New Ducks manager Wally Backman’s big-league career spanned the 1980s when speed ruled baseball, strikeouts were harder to come by, and the term “three true outcomes” was not in the sport’s vernacular.
This is, at least in part, why the former Met says he is ready to embrace the slate of dramatic rule changes that will take effect in the Atlantic League this year.
“It’s about trying to create more action,” said Backman, who took over as Ducks manager in November. “I think you’re going to see people start looking for more speed, being able to hit and run, and doing the little things. The St. Louis Cardinals of the 80s are a perfect example of that [style]. That’s what I keep thinking about.”
The Atlantic League partnered with Major League Baseball this offseason to be a testing ground for new rules. Some include pace of play initiatives, but others will affect more directly how the game is played: the strike zone will become automated, the infield overshift will be banned, and the bases will be bigger. In the second half of the season, the league also will move the pitching rubber back 2 feet, to 62 feet, 6 inches.
Most of these rules are intended to shift the game away from its modern tendencies, which have emphasized power at the expense of speed and reduced the number of balls in play.
“Everybody wants a three-run home run. I want them as bad as anybody,” Backman said. “But there are certain days that you can’t get that three-run home run and you have to find a way to manufacture a run.”
The larger bags will decrease the distance between them slightly, partially incentivizing more of the small ball Backman says will be essential, including making it easier to steal bases.
“Baseball is a game of inches and when you take a 15-square-inch base and make it 18, you might see more aggressive base running,” he said.
This is something with which Backman is familiar. His major-league career was from 1980 to 1993, a period that featured a historically high amount of action on the basepaths.
In 1988, teams averaged 0.85 stolen bases per game, the most in a season since 1919; the next three highest years are 1987, 1986 and 1983. In 2018, that number dropped to 0.51, which ranked 95th among the 148 seasons that stolen-base data is available.
There also are considerably fewer balls in play in the modern game, in which power is emphasized and a high strikeout rate is viewed as optimal for a pitcher but not necessarily ruinous for a hitter. Last season had the highest strikeout rate in history (22.3 percent) and the fourth-most home runs per team per game (1.15); in 1988, fewer than 14.7 percent of plate appearances ended with a strikeout.
The change in mound distance is designed to address this.
“I’m excited to see what the outcome is going to be,” Backman said. “It’s definitely going to give the hitter more time to see the pitch and the pitcher is definitely gonna have to make an adjustment on breaking balls.”
MLB will be tracking the effects of these changes with the help of Trackman technology, which also will be used to call balls and strikes and provide additional data on the players themselves. This player tracking has become increasingly used by big-league teams, and Backman said this will make the Atlantic League more attractive to prospective players.
“Every night, this data goes into a database and all 30 clubs can see it,” he said. “There’s so much data that they’re looking for now, like launch angles, how hard the ball is hit off the bat, spin rates . . . All that is good data, if you use it properly. But I think you have to also remember there’s a human element there.”