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  • Writer's pictureSteve Potter

4/23/22 : Initial thoughts on new minor league experimental rules

Pitch Clock - Batters have 9 seconds to get into the box and be ready to hit, the pitchers have 14 seconds to engage and throw the pitch - that extends to 19 seconds with runners on base. If those parameters are exceeded then the umpire can call an automatic strike on the batter or an automatic ball on the pitcher.

This rule has been the most successful of them all - on average it seems game times have been reduced by a range of 20 to 30 minutes. There’s been an occasional dispute between players, managers and umpires and even game ejections - the ones I’ve seen have been associated following an injury timeout - e.g. “discussions” about when should the clock start running again. Rule is in effect throughout the minors.

I didn’t think I would like the rule at first but it’s made the game pace crisper and you must be more attentive to watch - those two things are positives in my view.

Automated Balls & Strikes ( ABS ) - There are variations this year - in some games the balls and strikes are called exclusively by the ABS system while in others the umpires make the calls but each team has three challenges per game to have the call compared to the ABS call with the ABS call overriding if different. In some games each week, as was the case last season, the umpires make the calls exclusively. Rule is in effect in the Gulf Coast League games so we’ve seen it with the Clearwater Threshers.

My personal view is that I don’t support the elimination of human judgment by automation. The game is played by humans and umpires are part of that equation. I spent a large part of my professional career as a business process owner guiding and making decisions on the improvement and implementation of automated transactional processes but I never installed any process where a point of judgement was overridden. Mundane transactions were automated to allow our system users to evaluate better but not to eliminate thinking.

The ABS system struggled mightily in St Lucie in a Threshers series earlier this year - 29 strikeouts were tallied in one game - many of the strike calls were disputed by hitters and to those who were there or watching on MILB TV it was obvious that the strike zone was expanded beyond the parameters of the plate. Now that may have been intentional as last season, particularly in the first half, the zone was far too restrictive and the pitchers at the Low A level “walked the world”. Adjustments were made in the second half so that the zone was expanded to allow for more strikes to be called on pitches where the baseball didn’t fully touch the zone.

Any pitcher who’s ever taken the hill at a more competitive level knows you can’t survive in the middle of the plate or where you don’t get the “corners” and “edges” called. Consistency is key to a well called game. In the games this year where there are challenges are allowed to the umpires call it’s assumed that the ABS system is accurate and that’s the conclusive call - I’m not so sure that is the correct way in games I’ve seen as it’s dependent on how the system has been calibrated for the strike zone.

I’m not a fan of this one - I don’t believe it’s advanced enough to be significantly more accurate than the human eye nor does it allow for “management” of games that a human umpire can assume - e.g. lopsided contests where eventually expanding the zone is wise. Taking away human judgment doesn’t improve Baseball in my opinion - even on current replay challenges at that major league level it’s left to interpretation of the video feeds by a human. People are the biggest part of the game’s beauty and that never should be altered to be eliminated. The ABS system certainly has a role - it’s a great comparative tool for training and guidance but I’ll never be convinced it should be the decision maker. I’ve always been a proponent of automation - analytics in my opinion are a good thing for teaching, learning and game strategy but should not become the game itself else we’ve lost the truest measurement and it’s essence - the ability of humans to play and judge themselves.

Shift Restrictions - in effect throughout the minor leagues with the exception of the Triple A level - teams must have two infielders on each side of second base before each pitch is delivered and no infielder is allowed beyond a step of the infield dirt parameters.

I’m in favor of this one but to be honest I’ve not really noticed a huge impact in the games I’ve watched ( I watch each Phillies affiliates games nightly that are on MILB TV and also many in person ). The shift was always a lopsided effect in that it was disproportionately used against left handed hitters. Placing a fielder in short right field where a hard liner could be fielded and thrown to first base was/is unjust to lefty batters as similar line drives to left field by a right handed hitter can’t be fielded in the same manner to produce outs as the throw is too long to first to do so. For those of the opinion that it’s easy for a lefty hitter to project the pitch to left field in order to “beat the shift” I doubt that you recognize the difficulty of doing so when the pitcher is likely intentionally delivering pitches on the inside half of the plate at a speed and spin much more difficult to hit than a simple shifting of the feet and going the other way as a softball player might do 🤷‍♂️. Plus the inequity of penalizing a lefty hitter to even attempt that when a right handed batter for the most part doesn’t need to is an imbalance. Those who also say that the Oldtimers like Ted Williams used to get shifted on provide no evidence that it happened at a rate that it does in todays game nor how successful he was when it did happen.

Yet what we’re observed with the “no shift” rules both in the first couple of weeks of this season and last season’s second half is that the hits that used to be short right field 4-3 outs haven’t been extremely noticeable in the scheme of game watching. It’s an assumption that a ball hitting the outfield grass in front of an outfielder where no play can be made is a hit - to me that’s the way it should be.

I like this rule - instead of forcing the hitter, in particular lefty batters, to try to adapt to hit it the other way on inside pitches which isn’t natural or easy to do let’s force the pitchers to use their stuff to get the batters out whether they be in the left handed or right handed box - that seems much more genuine and natural to me and that’s coming from an old pitcher himself 😎.

Larger Bases - the bases at every minor league level are longer and wider this season and seemingly flatter also. For those that look it’s noticeable but I was at a Threshers game this season and a fellow fan asked me when the larger bases would go in effect - they were surprised to hear and see when I pointed them out that they were already on the field 🤓. For safety purposes I am in favor of them - to be honest I haven’t seen a big competition impact to any of the games I’ve watched with them in use and that includes the Triple A season last year. To me if it keeps some players from getting injured then it’s a good thing and otherwise unnoticeable - I think that was the goal.

Disengagement - when there’s a runner on base the pitcher is allowed two step offs and/or throws to a base per batter else on the third “disengagement” they must either pick off the runner or be changed with a balk.

At first glance this has seemed to create an unfair advantage to the runner as they know that drawing two throws or step offs gives them an edge thereafter. In many instances where that’s occurred in the games I’ve watched the runner has stolen the next base, in fact almost each time it seems. I have seen a few more pick offs though than I remember in times past.

Jersey Shore has been the most aggressive base stealing team in the minors - they’ve incorporated the stolen base into their offensive strategy and even runners not generally fleet afoot have become base stealers. I’m not sure that the new rule has been a cause of that but it’s certainly not been a deterrent.

From my view games are more exciting when all the elements are used - stealing bases and the cat and mouse competition of keeping runners close and/or getting them is something I enjoy watching. Yet I get the redundancy of a pitcher throwing over to first base continually and this rule eliminates that. It should also make pitchers work harder on developing better pickoff moves - a skill set in itself.

This is another rule I initially didn’t like but it’s grown on me over the course of just three weeks - I’d keep it 🤓.

Just a fan’s view that watches an inordinate amount of minor league baseball. 🤪

Happy Day, Happy Baseball ⚾️

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