Atlantic League Speed-Up Rules Meet Backlash

BRIDGEWATER, N.J.--The Atlantic League has decided to slow down with one of its speed-up rules.

The Atlantic League had announced a set of six new measures to speed up the pace of play. One would have required teams to substitute a courtesy runner for catchers any time a catcher reached base. The idea was to ensure innings weren't delayed while catchers donned their gear.

But after hearing plenty of outcry from catchers and managers, the league has postponed implementation of that rule until at least Aug. 19.

"There was confusion and concern around the substitute runners rule," Atlantic League president Rick White said. "I promised them (managers) we would share their concerns with the executive committee, which has agreed to table it until their meeting on August 19th. I believe the executive committee will postpone the rule for further study in the offseason."

Somerset catcher Adam Donachie does not want a courtesy runner taking his place. (Photo by Mike Janes).

Somerset catcher Adam Donachie does not want a courtesy runner taking his place. (Photo by Mike Janes).

The rule states: "When a catcher reaches base safely as a batter, the manager will immediately insert a substitute-runner who is not currently in the line-up to take the catcher's place on base. This ensures that the start of an inning is not delayed while waiting for the catcher to suit up."

The Pace of Play committee is chaired by Tal Smith, former president of the Houston Astros. It's comprised of former MLB executives and players including Pat Gillick, Roland Hemond, Joe Klein, Cecil Cooper, Bud Harrelson and Sparky Lyle.

White acknowledged that the courtesy runner rule was getting the most debate among managers and players. The other rules, which include reducing the number of warmup pitches at the start of an inning from eight to six, automatic awarding of an intentional walk and limiting the defensive team to three timeouts a game, are being met with acceptance.

The objective of the committee, which started meeting in late June, is to pick up the pace of play and reduce the length of games while maintaining the fundamental rules of baseball and enhance the overall fan experience.

"We didn't want to just name a committee and be lethargic about it," White said. "We were going to be transparent about what we heard from the committee and we were going to publish it. We felt it important to exhibit our actions sooner, rather than later. We believe the rules are sustainable. I can't tell you that everyone is falling over backwards over it, but everyone buys into the initiative."

White said the league is targeting a 2:30 game. He noted the average professional game time in the 1970s was approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, whereas today more than half of all nine-inning games exceed 3 hours.

This isn't the first attempt by the Atlantic League to shorten games. Last year the league modified the strike zone to call the high strike, required batters to stay in the batters' box during at-bats and told umpires to make sure between innings switchovers took 90 seconds or less.

The prospect of being taken out of the game for a runner didn't sit too well with catchers Adam Donachie of Somerset and Southern Maryland's James Skelton. Donachie has never had a courtesy runner take his place on the basepaths.

Donachie, who owns a .404 on-base percentage with Somerset this season, thinks the rule is ill-advised.

"I'm not happy," he said. "Guys are here to watch a baseball game the way it should be played and I just think it's a lot of little league stuff they are trying to put in and I don't agree with any of it, especially the courtesy runner rule.

"I don't see what the difference is between me making the third out of an inning and then having to get my gear on. It's the same thing. I still don't get it. I earned that base. Whether it's a walk, a hit, somehow I got on the base and now I'm missing out on the reward for a job well done."

York manager Mark Mason says on a small roster of 25 active players with no feeder system, the courtesy runner would have ended up being one of the few players who is supposed to have the day off or a pitcher who is not used to running the bases.

"With the courtesy runner rule, everybody is playing," Mason said. "Now you have injuries and wear and tear on guys because they're playing more games in a row."