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Cooper: Atlantic League Rule Changes Aren't As Noticeable As You'd Expect

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(Photo by J.J. Cooper)

The Atlantic League in 2019 has adopted—at Major League Baseball's request—the largest amount of rules changes any professional baseball league has adopted in a single year. The rules changes the Atlantic League adopted are more extreme than anything MLB had adopted in the past 50 years with a long list of tweaks and changes.

  • It is the first league to regularly use automation (in this case TrackMan radar) to call balls and strikes.
  • The league has larger than normal bases.
  • A lefthander's normal pickoff move has been banned—all pickoff moves must begin by stepping off the rubber first. The rules change means that inside moves at second base are also illegal.
  • Hitters who bunt foul with two strikes get one more chance—it's only your second foul bunt with two strikes that leads to a strikeout.
  • If a pitch gets past the catcher at any point in the count, the batter can decide to take off and "steal first" just like hitters have always been able to do with a pitch in the dirt on a swinging third strike.
  • The league has banned mound meetings. The only in-inning meetings allowed are trainer visits in case of injuries and catchers and pitchers getting together to switch signs (with an umpire there to confirm nothing else is discussed).
  • Between-inning breaks are limited to one minute, 45 seconds.

It seems like the league is playing a different game with massive rules changes. But if you go to a couple of Atlantic League games, I bet you'd find most of the changes quickly recede into the background, just like pitch clocks.

It's the same kind of disconnect I've seen with pitch clocks. A number of fans who haven't attended Double-A or Triple-A games seem to think that the ever-present clock is a massive problem and a scourge on baseball. But if you go to those games regularly, you find that you usually forget it's counting down. It's usually something that fades into the background almost immediately.

I sat on a High Point-Sugar Land series for two days, focused largely on noticing the differences brought about by the massive amount of rules changes. What I found is that most of them are barely noticeable for fans. For players and coaches it is a much bigger adjustment.

Robo-Umps

At its best, the ABS (automated balls-strikes) runs so smoothly that most fans don't even know the home plate umpire isn't in charge of determining the strike zone. The calls seemed to be made quickly enough that it's hard to notice that the umpire is being fed the calls through an earpiece.

Eventually, in the fourth inning, there was a high strike that seemed clearly to be TrackMan's decision to call close to the rulebook strike zone. Every now and then after that, a ball or a strike would lead to a raised eyebrow. But overall, even though we are in the very early stages of robo-umps, there was very little to complain about. There were three or four calls a game that stood out as unusual, but that's not really any different than what you see at a normal minor league game.

Yes, there are problems currently. The strike zone as it is currently set up benefits power pitchers who can work up in the zone (the robo-ump calls higher strikes). It chews up control pitchers who like to stretch the width of the strike zone.

But that's in the current iteration. There's nothing preventing the strike zone from being tweaked. Someday the strike zone could even include an extra half-inch on the outer half of the plate for each hitter. It's completely customizable.

And right now, the system breaks down too often. It's version 3.0 when it will need version 8.0 to be MLB-ready. But there's nothing that indicates it can't work one day at 99 percent reliability, which would be sufficient to make it a useful addition.

Bigger Bases

I couldn't find a player or coach who had any issues with them. It cuts down on first basemen getting spiked. There really doesn't seem to be any argument for why these shouldn't be adopted around the minors and majors soon.

No Pickoffs

The pickoff move? Now that's a bigger debate, and a fun one. Springing such a significant rules change at the midway point of a season seems unfair. Lefties with great pickoff moves and big leg kicks went from being able to shut down running games to being completely helpless to slow down basestealers. It has led to Atlantic League games turning into track meets of sorts. Since the rule was put into place, stolen bases have nearly doubled from 0.7 steals per team per game to 1.3.

In its current form, the rules change seems to be causing too dramatic of a change.

But watch a game with two starters with good slidesteps who are quick to the plate and the lack of pickoff moves becomes much less important. Adopt this rule in the minors and within three years, pitchers would largely control running games by focusing on slide steps and being quicker to the plate. There may be a few more steals, but it won't dramatically change the game.

Two-Strike Bunts

Bunting with two strikes seems like an idea with few takers. Bunts already are disappearing from the game, adding one more bunt attempt won't do much to change that.

Stealing First

The stealing first does seem like a gimmick, but it does have some logic as well. Right now, pitchers can throw their nastiest slider in the dirt if the bases are clear and there aren't two strikes. If the pitch gets by the catcher, there's no penalty. This minor rules change (which may not be worth it) does give pitches incentives to stay closer to the zone.

In reality, few hitters are all that interested in risking being thrown out on a ball to the backstop. An early scoring decision that made all "steals of first" fielder's choices made it counterproductive statistically. Since then, successful attempts are logged as walks and unsuccessful attempts as fielder's choices.

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Shortened Between Inning Breaks

In the Atlantic League, all between-inning breaks are only one minute, 45 seconds. It can lead to some innings where a catcher has to hustle from the bases to get geared up in time, but generally it's barely noticed and teams do still run between-inning promotions.

Mound Meetings

Pitching coaches (and some pitchers) understandably hate this rules change. In an Atlantic League game when a pitcher gets in trouble during an inning, there's nothing a coach can do. He can't go out to share a tip about fixing a delivery flaw. He can't tell the pitcher to tweak his pitch selection. He can't put his hand on the pitcher's shoulder and just help him take a deep breath and refocus.

He just has to sit and watch. No meetings for any reason are allowed unless the coach or manager is removing the pitcher from the game.

Of all the changes this is one that seems a little too dramatic. The underlying idea (cutting down on dead time) isn't a bad goal, but MLB could cut down on meetings by limiting them instead of banning them. Each team could be given two visits a game (or one, or three).

They could be treated like timeouts are in other sports.

So the biggest set of rules changes seen in a professional baseball league in our lifetimes seem to have a modest impact at most, especially if you're a fan—players and coaches have to adjust more.

If you paid attention to the first announcement of rules changes, you may notice one missing from this list. At first, MLB and the Atlantic League said that the league was going to move the mound back two feet at the midpoint of the 2019 season. Since then, they have delayed implementation until 2020.

It wouldn't be a surprise if it never happens. While robo-umps, pickoff move rules changes and other tweaks have generally been received with somewhere between acceptance and annoyance by Atlantic League players and coaches, moving back the mound would likely spark a mass exodus from the league. Telling a pitcher he has to slide step is one thing. Telling him he has to pitch from a different distance than he has for the past 10 to 20 years is a bridge too far for many players.

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