There will be a lot of eyes on the West Virginia Power’s inaugural season in the Atlantic League, which starts with a sneak-peek of three exhibition games this weekend at Appalachian Power Park and gets real next Friday, May 28, with the team’s season opener against the Southern Maryland Blue Claws, also at The App.
I’m not just talking about those sets of eyes that will make their way to Charleston as we begin our first season removed from Major League Baseball-affiliated ball and venture into an independent league.
MLB itself will also be closely watching what transpires this summer, here and at the home ballparks of the Atlantic League’s seven other franchises.
Through its partnership with MLB, the Atlantic League will again be a testing ground for rules changes that could eventually find their way to the big-league level. One of the rule book changes first implemented in the Atlantic League — the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers — was adopted by MLB in the truncated 2020 season, re-upped for 2021 and appears to be here to stay.
Other Atlantic League experiments, including an electronic automated strike zone (robo-umps), restrictions on defensive position (the anti-shift rule, with infielders required to position themselves on the dirt cutout of the diamond) and larger bases (18 inches square, 3 inches larger than the traditional 15-inch bases), are being brought back by the league in 2021. I wouldn’t be surprised if these experiments also eventually find their way into the MLB rule book.
New for the 2021 Atlantic League season, though, are two rules changes that could be described as more radical. The first one — the “double-hook” rule, which states that when a starting pitcher is removed from the game, the reliever who replaces him is inserted into the batting order, replacing the starting designated hitter — will go into effect with opening day. Power manager Mark Minicozzi and I discussed this at length in this space last month.
The second major change — moving the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate back one foot, from the current 60 feet, 6 inches, to 61-6 — will be implemented on Aug. 3, coinciding with the start of the second half of the Atlantic League season.
There is no YouTube footage available of the last time there was a change in the distance between the pitcher and the batter. That’s not really a surprise, because that measurement was first written into the rule book in 1893, changing the established distance from 50 feet to 60-6. Talk about radical: It completely altered the nature of the game, and league-wide batting averages skyrocketed from .245 in 1892 to .280 in 1893 and up to .309 in 1894.
League-wide batting averages and, more specifically, the percentage of balls put into play by batters, are cited as the compelling reasons for changing the distance between pitcher and batter. The powers-that-be have concluded that they’d like to see fewer strikeouts, more base hits, more action on the field from batted balls.
The numbers produced by the MLB game today are undeniable. For instance:
n The Tigers’ Spencer Turnbull pitched a no-hitter against the Mariners Tuesday night, and the Yankees’ Corey Kluber did the same against the Rangers Wednesday night. That brought the number of 2021 MLB no-hitters to six. The modern-era single-season record is seven, and we’re only in the middle of May, just a little more than one-quarter of the way through the schedule.
n The league-wide batting average as of this writing is .236, which, if it holds, would be the lowest in baseball history. The full-season low is .237, established in 1968, the “Year of the Pitcher.” MLB responded to that by standardizing the height of the pitchers mound at 10 inches and tightening the strike zone for the 1969 season.
n Teams are averaging 8.97 strikeouts per game, which means one out of every three outs is a strikeout. It’s the highest strikeout rate in MLB history, and the number has been steadily increasing. It’s up about 50% since the turn of the century.
There are those who will call the moving the rubber back by 12 inches blasphemous, an assault on the sacred traditions of the grand old game. Too many strikeouts? Heck, strikeouts are included in the lyrics of baseball’s anthem. “For it’s one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old … ball … game!”
Well, that was the old ballgame. The new ballgame might look a little different, and it will be on display this year at Appalachian Power Park.