenly they have to adapt to a whole new distance. What’s more, the first wave of players being asked to adapt to this radical change on both sides of the ball are already at the fringes of professional baseball, making at most $3,000 a month for a five-month season, and usually much less than that. They’re being given a choice: submit to being used as baseball guinea pigs or take your bats and gloves elsewhere.

All of that said, getting MLB and the players’ union to buy into changes that are designed to address longstanding concerns about the game’s pace of play and entertainment value is less likely without seeing some of these ideas play out in a competitive environment. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season led to the temporary implementation of the extra-innings runner-on-second rule and the introduction of seven-inning doubleheader games, both of which have been used in the minors for years, and both of which were brought back for 2021; they’re efforts to make it easier to get a full slate of games in amid the complexities posed by the pandemic as well as to reduce players’ time in close proximity. Some of us despise these rules with a passion, but sentiment in either direction is far from unanimous, even among players, and it’s not impossible that some of these rules are maintained; seven-inning doubleheader games might be used to give players more off days over the course of a non-pandemic season, for example. Seeing proposed new rules put into action can change minds and, one would hope, lead to better versions of those rules. With negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement looming, and with teams feeling the financial crunch of a shortened season without any paid admission and then a (hopefully) full season of significantly reduced capacity, this is a critical juncture for the sport. The time is right for some trial and error.

The Atlantic League begins its season on May 27, and will use the 60’6″ distance, which has been in place since 1893 for the first half of its season, then add a foot of distance starting on August 3. The goal is to dial back velocities and strikeout rates. Via Baseball Savant, the average four-seam fastball from last year was clocked at 93.3 mph, 1.1 mph faster than in 2010 and 1.4 mph faster than in ’08, the first year of reliable pitch-tracking data. Where major league hitters struck out at a 17.5% rate in 2008, they did so at a 23.4% clip last season, the 15th year in a row that the rates have increased. What’s more, the past three seasons have featured more strikeouts than hits. Mind you, not all of this is due to increased pitched velocity; the analytically-driven acceptance of strikeouts among batters has increased because it correlates with increased power, particularly as players rework their swings to hit increasingly homer-friendly balls in the air with greater frequency. Early indications point towards all of these trends continuing through the 2021 season.

As both Castrovince and the Washington Post’s Chelsea Janes reported based upon their discussions with unnamed MLB officials, the addition of an extra foot of distance reduces the effective velocity of that 93.3 mph fastball to the equivalent of 91.6 mph, an average velo that actually predates the pitch-tracking era rather than the 2010 or ’11 dates mentioned in those reports. Regardless, if the math on the equivalent velocities is correct — and I’m waiting for the physicists to weigh in here — we can note that in 2019-20 (I’m combining the two seasons due to the brevity of the latter), batters hit .263 and slugged .476 when putting four-seamers in the 93-94 mph range into play, and produced a .357 xwOBA on those pitches when one accounts for walks and strikeouts. On four-seamers in the 91-92 range, they hit .293 and slugged .548, producing a .383 xwOBA. For four-seamers in the 98-99 range, batters hit .220, slugged .366, and produced a .300 xwOBA, but for 96-97 mph heaters, the numbers rose to a .244 AVG, .441 SLG, and .336 xwOBA. A couple ticks of velocity makes a difference.

Countering the effect of that reduced velocity and the advantage it produces for hitters will be different pitch movement. On that subject, as well as the concerns regarding increased injury rates, league sources cited a 2019 study by the American Sports Medicine Institute, published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport; both Dr. James Andrews, perhaps the top orthopedic surgeon in all of sports, and Dr. Glenn Fleisig, a leader in pitching biomenchanics, were involved. For the study, the biomechanics of 26 collegiate pitchers were recorded as they threw three sets of five maximum-effort fastballs from distances of 60’6″, 61’6″, and 63’8″ (that last one is half the distance between home plate and second base); likewise the velocity, horizontal and vertical breaks, duration of the ball’s flight, and strike percentage were measured. The study found “no significant differences” in pitching kinetics, ball velocity, or strike percentage at the varying distances, and the authors concluded that “it is unlikely that moving the mound backwards would significantly affect pitching biomechanics and injury risk.” They also noted that while increased duration of flight (and thus greater reaction time) could help the hitter, increased horizontal and vertical break could help the pitcher.

Given the minimal pitch counts and the lack of breaking balls used in the study, I think it’s fair to regard the ASMI’s findings as incomplete when it comes to appreciating the ramifications of a distance change. Five fastballs is the rough equivalent of facing one batter, and left unanswered here is the question of the physical effects of pitchers throwing 100 pitches at 61’6″, and further questions abound. How much harder is it to control a curveball at that distance, or a slider? Will control difficulties on breaking pitches increase pitchers’ tendencies to rely upon fastballs, putting them at greater risk for arm injuries? Higher contact rates are the goal, but will we in fact see them even with the greater pitch movement? Will lower strikeout rates be offset by higher walk rates, prolonging innings and games? Will pitchers try to compensate for the increased distances by throwing harder, perhaps leading to shorter stints and even greater reliance upon bullpens? Will batters turn their noses up at increased opportunities for contact and instead attempt to hit lower-velo pitches over the wall, too? We’re apparently going to find this stuff out, though it’s one thing for indie league teams to ride out the effects of what happens over the course of a couple of months, and another for major league teams with well-staffed analytical departments to start looking for the edges to be had in implementing these changes.

The Athletic’s Jayson Stark did note that MLB also conducted a study involving where catchers set up behind the plate and found that the difference could be as great as three feet, meaning that pitchers are already throwing at varied distances. Even so, what still matters most is where the pitch is when it crosses the plate and into the strike zone, not how far back the glove catching it is — all the moreso in a league that’s already using an electronic strike zone, taking pitch-framing out of the equation.

Speaking of Stark, the DH rule that’s being put into effect takes the name from a proposed rule that he wrote about a few months ago while considering alternatives to the universal DH rule in place last year. The Spink Award-winning writer says he didn’t invent the idea, writing with tongue firmly in cheek, “If you like the Double Hook, I’ll accept all the credit you’d like to heap on me. If you hate it, hey, I’m just the messenger!”

The proposal stems from a belief that the offensive advantages to be had by keeping one’s DH in the game can offset some of the disadvantages that come with sticking with a starting pitcher, such as the times through the order penalty, or a platoon disadvantage over the course of several hitters or in a high-leverage spot. The idea is both that the rule can restore a layer of strategy to the game as a manager weighs the costs and benefits of going to his bullpen and his bench, and that it can nudge player development and roster construction back towards the development of longer-lasting starting pitchers.

Circa 2015, starters still averaged 5.81 innings per turn, and teams used an average of 3.1 relievers per game, but that innings average dropped by about 2-3% annually through 2019, by which point starters averaged just 5.18 innings per turn and reliever usage had grown to 3.41 pitchers per game. Fueled by the reduced run-up to the 2020 regular season, larger roster sizes, and the introduction of seven-inning doubleheader games, last year starters dipped to 4.78 innings per turn. Thanks to the three-batter rule and the doubleheaders, reliever usage grew only to 3.43 pitchers per game, but their share of innings grew from 42.1% to 44.4% in the span of a year, and has expanded from 35.0% to 44.4% from 2015 to ’20.

In writing about the Double Hook rule in January, Stark ran the idea by a few people, including pitcher Adam Wainwright (one of the better batters among starters), manager Bud Black, and an unnamed executive, the last of whom pointed out several unintended consequences. For one, blowouts could become more common, because a team forced to remove a very ineffective starting pitcher early would also be at a greater disadvantage by pulling its DH, making it even more difficult to get back into the game. The rule could force a team to put its DH (Nelson Cruz, in the example used) in the field to keep him around at the expense of a better defender.

“So now you’re taking Max Kepler out of the game?” the executive told Stark, sticking with a Twins-flavored example. “Or if you put him at first base, Miguel Sanó is out of the game? Come on. You’re creating a shit show to address a problem that doesn’t need addressing at all.”

The rule would stamp out the opener, an innovation that not everybody loves, but it would also eventually breed out the likes of Cruz and other long-lasting DHs due to their limited opportunities, perhaps depriving the sport of its next David Ortiz or Edwin Encarnación — popular elder statesmen who may not fit the sport’s athletic ideal but who are fun as hell to watch in their own right. On the other hand, the rule would create more jobs for pinch-hitting and defensive specialists, and might lead teams to staff their benches with four or five reserves instead of three, as many AL teams do while carrying 14 pitchers (the rule limiting teams to 13 pitchers on a 26-man roster, introduced for 2020, has been waived under the pandemic-driven health and safety protocols.

As somebody who grew up on National League baseball but is utterly tired of watching increasingly inept pitchers swing the bat and add injury to insult in the process — the ongoing litany now includes Zac Gallen’s fractured forearm, suffered while taking batting practice, and Max Fried’s right hamstring, strained while running the bases — I was all in on the universal DH when it arrived last year. MLB’s cynical ploy to retain it for 2021 was to to use it as a bargaining chip in exchange for some type of expanded playoffs, an unequal exchange that benefited the owners far more than the players from a financial standpoint. The players didn’t bite, and now we have the utter stupidity of pitchers trying to hit again after taking a year off, a situation that’s likely temporary given the sentiment within the game towards adopting the universal DH rule within the next CBA.

The Double Hook rule, while well-intentioned, feels like a gimmicky tweak to a DH rule that’s become accepted over the course of nearly half a century, and ultimately I think it creates more problems than it solves. It seems far simpler to reduce the number of pitchers a team can carry so that they’ll push their starters a bit harder and perhaps have an extra bat or two on the bench for a well-timed pinch-hitting opportunity.

As with the experimental rules introduced for affiliated ball, one doesn’t have to love or even like these changes to respect the fact that MLB is trying out a handful of ideas to see what clicks and what doesn’t. I’ll wager that every baseball fan can find at least one of those new rules to dislike intensely — I’ll go with the Double Hook (sorry, Jayson!), and I have my reservations about the anti-shift rule — but that many of us might have our minds changed about at least one of the rules by seeing the results play out in a comparatively low-stakes way, whether among affiliated players or independent ones. Just as there’s no perfect solution to cure the game’s on-field woes, there’s no perfect way to test out these ideas on players whose talent levels are high enough that the effects can be extrapolated to major leaguers. Let’s see how these bold gambits play out.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

Willing to bet that the ‘unnamed executive’ works for an AL team, seeing as how that person described what is basically National League baseball as ‘a shit show’.