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The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has lately been leading the charge to innovate the game with small rule tweaks and adjustments. ‘Robo’ umpires who call balls and strikes based on automated strike zones have garnered the most attention, but many other little changes are in the works too. Base size increased from 15” to 18”, defensive positioning restrictions were implemented, and now the rubber is getting moved back exactly one foot, making the distance from mound to plate 61 feet 6 inches.
“We know that Major League Baseball is serious about the potential impact these rules or equipment changes could have on the game in the future,” Rick White, the Atlantic League president and a former MLB executive, recently said. “These are legitimate tests that are evaluated against a dynamic set of rules and analytics. They (MLB) wouldn’t come to us if they weren’t seriously contemplating the idea that this, or some derivation from this, could end up in the big leagues someday.”
According to the Atlantic League, the increase in distance is meant to help batters make contact with more pitches, thus speeding up the game and making it more exciting for fans. Thanks to a resurgence of home runs in the last decade, the common perception is that batters have gotten remarkably better at their craft, but the numbers tell a different story. MLB strikeout percentages have actually raised annually for the past fifteen years (23.4% of all ABs resulted in a K in 2020), so while hitters have improved their launch angles to increase power, the art of hitting has actually been substantially diminished in many ways. Or perhaps pitching has just improved to untold new heights.
It’s an interesting debate, and it explains the reasoning behind trying out these small tweaks in a minor league system first. After all, many different kinds of unintended consequences, some good and some bad, will arise from changing the ‘hardware’ of the sport. How you feel about the change really depends on which side of the ball you’re on. A pitcher playing well would be able to use the extra distance for more movement on his breaking ball, while a hitter playing well would appreciate the extra reaction time that a foot provides. Of course, there are also injury concerns, but so far, no studies have demonstrated an increase in injury potential. The most significant reservations thus far are from players and purists alike who simply don’t want things changed, because hey, if it ain’t broke why fix it?
“We know players have reservations about doing this. Why wouldn’t they? It’s something they are unaccustomed to. It’s new, it’s different, it’s a change,” White added. “We’re dealing with a very high level of athletes playing to win every night and that gives these tests a far more authentic, legitimate value than a test in spring training or a test at a low-level, developmental league. We have a commitment to the sport of baseball. We believe baseball is going to evolve and we would like to be a part of it.”