To the casual fan, Sugar Land Skeeters baseball games this season will seem like typical games.
To baseball purists, it will be a whole new ballgame as the Skeeters and the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball implement new rules to be tested through an agreement with Major League Baseball.
The new rules, announced Friday, are largely targeted at pitchers and are designed to increase the action and speed up the pace of play.
“Everything that they’re doing is designed to increase the offense and put more balls into play,” said Skeeters General Manager Tyler Stamm.
The new rules include:
• No mound visits permitted by players or coaches other than for pitching changes or medical issues;
• Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters, or reach the end of an inning before they exit the game, unless the pitcher becomes injured;
• Increase size of first, second and third base from 15 inches square to 18 inches square;
• Require two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitch is released (if not, the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball);
• Time between innings and pitching changes reduced from 2:05 to 1:45; and
• Distance from pitching rubber to home plate extended 24 inches, in the second half of the season only, with no change to mound height or slope.
Stamm said that between the two halves of the season the pitching mound will be moved back two feet.
In addition, each Atlantic League ballpark will have a TrackMan radar tracking system installed. Not only will it assist the umpire in calling balls and strikes, but it will also provide real-time statistical and radar tracking data from Atlantic League games to MLB clubs.
“The umpire will be wearing an earpiece telling him what to call,” Stamm said.
Atlantic League President Richard White said the umpire will have the ultimate say on a call and has the authority to overrule TrackMan.
“You have to have the ability for the umpire to utilize his best judgment,” White said.
As an example, he said if a pitch hits the ground and bounces into the strike zone, the TrackMan may not recognize it and call a strike. The umpire can overrule it.
White also said that if a coach or player argues a call, the ultimate decisions rests with the umpire. TrackMan cannot be called upon as a form of instant replay.
“This is not meant to replace an umpire but to compliment what he is doing,” White said, adding that it will add consistency to strike zones.
Stamm said that the increased base size will shorten the base path by six inches, three on each side of the base. While that is minimal, he said it is hoped it will increase the number of steal attempts.
By reducing mound visits, setting a minimum number of batters a pitcher must face, and shortening the time between innings and pitching changes, it is hoped the game will be speeded up. Adding two more feet between the pitching mound and home plate is designed to give batters more of an edge and to put more balls into play.
“We’re going to be talking about it with all of our pitchers in the next week or so,” Stamm said.
When asked if the new rules will make it tougher on pitchers, White said the changes can work both for and against the pitchers depending on how they adapt to them. He said this should help level the playing field between pitchers and batters.
“It’s no secret that the art of pitching has advanced at a much faster rate than the batters can keep up with,” he said.
White and Stamm both said that it is unlikely that scoring will increase, as the rules are designed to increase the action and speed the game.
For Major League Baseball, it’s a chance to see how rule changes affect play and safety before implementing it at that level.
“This first group of experimental changes is designed to create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning, and improve player safety,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s Senior Vice President, League Economics and Operations. “We look forward to seeing them in action in the Atlantic League.”
MLB will analyze the effects of these changes before deciding on potential additional modifications during the 2019 ALPB All-Star Break and in future seasons. White said there is a provision in the agreement that if a new rule is determined to be detrimental it can be immediately changed.
The experimental playing rules and equipment changes are part of a new three-year agreement between MLB and ALPB. The agreement covers the transfer of players from ALPB to MLB and enhances MLB’s scouting coverage of ALPB games.