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  • Writer's pictureSteve Potter

9/7/22 : Them’s the Rules

We are now in the final week of the 2022  minor league regular season for the A level of play and within two weeks of the conclusion of the Double A schedule. Earlier this summer I posted an article on the experimental rules instituted in the minor leagues this season - here’s a revisit and what we saw over the course of this summer.

Pitch Clock - There was a 14-second timer between pitches with no one on base and 18 seconds with a runner on base (19 seconds in Triple-A). Also a 30-second timer between batters. If the pitcher failed to throw a pitch in time, it was an automatic ball. If a hitter wasn’t ready in time, it was an automatic strike. Each batter got one timeout per plate appearance, and pitchers got a total of two step-offs or pickoffs per batter.  This rule was in effect throughout the entire full season minor leagues.

The pitch clock has been a huge success in this observer’s view.  In general games were crisper and flowed better.  There were still some elongated games, in particular those that were poorly played or when multiple pitchers were used but lengthy games  became the exception rather than the norm.  I’ve never bought into the opinion that pitchers or hitters need unlimited time to gather their thoughts - quite frankly if you’re thinking a long time in this game more often than not you’re gonna fail anyways - just sayin 🤓.

I think the data shows that on average game times were reduced by a range of 20 to 30 minutes.  There was an occasional dispute between players, managers and umpires and even game ejections - the ones we saw most were associated following an injury timeout - e.g. “discussions” about when should the clock start running again.

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

Automated Balls & Strikes ( ABS ) - There were variations this year - in some games the balls and strikes were called exclusively by the ABS system while in others the umpires made the calls but each team had three challenges per game to have the call compared to the ABS conclusion with the ABS call overriding if different. The  system was in effect in the Florida State  League so we saw it with the Clearwater Threshers.  The  system was also used at the AAA level for games hosted by Charlotte in the International League and in the Pacific Coast League after May 17th in all PCL games.

Consistency is key to a well umpired game and that’s what the ABS experiment was predicated upon.  What may be surprising to some is that it’s not the standard  “pitch zone” box shown on many big league broadcasts - there is a daily calibration of the cameras and associated software with strike zones administered to each hitter’s dimensions and the strike area undergoing  continuous adjustments  - .i.e. baseballs delivered that are within the width of the ball to the outer edge of the zone were often considered strikes, the height and width of the strike call area was an ongoing excercise.  The grand experiment was to have an adjustable system that could mimic the best umpires and not necessarily make it absolutely rigid.

I was at a game earlier this year in Dunedin, a fan sitting behind the Threshers dugout rode the home plate umpire throughout the contest on balls and strikes.  After the game I made my way over to the fan and asked if he was aware that the umpire was simply relaying the calls of the ABS judgement - he was surprised and said  “No, I didn’t know that - but all that means is the computer sucked also !” 😂 - true story.

My opinion from earlier in the year hasn’t changed.  I’m still 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 truly 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 the major league level it’s left to the human interpretation of the video feeds.  People are the game’s beauty and that never should be eliminated.  The ABS system certainly has a role - it’s a great comparative tool for training and guidance but I’m still not convinced it should be the decision maker.  I’ve always been a proponent of automation - things like analytics in my opinion are good support 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.  Not a fan of the ABS calling pitches in games.

Shift Restrictions - were 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.

Later in the season in the Florida State League lines were drawn from the corners of second base towards center field further restricting where infielders could stand - designed to eliminate pinching the middle of the diamond.  I have no data or reflection on that one as it was instituted relatively recently.

In my opinion the “shift” has become a lopsided effect - one that it is disproportionately used against and penalizes 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 - 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’ve observed with the “no shift” rules this season is that the balls hit that used to be short right field 4-3 outs haven’t been extremely noticeable in the scheme of game watching.  What  happened is that “shifts” still happen but within the new guidelines - we’ve witnessed second basemen playing towards the “First base hole” within the boundaries of the dirt on dead pull hitters and grounders in that area are still being recorded as outs.  Conversely placement of fielders on the right side of the field continue to be guided by the hitter’s tendencies - just can’t stand in the outfield grass.  To me this is likely more replicative of how the shifts worked back in the day.  It also brings back the true definition of each position - third basemen for example don’t play short right field nor do they turn double plays at second base - they actually play third base instead - a novel idea eh 🤪.

A quick look at hits per nine innings as a comparative ( 2022/ 2021  ) for leagues with Phillies affiliates - 👀

AAA International League ( no shift restrictions either year ) - this year’s average is 8.6 compared to 8.4 last year

AA Eastern League ( shift rule this year - half season last year ) - this year’s average is 8.2 compared to 8.3 last year

High A South Atlantic League ( shift rule this year - none last year ) - this year’s average is 8.4 compared to 8.4 last year

Low A Florida League ( shift rule this year - none last year ) - this year’s average is 7.9 compared to 8.0 last year

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 - also the shift isn’t necessarily eliminated but short line drives to right field are no longer outs - that seems much more genuine and natural to me and that’s coming from an old pitcher himself 😎.  It’s a keeper.

Larger Bases - the bases at every minor league level were 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 out to them that they were already on the field 🤓.   For safety purposes I am in favor  - 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.   It’s a keeper.

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.

One of the by-products of this rule I’ve witnessed is an inordinate amount of double steals ( second and home ) when runners are on first and third base - it’s almost become an expectancy that the runner at third breaks home on the throw to second base, it’s seemingly been a part of most of my nightly minor league roundup reports.  I’m not a fan.

A quick look at stolen bases per game as a comparative ( 2022/ 2021  ) for leagues with Phillies affiliates - 👀

AAA International League - this year’s average is 1.86 compared to 1.47 last year

AA Eastern League - this year’s average is 1.85 compared to 1.50 last year

High A South Atlantic League - this year’s average is 2.31 compared to 1.89 last year

Low A Florida League - this year’s average is 2.26 compared to 2.29 last year

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.

I would discontinue this rule as it stands  - just seems to be lopsided towards the base runner - perhaps there’s an alteration that can be done.

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

Happy Day, Happy Baseball ⚾️

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