Ducks manager Wally Backman is not a fan of the...

Ducks manager Wally Backman is not a fan of the rule requiring pitchers to step off the rubber during pickoff attempts. Credit: George A. Faella

In a very real sense, Ducks manager Wally Backman has been a champion of the Atlantic League’s agreement with Major League Baseball to test new rules this season, citing a desire and, possibly, a need, to make the game more exciting and action packed.

Maybe Backman doesn’t adore every single new wrinkle, but he has repeatedly acknowledged his willingness to try new things and see what sticks in order to make the game more attractive for a younger generation of fans.

But one week into a batch of new rules, Backman has finally found something he doesn’t like. Pitchers are now required to step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff. This is problematic for lefthanders, who historically have had a sneaky pickoff move as a back-pocket trick, whipping it out at a moment’s notice to catch a runner napping or prevent a speedster from taking that extra bag.

That time-honored advantage is gone, and Backman doesn’t like it.

“It really takes away the edge that a lefthander has,” Backman said. “He has no edge now. When you’re talking about righthanders holding runners on better than lefthanders, that’s something that’s never happened. That’s the one thing that I think they’ve really got to take a look at the data. I feel that it’s going to need to, at some point in time, go back to the way that it was.”

The pickoff rule is one of four that were implemented when the Atlantic League second half began last Friday. Others include: Allowing one foul bunt with two strikes, batters being allowed to ‘steal’ first base on any ball not caught in flight by the catcher (with the risk of being thrown out, of course), and making the check swing rule more ‘batter-friendly.’

At some point during the second half, balls and strikes will be called using electronic assistance with umpires wearing an earpiece and the call being made in accordance with a rigid automated strike zone. The system debuted at the Atlantic League All-Star Game earlier this month, but an official start date for regular-season games has not been announced.

L.J. Mazzilli, son of former Met and Yankee Lee Mazzilli, likes the idea of the automated balls and strikes system, but said that, generally, the other new rules were “excessive.” He cited the new pickoff regulation as an example.

“They’re trying to add more offense into the game and I get it,” he said. “I think that adds to it, but I’m watching it be frustrating to some pitchers because they’re either having to change their delivery time to home plate or thinking about it subconsciously when they’re on the mound. They’re trying not to let this guy take a free base and get into scoring position. They’re job is to pitch and get guys out and throw up zeros. That’s what they want to do. You can see the frustration build when these guys are just taking these bases like it’s nothing.”

Entering play Saturday, the Ducks only had two lefties on their pitching staff, starter Darin Downs and reliever Clint Freeman. Downs, who has been typically stingy against the running game, allowed eight stolen bases in his first start of the second half, a 6-4 Ducks win over Sugar Land last Saturday. Downs went back to his old ways Friday night and only allowed one bag swipe in the Duck’s 2-1 win over Lancaster.

But on Friday afternoon, the memory of Downs first go-round with the new rules was fresh in Freeman’s mind, almost as if a weapon has been removed from the arsenal, and an important one at that.

“It takes a little time to get used to,” Freeman said. “You definitely have to have your mind more on when you’re going to pick and when you’re not. You just have to work more on stepping off. For me, I stepped off before with a lift and pick. It’s a rule that I don’t know how long they’ll keep it, but for right now, it is what it is. You got to roll with it.”

Freeman continued: “Baserunners aren’t stupid. When you give them that and the inside move at second, it does make it a whole different ball game as far as holding guys. I think the lefties will adjust to it. I’m not crazy about it. If you ask any guy in our clubhouse, they’d tell you the same thing. You can’t transfer blame about it, you still have to hold runners. You just have to do a better job of it.”

Although Freeman has come to terms with his new reality as a “locked up lefty,” that doesn’t mean he likes it.

“I’ll put it to you this way, and I may get in trouble for saying it, but I think that the game was fine the way it was.”

Know Your Rules:

New 'experimental' rules for the second half

  • Pitcher is required to step off the rubber in order to attempt a pickoff
  • One foul bunt is permitted with two strikes before a strikeout is called
  • Batters may “steal” first base on any pitch not caught in flight (the batter can be thrown out if he attempts to run)
  • “Check swing” rule made more batter-friendly

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