You win some, you lose some. And so far, that’s exactly what the Atlantic League’s new extra-inning rule has brought the Ducks. Of all the new wrinkles and regulations that the independent league has adopted this season, the extra-innings rule might be the one that most radically changes the way the game is played.
Call it the baseball version of the shootout.
Beginning this season, all extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. That runner is the batter in the order previous to the leadoff batter in the extra inning. Managers are allowed to pinch run for that player, assuming they’re OK with taking that batter out of the lineup should the score remain deadlocked. This rule exists in all levels of the affiliated minor leagues and the league will return to “regular” extra inning rules in the playoffs, according to a December news release announcing the change.
So far, the Ducks have both lived and died by this brand-new sword. They beat Lancaster, 5-4, in 10 innings Wednesday and fell to York, 6-5, in 10 innings Friday in their home opener in Central Islip.
“They want to try to speed the game up and I understand that,” Ducks manager Wally Backman said. “In our league, you play a lot of games and don’t have many off days. It’s an advantage to the players because you know you’re not going to play 15- or 16-inning games ... I’m willing to try it to see if I like it. We’re going to try it. It doesn’t mean that you have to like it, but we’re willing to do it to see if it speeds the game up.”
Despite being stranded at third as the tying run Friday, David Washington likes it.
“It’s exciting, for sure,” Washington said. “It puts you in those high-leverage situations early. Sometimes you get those dead innings in extras. So far, I’ve enjoyed it … I think it’s important to always be open to new ideas.”
Other than the extra-innings rule, the ban on non-pitching change mound visits is the new wrinkle that Backman and players have consciously noticed most within games. Backman said this rule was the “toughest” of all the new ones, which include a three-batter minimum for all pitchers and a ban on the defensive shift. These changes were put in as part of an agreement that allows Major League Baseball to test experimental playing rules in the Atlantic League.
“You can’t control the pace of the game as a manager like you’d want to,” Backman said of the mound visit ban. “It’s all new. It’s all experimental … There’s been a couple times during the first week that I would have liked to gone out or sent my pitching coach [Ed Lynch] out.”
Backman said that the Ducks bullpen hasn’t been affected by the three-batter minimum. That area of the roster was constructed with length in mind, anyway, he said.
“When we built this team, we didn’t bring in situational pitchers,” Backman said. “We brought in guys that we believed could get lefthanders and righthanders out. I don’t foresee it as affecting us as it might affect other teams.”
“I don’t mind it,” Ducks DH/hitting coach Lew Ford said. “It should speed the game up, but at the same time, if that pitcher comes in and he isn’t on point, that could spell trouble for the team bringing him in.”
Washington, who is a prototypical power hitter, said that he didn’t really encounter the shift all that much last year and doesn’t think the ban on it will have a large effect at the independent level.
“I don’t think teams in this league have the same scouting that [other] minor leagues and the major leagues do,” he said. “So the data just isn’t there to shift as much. But for me, I never took the shift into account when I hit. I’m trying to drive the ball. I’m not worried about if my ground balls are getting through ... [Defensively], we play guys straight up. We don’t have that much info.”
That’s not to say he likes the rule, either.
“I don’t particularly care for the no-shifting rule,” Washington said. “If there’s a place you can play to give yourself a better chance of getting an out on the baseball field, I think you should be allowed to do that. Hitters and pitchers need to make adjustments. But it’s really early. We’ll see.”
Washington also said that he thought the whole theory behind the shift — that certain batters just can’t go the other way — was flawed to begin with.
“I don’t buy too much into the whole ‘beat the shift, go the other way,’ ” Washington said. “I think professional hitters can hit the ball the other way for the most part. It’s just that, a good percentage of your ground balls are going to go to a certain place. That’s just how the game works.”