Minors Adopts Dramatic Speed-Up Rules For 2018
Last May 10 was disastrous for the Durham Bulls and their pitching staff. A night after the team had used its bullpen heavily, it went 11 innings and necessitated the use of not one, not two, but three position players pitching.
Sixteen runs were scored by both Columbus and Durham in the 11th inning, including 10 by Columbus in the top half before the Bulls roared back in the bottom half of the frame with six runs of their own.
Every farm director in the sport would count that game—or any in which a position player is forced to the mound—as a nightmare. So it should come as some relief that Minor League Baseball on Wednesday took steps to make sure things like that don’t happen again.
“The worst day of a farm director’s year is when a young team plays 15-plus innings,” a farm director said.
The league announced a series of rules aimed at speeding up pace of play, the foremost of which involves starting a runner at second base in every extra inning at all levels of the minor leagues.
The first 15 days of the season will be used as a grace period for both players and umpires, and only warnings shall be issued during this time period, which spans from April 5-19.
That same rule was in play in 2017 in the Rookie-level Arizona and Gulf Coast Leagues, as well as the Arizona Fall League following the regular season. A similar rule was used in the World Baseball Classic as well.
Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner knows that some of the new pace of play and extra-innings rules will not be popular with many baseball traditionalists. He said he understands.
“When I first heard about this (two years ago) what little hair is on my head almost caught on fire,” O’Conner said.
O’Conner is now one of the top proponents of the decision to adopt speed-up extra inning rules. Last year the Arizona, Gulf Coast and Dominican Summer Leagues all adopted international extra-inning rules where a runner is placed at second base to start each inning beginning in the 10th. This year, the same rule will be in place for all minor leagues.
The decision came from the top. O'Conner said Major League Baseball asked Minor League Baseball if it would consider adopting the changes. While many fans immediately speculated that the speed-up rules are part of an eventual plan to bring the rule to the major leagues, MiLB said the reasons for adopting it are for developmental and financial reasons.
The reason coming from MLB is that farm directors and others in front offices would greatly prefer to eliminate bullpen-busting, lengthy extra inning games that usually lead to teams needing to ship in other arms as short-term reinforcements.
But O’Conner also heard from minor league operators who were equally in favor of the rule change. Minor league teams watch the majority of their fans walk out as the ninth inning turns into the 10th, 11th and beyond. Concession sales have petered out by that point. Beer sales have already ended (generally after the seventh inning). But while a few concession stand workers and ushers may be sent home, there are a large number of hourly employees who are there for the duration, which means for teams, extra innings means money out of their pockets.
“From a purely business perspective, it’s not a profitable or a break-even situation,” O’Conner said.
Initial reaction from fans on social media was not as kind. There was much anger at the idea of these rules coming to the minors, and even more discontent about the possibility that such rules could eventually come to Major League Baseball.
"I can tell you this is not a rule that we’ve been asked to implement as a precursor to implementing it to MLB. That’s way above my pay grade," O'Conner said.
"I would suggest why this may not be traditional baseball, it’s baseball in the 21st century. It’s consistent with our fan bases desire for action and finality."
Here’s how it would work. If the No. 9 hitter makes the last out of the ninth inning before a game goes to extra innings, then he (or a pinch-runner) would be placed on second base to begin the 10th inning and the lead-off hitter will be at the plate. For scorekeeping purposes, the runner placed on second base will be considered to have reached via an error, though no error will be charged to any fielder or the opposing team as a whole.
As normal, if the manager chooses to pinch-run for the batter who would normally be placed on second base, that player would be ineligible to return to the game.
There is the possibility if the rules change is met with enough resistance that it could be changed.
"I understand people who may not like it for a variety of reasons," O'Conner said. "It’s not etched in stone. Just as easily as we put it in, we can take it out. I don't think that will be the case. It’s evolutionary but I’m sure some think it is revolutionary.
"For us to be relevant and meet the needs of our partners, it’s a very positive step. It increases the likelihood the majority of fans will stay for the 10th to see what happens."
Beyond the extra-innings rule, MiLB also set out to curb the number of mound visits by coaches or position players per game. Those limits will vary by classification. For example, a Triple-A club will be allowed six visits per game, a Double-A club will get eight, Class A teams will get 10 and short-season and Rookie-level clubs will not have limits set on their mound visits. If a game goes into extra innings, each team will be granted one additional visit per inning.
The new rule defines a mound visit as a manager or coach coming out to meet with the pitcher, a player leaving his position to talk with the pitcher or the pitcher leaving the mound to confer with a position player.
The exceptions to this rule include a visit to the mound by a position player to clean his spikes, discussions by players and pitchers between batters that do not “require either player to relocate,” injury-related visits or visits after a pinch-hitter is announced. The umpire may also grant a visit by the pitcher or the catcher if he believes the two cannot agree on the signs need to figure it out via a brief discussion.
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The third rule change announced on Wednesday involves the institution of a 15-second pitch clock in both Triple-A and Double-A when no runners are on base. When there are runners on base the clock moves to 20 seconds per pitch. The timer will start when pitcher has the ball on the mound, the catcher is in the catcher’s box and the batter is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.
“We feel that limiting mound visits and decreasing the amount of time between pitches with no runners on base will further improve the pace of play and make it a more enjoyable experience for our fans,” O’Conner said.
The clock will stop as soon as the pitcher comes set or begins his wind-up, meaning the pitcher does not necessarily have to deliver the ball within 15 seconds (or 20 with runners on base) but he must be ready to do so within that time.
The penalty for exceeding the allotted time will be the award of a ball to the hitter. Conversely, if a batter is not in the box and “alert” to the pitcher with seven seconds or more remaining on the time, he shall have a strike added to his count.