In early August, the eight teams in the Atlantic League embarked on one of the more scrutinized and polarizing experiments in the history of baseball.
What has followed in the weeks since the seemingly seismic shift has been a widespread feeling that the impact on gameplay has been minimal, though its impact on a player’s health and future still could prove negative, according to interviews with nearly a dozen Atlantic League players, coaches and executives.
“There was a lot of talk about it at first. Pitchers were concerned,” Southern Maryland Blue Crabs Manager Stan Cliburn said. “But in all sincerity, it has not come into play.”
Atlantic League President Rick White said weeks of frantic phone calls from panicked players and coaches stopped the day after the rubber moved back a foot. But White and his coaches have plenty of incentive to remain publicly optimistic.
The Atlantic League is independent and composed of teams unaffiliated with MLB franchises, but it is a partner with MLB and has long been known for innovation, perhaps most notably with its use of “robo umps.” That partnership is important to the league’s leadership and owners, according to players and coaches interviewed by The Washington Post, who almost all admitted they probably would face internal blowback if they offered too much criticism with their names attached.
But many acknowledged that it is probably too soon to draw any trustworthy conclusions about how the move will affect the game and those who play it. A few weeks of data aren’t much of a statistical sample, and the changes to runs per game, hits per game and strikeouts have been minimal.
As of Thursday, in 67 games played from 61 feet 6 inches, teams are combining for 6.37 runs per game, according to data tracked by MLB. Before the switch, they combined for 6.33. The strikeout rates MLB is hoping to suppress actually have increased somewhat in that tiny sample, from 18.3 percent to 18.8 percent. The walk rate has decreased from 12.4 percent to 11.3 percent.
But pitchers from multiple teams said that while they don’t always notice the extra foot from pitch to pitch, they all noticed a similar unintended byproduct: Almost all of them experienced soreness in their lat muscles — the area down the rib cage and into the back of their throwing arm side — after their first few outings from the new distance.
Blue Crabs reliever Mat Latos, who spent nine years in the majors, including a stint with the Washington Nationals, said he is used to elbow pain and knee issues from lingering injuries. But he had never had soreness like he did after his first outing from the new distance.
Latos believes the stress on that muscle was the result of moving his release point farther from his body to ensure his pitches cross the plate the same way they did when he was throwing from a shorter distance. His veteran teammate-pitching coach, Daryl Thompson, experienced the same thing, though both said the lat soreness was not enough to prevent them from making their next scheduled appearance. Still, Latos worries the shift may affect harder throwers and younger pitchers differently.
“I think that’s one of the biggest questions: What’s going to happen to guys throwing 100?” Latos said. “I’m throwing 92 to 94, and I’m hurting a bit after. What’s happening with guys throwing 102? That could be a big deal.”
Thompson, 35, said he has been more exhausted after starts than he used to be, though he did throw seven scoreless innings the day the rubber moved back.
He feels himself adjusting his sight lines and advising his pitchers to do the same: If a pitcher used to start his breaking ball at the corner of the plate to have it run off at the last minute, he may now need to aim slightly more at the center of the plate to achieve the same effect over a longer distance. But otherwise, Thompson has been telling his pitchers not to focus on the distance. They can’t control it anyway.
“You can’t worry about it, because you’ve got to pitch to the batter. And the batter is still in the back of the box,” said Thompson, noting that batters were often standing in the very back of the batter’s box anyway, meaning pitchers were never pitching to exactly 60 feet 6 inches, either.
When Major League Baseball announced its experiment with the pitching rubber, officials argued quirks such as that meant the change would hardly constitute a paradigm shift. They argued that catchers often set up a foot behind home plate as it is, so some pitchers have been throwing an extra foot all along. They noted hitters often erase the back line of the batter’s box to move as far away from the mound as possible, something Cliburn, the Blue Crabs’ manager, and York Revolution Manager Mark Mason noted, too.
When it first considered moving Atlantic League mounds back, MLB floated the idea of a two-foot change. By the time it was introduced, that bump was just a foot — though Mason pointed out that the robotic umpires the Atlantic League is also testing are set to measure where the ball passes at a point seven inches behind the front of home plate. In other words, Atlantic League pitchers already were pitching to a spot 61 feet or so from home plate earlier in the season.
The decision to move the rubber back was part of a broader course of experimentation spearheaded by MLB and championed by consultant Theo Epstein. In assessing ways to correct a nearly historic dominance of pitchers and to increase the number of balls put in play, Epstein said earlier this year that he concluded that while a variety of smaller tweaks ― say, cracking down on pitchers’ use of foreign substances ― may chip away at those imbalances, moving the mound back may prove able to correct them all on its own.
Epstein and his colleagues thought they would be neglecting due diligence if they didn’t give it a try. The Atlantic League — where highly paid top prospects wouldn’t be affected but experienced professional players would provide credible tests — appeared to be a promising testing ground, though, of course, the inherent implication was that players in that league were more dispensable than those in affiliated ball.
The decision was met with widespread skepticism, particularly among players. In the weeks before the move, White said, he was inundated with calls from players wondering whether the league would really move the rubber — could they really go through with it?
West Virginia Power pitching coach Paul Menhart said he had to talk some of his players into staying on the roster ahead of the change. In calls with Major League Baseball executives ahead of the decision, Menhart said, he spoke against the move.
Managers Cliburn and Mason said the change was often a talking point with agents before their players signed in the Atlantic League in the first place but that many signed anyway. Andy Shea, CEO of the Lexington Legends and West Virginia Power, received requests to trade away players worried about the change, and not all of them were pitchers.
Many hitters were worried about the effect the move would have on their timing, too — though opinions on how hitters have been affected also varied. While some have moved up in the box to replicate the original distance, Mason said most of his players have adjusted the way they always did: moving back in the box for harder throwers and inching forward if a pitcher was throwing slowly enough to warrant it.
Shea obliged a few particularly concerned players by trading them out of the Atlantic League. Many of those who expressed concerns were worried less about injuries than about how major league teams assess the performance of pitchers down the stretch.
“That has been the biggest question,” said York Revolution starter Austin Nicely, who threw eight scoreless innings in his first start from 61 feet 6 inches. “If you’re having a good year, are your stats going to get kind of tarnished if this is bad or doesn’t work? And how do the teams look at it when they’re not there? Are they still going to scout you the same, or are they saying, well, it’s different for both sides since the hitters have more reaction time?”
Menhart said he has told players that any scouts worth their salt will be able to tell a good pitcher when they see one, regardless of whether that pitcher is farther back than usual. But scouts are not traveling as much as normal because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Menhart said many players came back to him with the same argument: At the end of the year, teams will look at numbers far more than context.
“All of us are on that clicking clock trying to figure out getting our career moving in the right direction,” Nicely said. “Any impact there is more significant than really any kind of result or any injuries or anything like that because we’re trying to make sure what we do and what we’re working towards is not going to be affected in the scouting.”
Still, to a man, the players and coaches said the unpredictability of the automatic strike zone being tested in the Atlantic League impacts the game far more often — and normally, in more frustrating ways — than the increased distance between home plate and the rubber.
“It’s one foot. It’s not that big of a deal,” Menhart said. “But it’s more the mentality that it’s one more foot. The mentality of the pitcher, they have a predetermined excuse that if things go badly, it’s because I’m throwing further.”