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MLB Takes Right Stance When It Comes To Atlantic League

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Noah Syndergaard (Photo by Tom DiPace)

In this, the Futures issue of Baseball America, we look to the future of baseball talent streams, from the Rays’ revamped farm system to the return to prominence of SoCal draft prospects after a fallow period. We also investigate ways to improve the game, because it’s possible to love our game, to appreciate the gargantuan talents of modern players and still consider how we can make things better.

So it’s gratifying to see Major League Baseball doing the same. In February, the league announced a three-year partnership with the independent Atlantic League. The small circuit, best known to date as the landing spot for ex-big leaguers searching for a way back to the bigs (Rich Hill is among its success stories), will implement rules changes at MLB’s request to serve as a test bed for new ideas. Among the changes to be implemented for 2019 is moving back the mound two feet to 62 feet, six inches to get a sense of what happens when you tweak this elemental baseball number.

We’re 125 years past the last time the powers that be mucked with the dimensions of fair territory. In 1893, the pitching distance was increased from 50 feet to 60 feet, six inches. At the time, there was no “pitcher’s mound.” That would develop over time as pitchers learned that a downhill plane gave them more leverage. Moving the pitchers back about 10 feet changed the balance of the game; run scoring in the National League, then the only major league, jumped 29 percent over 1892’s mark, batting average jumped by 35 points, and the strikeout rate dropped by one-third.

How different was the game then? Ninety pitchers took the mound in the NL that year. Just 14 of them were taller than 6 feet. None was taller than 6-foot-5, and no regular pitcher was taller than 6-foot-2.

In the NL of 2018, and granting there were three additional teams with far larger pitching staffs, there were more pitchers 6-foot-4 and taller than there were pitchers in the entire NL of 1892. Six-foot-6 Noah Syndergaard is a star; in 1893, he would have seemed like an alien.

These taller pitchers get greater extension as well, and while we don’t have Statcast data for Cy Young and Amos Rusie, we can make the reasonable inference that they weren’t throwing high-spin fastballs at 97 mph . . . or even 87 mph. Rusie struck out 208 men, but he needed 482 innings to do it. (In a related story, Amos Rusie’s career was over at 27.)

In 2018, there were more strikeouts than in any prior season in baseball history, more than 41,000. More than 22 percent of plate appearances ended in a strikeout, and for the first time ever there were more strikeouts (41,207) than hits (41,020) in an MLB season. The glaciers are melting, people, because 60 feet, six inches isn’t what it used to be. Pitchers, through physical growth, through a selection process that values velocity, through development that prizes efficiency over endurance, through modern tools like Rapsodo systems that provide instant feedback on efficiency, have morphed into witches.

It’s not just greater velocity, though velocity is the biggest issue. It’s the development of ever-nastier breaking stuff that plays off that velocity, forcing hitters to decide a fraction of a second sooner, and another fraction sooner still, until all they can do is swing as hard as they can and drive the balls they hit as far as they can. The modern emphasis on swing plane, on hitting the ball in the air, is a reaction to the evolution of pitchers.

By turning the Atlantic League into a test bed for a new mound distance, MLB can answer important questions not just about the effect of a new mound on strikeout rates and offensive levels, but also on the effectiveness of breaking balls, the ability of pitchers to throw strikes at the new distance, and perhaps most importantly, whether the move will create injuries. They didn’t worry about the last part back when Amos Rusie was pushing 500 innings, but it’s critical today when teams have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in individual pitchers and those pitchers have a voice in the game Rusie only could have dreamed of.

The specifics aside, this new relationship reflects a proactive stance that MLB has rarely taken in addressing its issues. We’re talking about changing something that has been in place since people arrived at games in horse-drawn carriages. We’re 50 years past the last time MLB set a rule capping mound height at 10 inches, after pitchers dominated the 1968 season as they never had before or since. We’re 30 years past the last significant alterations to the strike zone, heading into the 1988 season. The NFL made four rule changes while you were reading this, and no one blinked.

We like to talk about how baseball always finds its balance, from a Deadball Era to a high-offense one and then back again. What we’ve seen over the last 20 years, however, is that there’s been no balance. Offensive levels, overall run scoring, has bounced around, but the rise in velocity and the rise in strikeouts have taken enormous amounts of action out of the game. Maybe moving the mound back is the answer, or maybe it’s capping the number of pitchers on the roster, or automated ball-and-strike calling, or as CBS Sports’ Dayn Perry proposed, shortening the distance between the bases. It’s not about knowing which answer is the right one, but rather, showing a willingness to consider everything in the effort to find the right one.

For the first time in a long time, MLB is looking to take greater control of its future. Whatever the details, that’s something we can get behind.

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PODCAST: The Atlantic League Rules Changes Feel Mostly...Normal?

J.J. Cooper joins the Baseball America Podcast to discuss his two days at the Atlantic League.

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