As MLB turns the corner to September and the playoff race, the organization is also conducting tests in other leagues to assess new ways to play baseball. This year, we’ve seen the new manufacturing of baseballs coupled with an immediate crackdown on grip enhancers, as well as some holdovers from the 2020 season like the runner on second in extra innings. Yet, some of the more striking changes are being examined in the independent leagues, and the results could be seen soon in MLB. Let’s check in on the big stories of the week and see how we’re prepping for the playoff race!
There are several changes to MLB play that are in the works, ostensibly to speed the game up and make the game more appealing to more fans. We’ve seen new balls this year combined with the ban on grip enhancers, which quickly stopped the ridiculous pace of no-hitters that started the 2021 season. At one point, MLB pitchers were on pace to throw over 20 no-hitters in 2021, and the sudden ban on grip enhancers basically stopped that trend while also ending the season of several pitchers who got injured as a result, like Tyler Glasnow. There are also other changes that are being studied in the independent Atlantic League, where former MLB players and other semi-pro ball players try to showcase their skills for an MLB contract. Some of these changes are well known, such as the study of “robot umpires” that would automate the calling of balls and strikes.
One major change to MLB play that they are studying in the Atlantic League: extending the distance of the pitching mound to home plate. The current study investigates moving home plate from 60’6″ to 61’6″. So, one more foot of distance. Currently, the reports indicate that the kinematics of pitching motion isn’t greatly impacted and velocity isn’t changed. However, the extra distance between the mound and home would allow a batter’s reaction time to increase by .05-.10 seconds, which doesn’t seem like a lot at first, but it could represent a 5% increase in batter reaction time. Of course, pitchers may try to adjust for the increased distance by increasing their stride while throwing, thus eliminating the extra distance by forcing their bodies to reach further towards home plate. Or, we may see taller pitchers over time, who are able to easily stretch out and negate the distance.
Pitchers mention that they enjoy the extra distance allotted for their breaking pitches, which would be nice for those of us who just enjoy some solid pitcher gifs. However, many Atlantic League players — many of whom are former MLB players or often considered Quad-A players who are still trying to land a contract with a big-league team — lament that their MLB aspirations are being considered forfeit in order for the big leagues to conduct their studies.
Spiritually, the Atlantic League remains a feeder league. The difference is in what they’re trying to supply. It’s no longer revitalized or forsaken ballplayers and office staff; now, it’s data from stress-tested boardroom concepts. The league’s quality of play has suffered as a result, violating their end of the understanding they had with players about pipelining their paths back to affiliated ball. The players have noticed.
In other words, the Atlantic League players are training in a form of baseball that’s not actually played in MLB — or anywhere else in the United States. Their experimental set of rules has them playing an entirely different game, and that complicates MLB’s narrative of “improving the game.”
MLB’s relationship with minor and independent leagues has been newsworthy this year. Readers may recall that MLB dismantled their minor leagues this past off-season, eliminating many teams that were crucial to small-town economies. Additionally, many minor leaguers have reported that they’re living in squalor or — at best — partially team-subsidized hotels that cost players 25% of their monthly salary. With Anderson’s report on the Atlantic Leagues, we’re learning that MLB is also using their minor leagues and affiliated leagues as testing grounds in a manner that demotivates players and makes them feel like leaving the game.
Of course, combined with MLB’s broader movement to install its own cryptocurrency platform and partner with reviled Barstool Sports media, many pundits look at MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred as overseeing a sinking ship. MLB has alienated many of its players and aspiring players this year –whether it be Tyler Glasnow pointing out that the sudden grip enhancer ban resulted in his injured elbow or the Atlantic League’s players saying “This isn’t baseball,” — MLB seems to be making moves to reduce both player and fan interest. Fans still ask for simple changes — like an end to local TV blackouts so people can actually watch the game — and instead, they’re getting changes to the ball, changes to the mound, changes to extra innings, and so on.
The mound distance was last changed in MLB in the nineteenth century. As the Atlantic League players noted about their current situation, “It’s not baseball anymore.” Perhaps what MLB needs is less tinkering and more addressing fundamental structural problems that prohibit people from watching the game in the first place.
Little League World Series
Last week, we were just starting the Little League World Series, and by the time you read this, there will be a championship game planned. At the time of writing, there are four teams left: Ohio vs South Dakota, and Hawai’i vs Michigan. One of the major highlights of the 2021 Little League World Series has been Ella Bruning, the female catcher for the now-eliminated Texas team. Ella became the 20th girl to play in the history of the Little League World Series, which is an amazing feat considering thousands of players from across the world compete to play in the contest every year. Sports Illustrated has a nice feature on “Ella and the Fellas,” and provides a history of how girls were purposefully excluded from the Little League World Series for decades. Perhaps as MLB searches for ways to branch out to new audiences, they can look to their youngest “independent league” — Little League — and take a look at how the inclusion of girls in the game drives new audiences and conversations without making drastic changes to the nature of the game or unpopular or confusing media deals.
All right, friends! Let me know what you’re reading down in the comments. Be a beacon of loving-kindness for yourself and the world right now, and we’ll check in next week. Enjoy the playoff race!
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)