Oh yes, there will be changes this summer as professional baseball returns to Appalachian Power Park with the West Virginia Power’s inaugural season in the independent Atlantic League.
Some of those changes will be apparent, such as the increase in the size of the bases from 15 inches square to 18 inches. Fans at Appalachian Power Park this summer can’t help but notice the difference brought about by this rule change, which is one of several experiments the Atlantic League will be using at the behest of Major League Baseball. The reasoning is that the larger base will cut down on injuries caused by collisions when fielders and base runners are simultaneously converging on the coveted piece of real estate.
Other changes will be much more subtle, particularly the plan to move the pitching rubber back 12 inches, from 60 feet, 6 inches to home plate — the dimensional rule that has been in effect since 1893 — to 61 feet, 6 inches.
That was one of the new rules for the 2021 season jointly announced Wednesday by MLB and the Atlantic League, which, despite its independent status, still falls under MLB’s purview as an operating partner. This change won’t be instituted until Aug. 3, at the start of the second half of the Atlantic League season, but the Power is already thinking about what the change will mean.
“I like the initiative and being the first to be able to test the new rules,” said Arik Sikula, the former South Charleston and Hurricane high school star who has signed to pitch for the Power in 2021. “I think the game needs to put more balls in play and make the game more exciting for fans.”
Indeed, the experiment was prompted by MLB’s desire to increase balls in play — or, to put it bluntly, to cut down on the alarming rate of strikeouts in today’s game. More strikeouts means fewer balls in play, which means less action on the field, and MLB fears that it’s negatively affecting fan interest in the game.
The thought is that the extra 12 inches the ball travels from the pitcher’s hand to the plate will give batters more time to react to pitches and help them make more frequent contact and cut down on strikeouts.
How bad has it gotten? According to the release accompanying Wednesday’s announcement, the strikeout rate at the MLB level has increased for 15 consecutive years, from 16.4% of plate appearances in 2005 — about one out of every six batters striking out — to 23.4% in 2020, or nearly once every four plate appearances.
There are a number of factors related to the increase in strikeouts, starting with ball-tracking technology that helps pitchers — already bigger and stronger than their predecessors — gain velocity and movement on their pitches. Statistical analysis shows that starting pitchers tend to lose effectiveness the longer they stay in the game, and bringing in fresh arms from bullpens stacked with gas-throwing relievers has proven to be a more effective means of closing out games than asking a tiring starter to go the distance.
How much of a difference will an added foot of distance between the mound and home plate make to what we see late this summer at Appalachian Power Park? Results may vary, but Wednesday’s release included some projected statistics that bear noting.
“The reaction time on a 93.3 mph fastball (average fastball velocity in 2020) thrown from 60 feet, 6 inches is approximately equivalent to a 91.6 mph fastball (the average fastball velocity in 2010) thrown from 61 feet, 6 inches.”
Maybe it’s not a huge difference, but it can make a noticeable change in the results. I guess we’ll find out.
If the Atlantic League’s experiment of adding a foot of distance between the mound and the plate proves effective in cutting down on strikeouts and increasing balls in play, don’t be surprised if it’s eventually implemented at the major-league level. Baseball, the most tradition-bound of all sports, isn’t averse to tweaking its rules to readjust the delicate balance between offense and defense.
There was the 1893 change in the pitching distance. At about the same time, fielders discovered that they could better ply their trade by wearing gloves on their hands instead of trying to catch a batted ball with their bare hands. The liveliness of the ball itself has been changed over time, affecting statistics along the way.
Pitchers doctoring the ball — throwing spitballs or any pitch with the application of foreign substances, or scuffing the ball, all measures that artificially alter the movement of a thrown ball — has long been outlawed (although it’s admittedly difficult to prove and enforce). The strike zone, as defined in the rule book, changes about once a generation. The height of the pitching mound, once unregulated, is now firmly established. The designated hitter, like it or not, has been around for nearly half a century in the American League (and, unless I miss my guess, coming soon to a National League park near you).
While baseball fans once had to wait until the publication of the next day’s newspaper to find out about the fate of their favorite team, we now can fire up an app on our phones to see what’s the score, who’s on first, how many outs there are and the velocity and movement on every pitch that’s thrown. We’ve moved from the introduction of radio broadcasts of games in the 1920s to televised broadcasts of games on tiny, grainy black-and-white TV sets in the 1950s to today, when we watch the games on 75-inch high-definition flat screens.
And every April 15 of every season, on Jackie Robinson Day, we’re reminded that inclusion at the game’s highest level is no longer restricted to players of a particular skin tone.
In other words, the game evolves in reaction to the times, to changes in equipment and technology, and to the particular interests of a given generation.
I’ve been enamored by baseball since the aforementioned black-and-white TV days and picking up the New York Daily News — cost: 8 cents — to get my fix, and I’ve seen many of these changes in the game over those 50-plus seasons.
That love for the game grows ever stronger, and I welcome the changes coming from the next stages of the game’s evolution.