Major League Baseball assigned an independent minor league to make drastic experimental changes to its rule book for the 2019 season, including altering the distance from the pitcher’s mound to home plate and using an electronic-assisted strike zone.
The league announced Friday that the Atlantic League, an eight-team conference with clubs scattered on the East Coast and in Texas, will begin the season in April with six new regulations: 18-inch-by 18-inch bases rather than the traditional 15-by-15 ones, a prohibition against mound visits, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, a prohibition against defensive shifts, a shorter period between half innings and pitching changes, and a radar-enabled strike zone.
The Atlantic League will move its pitcher’s mound back two feet in the second half of the season.
The Atlantic League, founded in 1998, agreed last month to be a testing ground for experimental MLB rules in exchange for major league clubs scouting more Atlantic players and outfitting the teams with high-tech scouting equipment. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred has aggressively approached rules changes to speed up pace of play, increase action and fit games into three-hour broadcast windows.
These rules initiatives are geared toward those aims and to help hitters regain equal footing with pitchers, who have come to dominate the sport in recent years with sizzling velocity and specialty pitches from relievers meant to neutralize one batter at a time.
“One of our principle objectives is to reduce the amount of dead time in games, and one way the commissioner has measured that is the amount of time between balls hit into play,” Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president for league economics and operations, said in a recent interview. “We’re looking at more defensive play, more base running, more competitive, entertaining action.”
Manfred has spent months negotiating with the Major League Baseball Players Association over proposed rule changes, including roster size, a pitch clock, mound visit restrictions, the injured list and even the date of the trade deadline. The two sides have gradually reached common ground this offseason on a host of issues but still have yet to work out disagreements over the pitch clock and mound distance.
The agreement with the Atlantic League is meant to provide MLB more data on which rule changes are worth pursuing, probably after the collective bargaining agreement with players expires following the 2021 season. Atlantic League President Rick White said the rules changes will “redesign the baseball field.” The league will eliminate the catcher’s box and paint a chalk line from the back of second base to the outfield grass as a restraining line for shifts.
“The game has undergone changes throughout its history, but it’s been locked into its current configuration since the DH was introduced in the 1970s,” White said. “Meanwhile, in every other popular team sport we’re aware of, rules change year by year by year. Part of baseball’s charm is the resolution to stay the same, but in the world we’re living in now, with the difference between pitchers and hitters, things don’t have to stay the same.”
Atlantic League officials said they at first were bewildered by the MLB’s rules proposals and even bristled at some, but they eventually came around after a year’s worth of talks with big league higher-ups, who presented scientific research behind the proposals. For example, two feet, they said, is not a profound enough distance to put additional stress on a pitcher’s body. Umpires can overrule an electronic strike zone, which will communicate its calls to officials via an earpiece.
“I think any time there’s change in anything, people can be taken aback. They can be surprised,” said Courtney Knichel, general manager of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. “And when I heard about these changes — I’m a baseball purist — I was surprised. But when you sit back and dissect them change by change, [fans] will get used them.”
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