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Some early returns on the Arizona Fall League rule changes aren’t positive

The pace of play has slowed down instead of speeding up.

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Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, I noted here that some experimental rules would be tried out in the Arizona Fall League:

Pitchers will be subject to a 15-second pitch clock and limited to two pickoff attempts per plate appearance; infielders will be required to remain in the dirt with two infielders on each side of second base; and the size of the bases will be increased.

The automated ball-strike system, which the AFL also experimented with in 2019, will also be used in games played at Salt River Fields.

Keith Law of The Athletic posted an article earlier this week noting that in the early AFL going, these rule changes had failed:

The Saturday night game at Salt River Fields, the spring home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, exemplifies the entire problem. The game used the automated strike zone, a variable pitch clock and a ban on shifts. The result was a game that was called after seven and a half innings over three excruciating hours because the teams ran out of pitchers. Why did they run out of pitchers in just seven and a half innings, you ask? Because the pitchers they did use walked 22 guys.

Well, that’s not good, not good at all. Why did this happen?

It turns out that the real strike zone is a lot smaller than what umpires called, especially on the horizontal axis (inside or outside). A whole lot of pitches that were probably 1 to 3 inches off the outside corner and had some chance of being called strikes from a human were, of course, called balls — and while that wasn’t solely responsible for the game’s three-walks-per-inning pace, it didn’t help matters. (Some guys just couldn’t find the plate that night if you’d drawn an arrow from the mound right to the dish.)

So, let’s unpack all of this. Law is reporting on one game, and through the date of his article (Monday) there had been four Arizona Fall League games. I’d think the small sample size, rather than indicate failure, means we need more data, which we will get as the league continues.

What about the pitch clock? I have repeatedly contended that the single biggest thing MLB could do to pick up the pace of play would be to institute a pitch clock. What happened in the AFL games Keith Law watched?

And then there’s the pitch clock, which at least two of the umpires — the one Saturday night and the one at the night game in Peoria on Friday — decided would allow them to have their Big Moment in the spotlight. They couldn’t wait to call balls or strikes the millisecond the pitch clock expired and let everyone in the park know that they had just rung up Spencer Torkelson. The AFL is a scouting and developmental league, and if you can tell me how any scouting or development purpose was served by Torkelson striking out rather than facing a two-strike pitch from Hans Crouse — who, to his great credit, said “he can hit!” to try to get the ump to allow the at-bat to continue — I would love to hear it.

Yikes yikes yikes, that’s not the way this is supposed to work, not at all. I hope someone in MLB let those plate umpires know that this isn’t the way they should be enforcing the pitch clock in a developmental league like the AFL, even if part of the league’s purpose this year is to test the pitch clock. Further, Law writes:

Moving to the automated strike zone without calibrating it to ensure we’re not just calling fewer strikes will make games longer and less enjoyable to watch.

I don’t think anyone is seriously suggesting an automated strike zone should be instituted in the major leagues without enough data to calibrate it properly. For one thing, it will have to be decided whether a pitch that tweaks one tiny corner of the strike zone should be called a strike. Human umpires will sometimes call that a strike, sometimes now. What does MLB want it to be?

The headline of my article in September noted that all the things that were being tried out in the AFL were “experimental rules.” Some might work, some not. The AFL is the perfect place to try them out, given the level of competition and the (generally) excellent weather the games are played in, and we also need more than a couple of anecdotal notes on two games to know if these rules are working well or need more tweaks.

Once the AFL season is over MLB should have some good data on all the rules being tried, including one that forces infielders to stay on the infield dirt, which I haven’t covered here (and would in general terms be against).

I’ll stand by my statement that the pitch clock is the single biggest thing that could help pick up the pace of play and shorten game lengths — you can see that in this year’s postseason, where batters often dawdle outside the batter’s box between pitches for what seems like minutes. Play ball, guys!