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In the minors, a major change as the Atlantic League plans to move the mound back a foot

In baseball, 60 feet 6 inches is a hallowed number, but the Atlantic League is ready to for a change. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The Atlantic League, a hotbed for innovation in baseball, announced plans Wednesday to move the pitcher’s mound back 12 inches from home plate this season. The move represents one of the most stark rule changes proposed by baseball leadership in a generation and comes amid sweeping changes on the minor league level designed to reduce home runs and strikeouts and increase the action from batter to batter.

The eight-team Atlantic League, which has franchises along the East Coast, will enact the change during the second half of its 120-game regular season. It will be the first change of mound regulations in professional baseball since 1969, when MLB lowered the mound after a season in which seven starting pitchers posted sub-2.00 ERAs.

MLB officials pushed for the experiment after years of internal deliberations about altering the distance from the mound to home plate, one of the people familiar with the discussions, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as to freely detail the private sessions, told The Washington Post. The goal is to increase action on the base paths and the amount of contact made.

“[MLB leaders] reached the conclusion that the things that drew us to the game in the first place are being eclipsed by absolute outcomes and, frankly, people find it boring,” one of the people involved in the decision said. “Batters will hit the ball more frequently, and that’s really the root of what we’re doing here.”

An MLB official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, explained that moving back the mound has been brought up for years but then dismissed as too radical.

But when MLB began to consider other, more minor changes, its leadership concluded it would be “negligent” not to test the one change that might solve the problem on its own.

“We kept coming back to the fact that we can try to change four or five things — and we’re going to — to try to nudge the game in the right direction and get more contact back,” an MLB official said. “But we’d probably be negligent if we didn’t at least try the one solution that, while we were calling it radical, might in and of itself be the solution.”

The Atlantic League also will institute a “double hook” rule governing the designated hitter: Teams can keep a DH in their lineups as long as their starting pitcher remains in the game. When a manager goes to the bullpen, the new pitcher must bat or be substituted out of the game.

That rule amounts to a compromise between the rules in the American League, in which teams can use the designated hitter for all of their pitchers, and the National League, in which teams are not allowed to use one at all.

MLB hopes that allowing teams to use a designated hitter until the starter is out of the game will incentivize teams to rely more on starting pitchers, something fan surveys said would be a popular shift. At a time when several teams use “openers” for a few innings and even proven top starters often last just five or six innings, MLB officials hoped the loss of a designated hitter might influence some managers to keep their starter in an inning or two more.

Svrluga: 60 feet 6 inches is a hallowed baseball number. It might be time for a change.

Both leagues used the designated hitter in the shortened 2020 season as part of MLB’s health and safety protocols for the coronavirus pandemic. When MLB and the players’ union discussed covid-19 protocols ahead of the 2021 season, the union proposed a universal designated hitter again. MLB did not agree, though many in the industry expect a universal designated hitter to be part of the next collective bargaining agreement.

Moving the mound back was not expected to be part of those conversations, and it almost certainly will be a polarizing experiment. The Atlantic League tried to push the mound back two feet in 2019, before its agreement with MLB, but withdrew the proposal after pushback from pitchers, several of whom threatened to leave the league.

The Atlantic League is independent, and its teams are not affiliated with MLB franchises. It is a partner league with MLB and has debuted experimental rules before — perhaps most notably so-called “robo umps” in 2019. Players there are signed by the teams themselves, which means they are not usually elite prospects and are never under contract with major league organizations.

But even though it won’t be tested on highly paid young players, the new rule could reignite tensions over MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s newly experimental eye toward the game. This year, Manfred hired Theo Epstein, the former president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs and the former general manager of the Boston Red Sox, to serve as a consultant tasked with finding new ways to increase in-game action and pace of play.

Since Epstein joined the commissioner’s office in January, MLB has announced several experimental rule changes at the minor league levels, including larger bases and rules limiting defensive shifts. Many of those rules have Atlantic League origins and now have a clear path to the big leagues: Class AA teams may no longer shift their infielders as dramatically, and Class AAA teams will play with bases that are 18 inches square. Major league pitchers also must face a minimum of three batters before being pulled from the game, another Atlantic League innovation.

“These rule changes are extremely viable — otherwise MLB wouldn’t do them,” one of the people involved in the discussions said.

But if increasing the size of the bases and limiting shifts qualify as significant rule changes, moving the mound back is a massive one.

The major league mound has been 60 feet 6 inches from home plate since before the 1893 season. Diamonds across the country, from those on the edges of corn fields to polished high school facilities, are built to those specifications. Few numbers, save perhaps the 162-game season, are as sacred. Baseball has a tendency to cling to tradition and seems unlikely to receive a proposed change like that quietly.

Moreover, pitchers are one of the more fragile and expensive assets that organizations have. The idea of changing anything about their setup will raise injury concerns. In announcing the rule changes Wednesday, MLB cited a 2019 study by the American Sports Institute, which studied how moving the mound back small distances affected the biomechanics of elite college pitchers.

“The hypothesis that joint kinetics would increase with pitching distance was not supported, as there were no significant differences found,” wrote the researchers, who did note that the increased distance allowed for more vertical and horizontal break, potentially “counteracting the timing effect” experienced by hitters.

That study only looked at fastball mechanics and was supported by MLB, all of which could provide plenty of fodder for skeptics. But in its news release, MLB noted the reaction time for a 93.3-mph fastball, which was the major league-average velocity in 2020. The same pitch thrown from 61 feet 6 inches is approximately equivalent to a 91.6-mph fastball. That was the majors’ average fastball velocity in 2010.

In other words, hitters will have more time to react to pitches than they do now, which seems likely to result in more balls in play — though, of course, the rule has yet to be tested in a competitive setting.

Even once it has been tested, the rule is far from reaching the majors. If the rule seems to have the desired effect in the Atlantic League, MLB probably first would try it out at lower levels of affiliated minor leagues, then at higher levels of affiliated minor leagues.

There is no guarantee it will have the desired effect. In the process of traveling another foot, for example, a higher percentage of breaking balls could break out of the zone, increasing walks undesirably. On the other hand, the additional time to move could make contact harder to come by, though the additional time could also mean hitters can track the ball longer and react better.

“The knowledge we’ll gain is the most important thing,” the MLB official said. “Of all the rule changes, some are going to work well. Some are going to have conflicting impacts. And some will stumble into some unintended, counterproductive consequences. If all that happens is we rule it out, that’s really helpful information that will allow us to focus our resources on other areas that might be more fruitful.”