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MLB Expects To Learn Plenty From Atlantic League's Mound Move, Other Tweaks

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Update (April 10): MLB and the Atlantic League announced on April 10 that they are slowing down on implementation of two of the most significant rules experiments planned for the Atlantic League. Instead of increasing the distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound by two feet at the all-star break, such a move will be delayed until the second half of the 2020 season. Also, the use of radar tracking to assist umpires in calling balls and strikes will be "implemented gradually over the course of the 2019 season rather than on Opening Day" MLB and the Atlantic League announced in a press release.

MLB officials know that not all of the new rules that they and the Atlantic League unveiled may work. Some of them may be great. Some of them may prove to be awful. But right now, they point out that when it comes to many of these rules changes no one really knows anything. There are theories. There are suppositions. But there is a significant lack of real tangible data.

MLB and the Atlantic League announced officially on Friday that the Atlantic League will make six rules changes during the first half of the 2019 season. A seventh rule change (moving back the mound) will be implemented at the all-star break for the season's second half.

Will moving the mound back help hitters or pitchers? There are solid reasons why either theory may be correct. Similarly, MLB does not yet know how well can computers can work consistently calling balls and strikes.

So think of the 2019 Atlantic League season as a giant sandbox where many theories will be put to test. At the end of the season, everyone will know a lot more than they know now.

“It’s an experiment and we’ll learn something either way,” said MLB senior vice president of league economics and operations Morgan Sword said.

According to Sword, the hope is that some combination of these changes will create more action while speeding up the pace of play.

“I think the changes are designed to create more balls in play, more defensive action and more baserunning. Hopefully they will do that,” Sword said.

But more than anything, MLB wants chance to see what works and what doesn’t. And that is why Major League Baseball officials will spend a lot of time watching Atlantic League games this year. They also promise that they will be listening a lot. They want to hear from the players and coaches and Atlantic League officials, but they also plan to ask fans what they think of the rules changes.

“This will be a mix of objective and subjective analysis . . . We plan to make sure we get the perspective of fans, players, coaches and Atlantic League owners,” Sword said. "You can’t know if you don’t try it. We need to bring these things to life and see what they look like. Some we will love. Some we will not. You can’t know if you don’t try it. We need to bring these things to life and see what they look like.”

The goal is to gather data that they haven’t been able to test before. With Trackman outfitted at every Atlantic League park, they will collect plenty of data. Ideally, they would have been collecting similar data before the rules were implemented, but they will have past league statistics to use as a baseline to measure the effects of the rules tweaks.

The games will undoubtedly be shorter, as the switch from 2:05 between innings to 1:45 will cut six minutes from the game time immediately. Of the other changes, the most dramatic will undoubtedly be the mid-season switch that will add two feet to the normal 60-foot-6 distance from pitcher rubber to home plate.

MLB asked the Atlantic League to implement the rule midseason so that it would have an ability to be able to use the first half of the season as a control to compare against the second half with the longer pitching distance. When asked if the pitchers would be able to make such a dramatic adjustment so quickly, Sword said MLB’s theory is that it won’t be as massive a change as it appears.

“Two feet sounds like a lot, but it’s a three-percent increase in the distance to the plate,” Sword said. “(Ex-MLB pitcher) Chris Young who works in our office, he thinks there is an 18-inch variance in the depth at which catchers catch the ball. Pitchers throw to the mitt. We’re comfortable pitchers will be able to make that adjustment.”

Like everything else in this experiment, no one really knows for sure. Whatever happens this season, Major League Baseball is confident it will know a lot more about how to experiment with tweaking baseball rules in October than it knows right now.

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