You may have missed this last week (it didn’t get as much play as you might think). MLB and the independent Atlantic League have agreed to test some rule changes during the Atlantic League’s 2019 season. The commissioner’s office is trying to figure out two things here: how to reduce the amount of dead time (which is to say, the amount of time with absolutely nothing going on) and how to get more balls into play. Some of the proposed rule changes are minor tweaks, some are dramatic changes in the way the game is played. Here is a breakdown of each, along with my take and a ballpark guesstimate of the chance it becomes an actual MLB rule when the new CBA is negotiated.
Implement computerized ball/strike calls:
This proposed rule change is a bit more nuanced than it might sound at first. There would still be a home plate umpire, and he would still be responsible for calling any pitches that bounce, for calling foul tips, for allowing catcher’s challenges on check swings and other ball/strike duties. But make no mistake, the vast majority of balls and strikes would be called by the computer, similar to the Trackman system currently used to evaluate umpires. There would be several improvements to the game that would come from this, not the least of which would be standardization of the strike zone (as much as we all want to believe the umpires all pretty much call strikes the same, the reality is they don’t). Who would be hurt by this? Pitchers who rely on spotting everything on the edges; quite a few of their pitches that a good catcher can “steal” for them will suddenly become balls. Catchers, as well, who have come to rely on the “pitch framing” metric as a bargaining tool.
Odds of rule being implemented: Better than even, call it 3:1. Yes, catchers, pitchers and agents will be unhappy. But it checks off all the reasons baseball is experimenting, and we’ve already seen technology take over all the controversial plays, anyway.
Change from an 15-inch base to 18 inches:
Nobody I’ve talked to can quite figure out the reasoning behind this proposed change. My personal take is it will mess with the intricate timing of the infield more than perhaps the Lords of Baseball realize. Think about how many plays there are over the course of the season where the batter is out by perhaps an inch at first, or where a runner is thrown out at second by an eyelash. Maybe baseball is trying to get away from needing so many replays, but it seems to me there will be a lot more safe calls as a result. If anything, I might be able to live with a larger bag at second, now that runners are forced to slide through the bag and fielders are required to stay on it until they’ve thrown the ball, thereby giving middle infielders a bit more protection. But there’s no reason to change the base size at first or third.
Odds of rule being implemented: Since nobody knows what MLB is hoping to achieve, this is a difficult to gauge. Call it 50/50.
No mound visits except for injuries or pitching changes:
Look, I understand the casual fan doesn’t understand why a tubby 55 year old dude is jogging out to the mound to talk to the pitcher. I can see them being confused by having the catcher run out to talk to a pitcher, and then the shortstop, and then the first baseman, and so forth. You know what? That’s fine. But there are occasions where having a pitching coach pay a kid on the mound a visit is absolutely necessary (like, say, his mechanics are all messed up and he’s about to throw his arm out). There are legitimate reasons a catcher might have a word with the pitcher (like, changing signs). And yes, sometimes, it’s pure gamesmanship. But that’s baseball. I get MLB is trying to cut down on dead time. But pitching visits aren’t actually dead time, and only people who haven’t ever played the game think it is.
Odds of rule being implemented: Of all the proposed rule changes, this one is the second most certain to become a rule. Baseball has already limited teams to 6 mound visits per game. I also suspect this one will become a former rule quickly – probably in the amount of time it takes some kid to pop an elbow on the mound and his manager to blast the commissioner’s office.
All pitchers must face a minimum of 3 batters, or pitch to the end of an inning, before being replaced:
This one isn’t hard to understand. I’ve certainly railed against the number of pitching changes, LOOGY’s, ROOGY’s, 6th inning specialists, and so forth. But to me, this is going about things the wrong way. If you want to cut down on the number of pitching changes, a far simpler way without messing with basic strategy would be to limit the number of pitchers each team can have on their 25- and 40-man rosters. No more than 10 pitchers on the 25-man, and no more than 16 on the 40-man, roster means managers would have to be more judicious in making pitching changes. Starters would be forced to go deeper, and teams wouldn’t be able to utilize a AAA shuttle to stash relievers.
Odds of rule being implemented: I don’t rate this one as having a very good chance of getting in. Maybe a 1 in 5 chance, since I can’t think of any MLB stakeholder who is going to like it. The players won’t. The union won’t. Managers and GM’s won’t.
Two infielders must be on each side of second base at all times, and no infielder may position himself with either foot in the outfield at any time prior to a pitch being delivered:
The idea here is to get rid of some of more drastic infield shifts (and 4 and 5 man outfield alignments) we’ve seen managers employ recently. I’m not a fan of the idea of eliminating the shift entirely. After all, if the hitters were smart, they would start taking the ball the other way more often. But this is a rule change that’s been discussed a lot over the past couple of seasons, so I suppose we’ll see how it plays out in real life.
Odds of rule being implemented: I think this proposed change, more than any others, depends entirely on how the test plays out. If .240 hitters suddenly turn into .300 hitters, baseball is going to race to put it in. If, as the current data suggests, it only yields one more hit a week league wide, then this will die before ever seeing the light of day.
Reduce the amount of time between half innings and pitching changes by 20 seconds:
About the only people who will complain about reducing the amount of time between half innings will be beer advertisers and hot dog vendors. Reducing the amount of time during a pitching change could pose some problems for pitchers, though – especially if they aren’t given ample time to warm up in the bullpen first, which is a very real possibility without the benefit of mound visits.
Odds of rule being implemented: This one is a virtual lock.
Move the pitcher’s rubber from 60 feet, 6 inches to 62 feet, 6 inches from home plate:
I think this is the rule that got everyone’s attention and has also been almost universally panned. We get it, ok? Pitchers are throwing harder than ever and their breaking pitches are also nastier than ever. The idea here is to allow the hitter more reaction time, thereby increasing the chance they’ll put the ball in play. But of all the ways to accomplish that goal, this is probably the dumbest and whichever nerd in the commissioner’s office came up with this needs to be fired and never let anywhere near a baseball field again. It would mean every pitcher would need to learn how to pitch all over again, because every angle on every pitch would be completely changed – or never be a strike again. Look, you want to even the deck between pitchers and hitters? Lower the strike zone, or lower the mound, or increase the size of the ball. Or even some combination of all three. But not this.
Odds of rule being implemented: What’s a number smaller than zero? Because that’s what the odds are. I think this is being tossed out there as a bargaining chip by MLB, something they know will never happen that hopefully will get some small concession back from the players in the CBA negotiations.