By now, the rule changes coming to the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball in the second half of its season are fairly well known, having received their fair share of discussion and ridicule. Over the offseason, the league reached an agreement with Major League Baseball to act as a sort of laboratory for proposed rule changes, implementing these new rules halfway through their season to allow for the analysis of their impact on professional players and the game as a whole. However, the sheer volume of new rules and the large difference between the new and old rules in some cases will likely make it difficult to glean important information from the results of the games. With multiple rules impacting the game at all times and players struggling to adapt to the new rules, it seems likely that the outcome of such an experiment will be a bunch of new data whose influence is uncertain, making it difficult to determine which rules are plausible and which are out of the question for implementation in the Major Leagues. With this in mind, there are several ways we might hope to gain insight into how each rule is affecting the game.
First of all, it’s important to recognize the most important changes that are being put into place, and how they complicate things in attempts to analyze the results of these games. There have been two waves of rule changes announced. First, over the offseason, the league announced seven changes, detailed here. Three of these rules appear to be the most impactful:
- The umpire will be assisted in ball-strike calls by the TrackMan radar tracking system
- The shift will be suppressed significantly, with two infielders required on either side of second base at all times
- The pitcher’s mound will be moved back two feet, with a new mound distance of 62 feet and six inches.
The use of the TrackMan and the increased mound distance will complicate the results of one another, as pitchers will certainly have to command their pitches differently from a new distance, and the dynamic of catcher framing and umpire variance will change. Any difference in the rates of ball-strike calls for a given pitcher cannot be directly attributable to either rule as a result. In addition, offensive outcomes (singles, doubles, flyouts, etc.) will change as a result of the lack of shifts, meaning that a difference in an individual hitter’s performance does not necessarily indicate that his quality of contact is any different.
The other rule changes project to impact the game with less frequency or less magnitude, but for the sake of wholeness they are:
- Mound visits are only allowed for pitching changes or “medical issues”
- The size of bases is increased from 15 square inches to 18 square inches
- Barring injury, a pitcher must face at least three batters or complete the inning in which he is pitching to be eligible for removal from the game
- The time between innings and pitching changes is now 1:45, shortened from 2:05
- The pitcher is required to step off the pitching rubber to attempt a pickoff
- With two strikes, a player may foul off one bunt before he is called out on strikes
- For a wild pitch (any pitch not caught in flight), the batter may attempt to run to first base as if he is stealing the base
- The check-swing rule now favors the batter more
There is a lot of ambiguity in how these rules are defined, and the specific implications of these rules will also need to be understood through experimentation before we may truly understand how they affect the game. Ultimately, these rules seem more minor, and will come into play only a few times per game. Batters will be hesitant to capitalize on the wild pitch rule, for example, because it is a foreign concept and will be difficult to make the adjustment and instinctually react quickly enough to be safe at first. These rules are also very new, though, and will have an impact on the results of the games and especially the mental states of the players. These new rules are so extensive that it’s hard to remember them all even with a list for reference, so how will any meaningful conclusions be drawn from their implementation with so many new factors changing the game?
The largest concern with this experiment is sample size. In a league of just 8 teams where these rule changes are only in effect for half of a 140 game season, there simply won’t be a substantial amount of data to support any conclusion that may be drawn from the results of this second half. How, then, will MLB and baseball as a whole draw any meaningful conclusions? There are both concrete and more abstract factors that we may look for to gain at least a bit of insight into some real implications.
The best hard data will come from peripheral stats, especially those conveying quality of contact when it comes to hitters. How hard the ball is hit will be very telling of the impact of moving the mound back, because regardless of the shift, the contact made would have been the same on a given batted ball event. This will be the best way to understand how the increased mound difference affects the ability of the batter to pick up on the ball and make hard contact: if there is an increase in hard contact made across the league, that is one outcome that is directly attributable to the batter having more time to react to the pitch.
Another factor that will be evident is the effect of the anti-shift rule on defense, because this is independent of the pitching and hitting factors and only comes into effect once the ball is in play. While there will likely be limited advanced measures of defense, there should be enough data on quality of contact and the percentage that a given type of batted ball turns into a hit, so the disadvantage of the shift will hopefully become evident.
One major concern with these rules, especially the increased mound distance, is potentially increased injury rates, even when one of the goals of the new set of rules is increased player safety. As a result, the injury rates of the league will be important to track, because if there is any significant difference either way in injury rates or the type of injuries that players are sustaining, that will indicate that one or several of these rules do have an impact on players getting hurt. Say, for example, that the overall injury rate stays constant, but more players are suffering torn UCLs and fewer are suffering lower body injuries from contact at the bases. This hypothetical situation would indicate both that the increase in mound distance causes an increase in elbow injuries among pitchers and that the larger bases are safer for runners and fielders on potential contact plays. Safety is a priority of the league in the modern game more than ever, and this data will be very important to MLB.
Beyond these things, there aren’t very many factors that will be discernible from the data. The check swing rule may slightly decrease the overall strikeout rate, but that will be another factor that plays into that alongside the mound distance and the TrackMan assisted umpiring. The mental game of pitchers may be more of a concern, and the mound distance and mound visit rules will both play into each pitcher’s mental approach in a different way. As a result, there isn’t much else that we can look to for insight into the implications of one particular change, but one other resource may be the most important of all: feedback of the players.
Though data has become baseball’s most valuable resource, the opinions of the players who are subject to all of these rules will be crucial to understanding how these new rules affect the game. More than data, a pitcher who is suddenly struggling may be able to identify which new rule he struggles with: perhaps his command is thrown off by having to deliver the ball a further distance, or maybe a reliever who is forced to make longer appearances struggles to put batters down as he moves through the order. The data can only tell us that the pitcher is struggling, but the pitcher himself, or his coaches, may be able to identify the reasons behind the struggles. Even the opinions of the umpires will prove valuable, as they may have input on how they feel their calls are different with the assistance of the TrackMan system.
However, the flaw with a dependence on subjective input from players, managers, and umpires is that it may very likely be inconsistent and lack dependability. Even without so many exorbitant rules, players often struggle to identify the inconsistencies in their games and umpires don’t like to acknowledge the flaws in their game. With their own dignity involved, it may be difficult for players and umpires to be truly objective and honest about their perceptions of the changes that result, and on an even more fundamental level they may not notice significant changes.
One of the most valuable resources, then, may be players in the league who are veterans of the Major Leagues. These players have experience with the atmospheres of the Major Leagues compared with the Atlantic League, and they also have experience on the highest level of baseball to better be able to understand what factors impact their game. Moreover, these players have the least to lose by acknowledging differences in their game or things that are impacting their play, allowing them to be more candid regarding their understanding of the effects of different rules.
Ultimately, it will be difficult to gain a significant insight on how each individual rule that has been introduced to the Atlantic League impacts baseball, but there are several tools which may provide at least some understanding of which rules are the most practical. It is very likely that MLB has more data than is available to the public, which also means that the league itself may make more informed decisions regarding which rules are practical. These new rules carry promise of the ability to help baseball adapt to its revolutionary nature and stay relevant, an important goal for the league, especially in recent years. If nothing else, they certainly make the Atlantic League more interesting for the rest of this season, and it never hurts to gain more relevance for the sport as a whole.