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Big rule changes are coming to Minor League Baseball

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Three changes to rules designed to speed up the pace-of-play are coming to the minor leagues this summer.

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Melqui Rodriguez/South Bend Cubs

Minor League Baseball, in consultation with Major League Baseball, has announced three rules changes that are designed to increase the pace of play. At least one of these changes is going to be very controversial.

The first rule change is that all Minor League games will start with a man on second base in extra innings. This rule was in place at the lowest level of the minor leagues last year, but now it will be in place in all minor league levels. This is similar to the rule that was in place during the World Baseball Classic.

The second rule is a modification of the pitch clock rules. For the past few seasons, Double-A and Triple-A baseball has employed a 20-second pitch clock. This season, that clock will be shortened to 15 seconds when no one is on base. The clock will remain at 20 seconds when runners are on. Failure to meet this deadline will result in a ball being awarded to the batter.

Batters will also have to get into batter’s box before seven seconds are left on the pitch clock. Failure to be in the box will result in a automatic strike.

Finally, the minors are implementing the mound visits rule that has been announced for Major League Baseball. Triple-A clubs will get six mound visits per game, just like the majors. Double-A teams get eight and Single-A will allow ten visits per game. Short Season and Rookie ball clubs still get unlimited mound visits.

Teams get one more visit for every inning of extra innings. They do not get any fewer mound visits if the game is scheduled for seven innings, such as during a double-header.

One thing that these rules do is define what constitutes a mound visit. This has been one of the biggest issues that people have raised with MLB’s new mound visit rule. I think we can assume that MLB’s definition of a mound visit is the same as MiLB.

A manager or coach trip to the mound to meet with the pitcher shall constitute a visit. A player leaving his position to confer with the pitcher, including a pitcher leaving the mound to confer with another player, shall also constitute a mound visit, regardless of where the visit occurs or the length of the visit, except that the following shall not constitute mound visits:

a. Discussions between pitchers and position player(s) that (i) occur between batters in the normal course of play and do not require either the position player(s) or the pitcher to relocate;

b. Visits by position players to the mound to clean spikes in rainy conditions;

c. Visits to the mound due to an injury or potential injury of the pitcher; and

d. Visits to the mound after the announcement of an offensive substitution.

I have posted the full press release at the end of this article if you wish to examine it in more detail.

I know these rules will be controversial. Let’s look at the most controversial one first.

Fans do not like starting an inning with a runner on second base. It seems contrary to the spirit of the game and is a major change in the way that the game is played. Even if it is only for extra innings, it reeks of deciding baseball games with an NHL-style shootout or penalty kicks.

I do have to make one thing clear. There are few things more pointless than a 15-inning minor league game. First of all, at least 95 percent of the fans are gone by then. Even the scouts have packed up and left. The teams end up paying extra money to the cleanup crew who are just waiting for the game to end so they can go home.

No one, other than the players, cares who wins a long extra-inning game in the minors. Even the manager, by that point, is just trying to get his pitching staff off the field without an injury. If the purpose of Minor League Baseball is to train players for the majors and not to win titles, then playing a long extra-inning game is pointless. By that point, both teams often have a backup infielder on the mound and no minor leaguer learns to hit major league pitching by taking hacks against the last guy at the end of the bench.

So I’m not against a rule change to shorten minor league games. In theory, putting a man on second base to start an inning gives pitchers experience in pitching out of a jam. But in reality, what is going to happen with these games is that there will be an automatic bunt sending the runner over to third base. Then the team will be hoping for a sacrifice fly. This makes for very boring baseball.

On top of that, there is nothing in this rule that prevents a 15-inning game. Teams could continue to trade runs (or fail to score) for quite a while. It certainly makes a 15-inning game less likely, but they could still happen.

I don’t know why, except in playoff games, the game can’t just be declared a tie if the game is still tied after 11 innings. I know people say that there are no ties in baseball, but that’s only a product of the last 70 years. Before there were lights and night games, lots of baseball games ended in a tie. If it was too dark to continue playing and the score was even, the game was declared a tie and would be replayed if possible.

This rule strikes me as similar to all the gimmicks that the NHL goes through to make sure that games don’t end in ties anymore. At least in that case, they can make the argument that people pay a lot of money for tickets and they deserve a winner and a loser. (I’m not sure why a tie is not considered a fair result, but I guess some people do. There used to be ties in the NHL all the time.) But in Minor League Baseball? Polls of fans at the game universally show that fans don’t really care which team wins. Many fans can’t even tell you who won or lost at the end of the game. Fans of Minor League Baseball are there for the experience. They really are not invested in the fortunes of their team like MLB fans are.

The other objection I have to this system is the fear that this is a trial for the majors to adopt this rule. Unlike the minors, fans really do care who wins a major league game. This gimmick is reminiscent of the NHL shootout without the consolation point that goes to the loser of that fairly-arbitrary method.

Having said all that, if baseball wants to experiment with the rules, the minors is the place to do it. I really do think that Minor League Baseball needs to put an end to long, pointless games that are played to a conclusion for no other reason that tradition dictates it. Tradition is good, but doing something for tradition alone is dumb. When tradition runs into common sense, let common sense win out.

I’m willing to give this system a chance. I hope that Minor and Major League Baseball will change the rule to something else if it doesn’t work. I hope they will be able to recognize if it succeeds or fails and act accordingly.

On the pitch clock, I know a lot of you are opposed to having any sort of clock on baseball. I get it. I was against it at first as well. But there has been a pitch clock at the top two levels of the minors for the past three years and I think it has been a success. For one, the pace of the game does seem faster. I’ve been to several Triple-A games recently that lasted around two hours and 40 minutes rather than three hours and more.

Secondly, I don’t even notice the pitch clock anymore. You’re aware of it the first time you come to the park because you’re looking for it, but after that it really just fades into the background. The pitchers are probably aware of it and the umpires are aware of it. But the fans really aren’t.

Having said that, with the rule working, I don’t understand why they need to tweak it. But again, if you’re going to experiment with these things, then the minors is the place to do it. I was wrong about the 20-second pitch clock before, and maybe I’m wrong about shortening it to 15 seconds with no one on base. Let’s find out before a pitch clock gets implemented at the major league level.

The third rule is the one that limits the number of mound visits. Obviously this has been very controversial in the majors this season and it really should have been tried in the minor leagues first. I assume the decision to give the lower levels of the minors more mound visits is both a way of easing players into this rule and an acknowledgement that players at the lower levels have more communications problems than those in the higher levels.

These rules are in place for 2018 and that is not going to change. If you are a fan of minor league baseball and you don’t like these rules, you can lobby to get them changed for 2019. But I, at least, am going to try to give them a chance. I was against the pitch clock when it was put into place in 2015, but I’ve since changed my mind since I’ve seen it in action. I now support a pitch clock in the majors.

The minors are a place for learning and experimentation. All of this should have been done for a few years in the minors before the major leagues even considered them. Maybe these rules will work and maybe they won’t, but the minors are the place to try them out first.


The complete press release follows:

For Immediate Release March 14, 2018

Minor League Baseball Announces Pace of Play Regulations for 2018

Minor League Baseball to begin extra innings with runners on base, mound visits to be limited, and Triple-A and Double-A to use 15-second pitch timers with no runners on base

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Minor League Baseball today announced rule and procedure changes aimed at reducing the length of extra innings games and the number of mound visits during a game throughout Minor League Baseball. In addition, the Triple-A and Double-A levels will use a 15-second pitch clock with no runners on base.

The procedures, created in partnership with Major League Baseball, aim to reduce the number of pitchers used in extra innings and the issues created by extra innings games, including, but not limited to, shortages of pitchers in the days to follow, the use of position players as pitchers and the transferring of players between affiliates due to pitching shortages caused by extra innings games.

“We believe these changes to extra innings will enhance the fans’ enjoyment of the game and will become something that the fans will look forward to on nights where the game is tied late in the contest,” said Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner. “Player safety has been an area of growing concern for our partners at the Major League Baseball level, and the impact that lengthy extra innings games has on pitchers, position players and an entire organization was something that needed to be addressed.”

EXTRA INNINGS

-At all levels of Minor League Baseball, extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. The runner at second base will be the player in the batting order position previous to the leadoff batter of the inning (or a substitute for that player). By way of example, if the number five hitter in the batting order is due to lead off the 10th inning, the number four player in the batting order (or a pinch-runner for such player) shall begin the inning on second base. Any runner or batter removed from the game for a substitute shall be ineligible to return to the game, as is the case in all circumstances under the Official Baseball Rules.

-For purposes of calculating earned runs under Rule 9.16, the runner who begins an inning on second base pursuant to this rule shall be deemed to be a runner who has reached second base because of a fielding error, but no error shall be charged to the opposing team or to any player.

PITCHER’S MOUND VISITS

-Visits by coaches and position players will be limited based on the classification level. Triple-A clubs will be allowed six (6) visits per team, Double-A clubs will be allowed eight (8) visits per team, Single-A clubs will be allowed 10 visits per team and there will not be a limit on mound visits for Short Season and Rookie-level clubs.

-These mound visit limits will apply whether the game is scheduled for seven or nine innings.

-For any extra-innings played, each club shall be entitled to one additional non-pitching change mound visit per inning.

-Official Baseball Rule 5.10(l), which governs mound visits by a manager or coach, remains in effect (i.e., a pitcher must be removed on the second visit by a manager/coach in an inning).

Definition of Mound Visit:

-A manager or coach trip to the mound to meet with the pitcher shall constitute a visit. A player leaving his position to confer with the pitcher, including a pitcher leaving the mound to confer with another player, shall also constitute a mound visit, regardless of where the visit occurs or the length of the visit, except that the following shall not constitute mound visits:

a. Discussions between pitchers and position player(s) that (i) occur between batters in the normal course of play and do not require either the position player(s) or the pitcher to relocate;

b. Visits by position players to the mound to clean spikes in rainy conditions; c. Visits to the mound due to an injury or potential injury of the pitcher; and d. Visits to the mound after the announcement of an offensive substitution.

Cross-Up in Signs:

In the event a team has exhausted its allotment of mound visits in a game (or extra inning) and the home plate umpire determines that the catcher and pitcher did not have a shared understanding of the location or type of pitch that had been signaled by the catcher (otherwise referred to as a “cross-up”), the home plate umpire may, upon request of the catcher, allow the catcher to make a brief mound visit. Any mound visit resulting from a cross-up prior to a team exhausting its allotted number of visits shall count against a team’s total number of allotted mound visits.

15-SECOND PITCH TIMER

-Pitchers at the Triple-A and Double-A levels will be allowed 15 seconds to begin their wind-up or the motion to come to the set position when no runners are on base.

-The pitcher does not necessarily have to release the ball within 15 seconds, but must begin his wind-up or begin the motion to come to the set position to comply with the 15-second rule with no runners on base.

-With runners on base, the pitch timer will go from 15 to 20 seconds.

-The timer shall start when the pitcher has possession of the ball in the dirt circle surrounding the pitcher’s rubber, the catcher is in the catcher’s box and the batter is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.

-The timer will stop as soon as the pitcher begins his wind-up, or begins the motion to come to the set position.

-If the pitcher feints a pick off or steps off the rubber with runners on base, the timer shall reset and start again immediately.

-Umpires have the authority to stop the pitch timer and order a reset.

-Following any event (e.g., pick-off play) that permits the batter to leave the batter’s box, the timer shall start when the pitcher has possession of the ball in the dirt circle surrounding the pitcher’s rubber, and the catcher is in the catcher’s box.

-Following an umpire’s call of “time” or if the ball becomes dead and the batter remains at-bat, the timer shall start after the next pitch or play.

-Should the pitcher fail to begin his wind-up or begin the motion to come to the set position in 15 seconds with no runners on base, or 20 seconds with a runner on base, a ball will be awarded to the count on the batter.

-Should the batter fail to be in the batter’s box and alert to the pitcher with seven (7) or more seconds remaining on the pitch timer, a strike will be awarded to the count on the batter.

-The first 15 days of the season (April 5-19), will serve as a grace period, with players receiving warnings for infractions. Beginning April 20, rules will be enforced as written.

“We feel that limiting mound visits and decreasing the amount of time between pitches with no runners on base will further improve the pace of play and make it a more enjoyable experience for our fans,” said O’Conner.

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A runner on 2B to start extra innings...

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