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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Baseball rule changes can have unintended consequences

David Peterson delivers a pitch in spring training

David Peterson delivers a pitch in spring training for the Mets. With strikeouts dominating and drastically reducing the action on the field, increasing the distance between the mound and home plate should tilt some of the advantage back toward the offense.   Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

I’m all for innovation. If there are ways to update Major League Baseball to make it a more entertaining sport for the 21st century — a time when the competition for people’s attention and their disposable income has never been fiercer — then those ideas should be explored.

The worrisome part of this latest round of experiments, however, boils down to two words: unintended consequences.

Bigger bases, outlawed shifts, pitch clocks, moving the mound back and the "double-hook" designated hitter are concepts that will be implemented to some degree in the coming months at the minor-league level.

On one hand, that might seem like the perfect petri dish. It’s only the minors, right? But for prospects working for their dream shot, being lab rats isn’t such a great arrangement.

But that’s a conversation for another time. We’ll see how that plays out.

As far as the topic of unintended consequences goes, we’re already seeing that with replay review, a supposedly fail-safe system designed to get calls right and avoid the messy controversy a human umpire can create.

Now that we’re in the 14th season of replay — the program started in August 2008, when it was limited to disputed home runs, and was expanded in 2014 — two things have become clear: It too often sucks the energy out of the game, grinding it to a halt, and lately has been stunningly poor at correcting calls.

Also, there’s no easy fix. Once the Pandora’s box of replay has been opened, it can become difficult to contain, as we’re witnessing now. Plus, it’s not going anywhere. Every sport relies on replay to help officiate games, and these problems hardly are unique to baseball.

Perhaps the most drastic of the upcoming rule changes, the pushing back of the mound by another foot — to 61 feet, 6 inches — is another example of unintended consequences.

MLB’s reasoning is understandable. With strikeouts dominating the sport and drastically reducing the action on the field, increasing that distance should tilt some of the advantage back toward the offense, just as lowering the mound did after the 1968 season, otherwise known as "The Year of the Pitcher."

When MLB announced the change would be made in the second half of the season in the Atlantic League — home of the Long Island Ducks — some supporting evidence came along with it suggesting that "more time to react . . . will help batters make contact more frequently."

It certainly sounds logical. As MLB stated, the reaction time on a 93.3-mph fastball (the 2020 average) from 61-6 is "approximately equivalent" to a 91.6- mph fastball (2010 average) delivered from the current 60-6. Also included was the fact that the strikeout rate has increased for 15 consecutive years, from 16.4% of plate appearances in 2005 to a record 23.4% in 2020.

The uptick in velocity has been singled out as the culprit here, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Pitchers have greatly increased movement as well, through the help of tracking tech and modern training methods. As Yankees pitching coach Matt Blake pointed out recently, pushing the mound back actually could help pitchers have more movement, thus defeating the purpose.

"It's something that’s kind of been theorized about by a handful of people, just what that impact might be," Blake said. "Obviously, moving the mound back gives the hitter more time to see the ball, but at the same time, it also gives the ball more time to move. So there's going to be second-order effects that I think are hard to estimate what exactly what that will look like.

"But there'll be both positives and negatives on both sides of it in terms of the amount of room to create shapes and movement for a pitcher will be enhanced. You just might deaden some of the velocity from the distance that we're talking about."

Hence the Atlantic League clinical trial. As far as the potential safety issues of asking a pitcher to exert more effort — for a position that already has trouble staying healthy — MLB provided data that said there would be no additional risk.

According to a 2019 study cited from the American Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI), "high-level collegiate baseball players threw from distances of 60’6", 62’6" and 63’8" [and] no significant differences in key measures of rotational motion (kinetics) or acceleration (kinematics) were observed among the varying pitching distances. In addition, ball velocity and strike percentage remained consistent."

The Atlantic League is a long way from the majors, however, and I’m skeptical that we’ll ever see this particular change implemented at the game’s highest level. But MLB wouldn’t be conducting all of these experiments if it wasn't willing to implement some of the more successful ones at some point. Replay review and the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers started out as radical ideas, too.

''Fans, players and many others in the baseball community have expressed an interest in seeing more regular action on the field," said Theo Epstein, three-time World Series champion turned MLB consultant. "Therefore, it’s important that we use the 2021 season to explore various ways to create more frequent contact — and the increased action and athleticism on display that will follow.

"We expect to learn a great deal about the impacts of such a change and whether an adjustment to this critical field dimension is worth potential future consideration at other levels of professional baseball."

Time keeps on slipping, slipping . . .

Remember trying to shorten the length of baseball games? Or at least hasten the pace of play? None of the measures seem to be working. In fact, MLB is actually going backwards when it comes to clock management.

Through Friday, the average time of a nine-inning game was 3 hours, 10 minutes, according to baseball-reference.com, the longest on record. That’s up from 3:07 last season, 3:05 in 2019 and 3:00 in 2018. In 2010, it was 2:50, and 20 minutes is a significant jump.

The use of replay is definitely a contributing factor, but in watching the first two weeks of this season, pitchers are taking a while to throw the ball, which prompts hitters to increasingly roam outside the box.

A pitch clock would help — a 15-second version is being auditioned at some low Class A levels this season — but MLB backed off on it recently for the sake of other negotiating points with the Players Association.

Also, the focus now is creating more action and putting more balls in play, so it’s unclear how that might affect the overall time.

An offensive surge likely would stretch games even longer, but more contact — fewer swings-and-misses, less taking pitches — could negate that.

It’s an inexact science but one in which MLB is working hard, on a number of fronts, to figure out.

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