West Virginia Power pitcher Joe Harris will make history around 6:05 p.m. Tuesday at Appalachian Power Park.
Harris will start for the Power against the Gastonia Honey Hunters and, as such, will be the first to throw a pitch from the Atlantic League’s Major League Baseball-endorsed experimental distance of 61 feet 6 inches from the mound to home plate — a foot longer than the 60-6 distance that’s been in effect for baseball since the 1890s.
The change was implemented by MLB for the second half of the Atlantic League season on an experimental basis, primarily to test if the longer distance from the back of home plate to the front of the pitching rubber will have an effect on the number of balls put into play.
Power starting pitcher Arik Sikula, who pitched in high school at South Charleston and Hurricane and in college at Marshall, embraces the experiment, but said there are a lot of players in the league who are not on board with the change.
“I don’t mind it,” said Sikula, whose first start at the new distance will come Thursday against Gastonia. “We’re all just trying to play at our highest level, so we might as well try something different, try something unique, and see what will happen.”
Sikula, though, agreed with some of the concerns coming from league players.
Like a lot of Atlantic League players, Sikula plans to play winter baseball south of the border, and said players are worried that their part in the experiment will reflect negatively on their chances.
“I’m trying to play this winter in Venezuela,” Sikula said. “Winter ball jobs, getting back into affiliated ball — that’s what we’re here for. Teams are going to look at these numbers and try to put value on them.
“Players will be putting the ball in play more, I might have fewer strikeouts. Are they even going to consider that? Are they going to look at us pitching from a different mound and not want to contract us in because for the past three months I’ve been throwing from a different mound?”
Sikula said the potential adverse effect on the health of pitchers’ throwing arms is another cause for dissatisfaction around the league.
“You’ve been throwing a breaking ball so long one way, now you’re going to have a little more extension in your elbow, what’s that gonna do to you?” Sikula said. “But MLB wants to find out what the changes are.
“We’re the test subjects for their system. It’ll be interesting to see which players do well, which players do better, and which players don’t do as well. I think that’s what MLB’s trying to figure out.”
Power pitcher David Kubiak was more outspoken about his criticism of the change.
“I’m not in favor of changing the game. MLB paid for data from this league and that’s what they’re gonna get,” Kubiak said. “But I really hope a lot of the guys in the league are careful and it doesn’t injure guys.
“It’s tough for guys in this league to get scouted for international leagues. Who’s gonna want a grace period for a guy going over there for a month and a half and have to re-acclimated to pitching from 60 feet, 6 inches again? It’s gonna change how guys pitch.
“I think it’s terrible. I think it shows the lack of thought that went into this on the league’s part. I don’t think they took the players into consideration.”
What do Power manager Mark Minicozzi and pitching coach Paul Menhart think about the new rule?
They’re not saying, at least not for the record. They were told by Atlantic League officials that they’re not to criticize the experimental change.
“We’ve been forbidden to speak about it from [Atlantic League President] Rick White, under strict orders,” Menhart said.
“We are not allowed to have an opinion, the only opinions that matter are the league office,” Minicozzi said, “and if we have an opinion we would be suspended indefinitely without pay.
“It’s MLB’s policy, MLB wants to make to make this move. I honestly don’t think it’ll make that much of a difference.”
We’ll find out starting Tuesday night.
Power groundskeeper Dylan Rajkovich and his crew handled the relocation of the rubber late Sunday night and into Monday morning in preparation for the historic change.
While doing that work, Rajkovich discovered that the distance from the back of home plate to the front of the rubber was actually 60 feet, 8 inches — 2 inches longer than what’s written in the rulebook.
So, instead of moving the rubber back a foot, Rajkovich and crew relocated it 10 inches back from the plate.