NEW BRITAIN — The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, in partnership with Major League Baseball, has already adopted a slew of rule changes this season. To start off its second half, the independent league announced even more changes.
The Atlantic League, serving as a testing ground for potential rule changes at the Major League level, opened the season allowing no mound visits by players or coaches unless for a pitching change. Pitchers must face at least three batters.
The size of the bases expanded from 15 square inches to 18. Time between innings and pitching changes dropped from 2:05 to 1:45. The home plate umpire has been assisted by a radar tracking system called TrackMan, with an MLB-defined strike zone.
On July 11, the Atlantic League and MLB announced more changes. Pitchers are now 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 attempt to steal first base on any pitch not caught in flight. The check swing rule has been made more “batter friendly.”
The first runner to steal first base was Tony Thomas of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs on July 13.
However, when a batter steals first base, it goes down as an 0-for-1 and a fielder’s choice in the box score. With most players in the Atlantic League trying to hit their way into a MLB contract, that makes it a complicated decision to steal first base.
“I don’t know how (stealing first base) is going to work out,” Vinny Siena of the New Britain Bees said this week. “It’s honestly a little comical. I haven’t seen it happen yet. But I can see how it can work in situations late in games and stuff like that. I think it just depends on the situation.”
It is clear to the players in New Britain that Major League Baseball is trying to bring more scoring and action to games. Bees’ left-handed pitcher Jed Bradley said the rule that is changing the game the most is having to step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff.
“I mean, nobody likes it except for really fast guys,” said Bradley, who played for the Atlanta Braves in 2016. “I’m sure they are enjoying that right now.
“Honestly, it seems like the rule changes they are putting in place, they are just trying to make the game more action-filled, more action-packed, and we are the testing ground for that,” Bradley added. “I understand it.”
Bees manager and former Major League pitcher Mauro Gozzo of Wallingford said he has noticed baserunners taking advantage of the pickoff rule. However, Gozzo said, no matter how many rules are put into place to help hitters, good pitching will always reign supreme.
“Good pitching is going to control hitting,” Gozzo said. “I think you are always going to have good pitching and I think hitting is such a hard thing that they are always going to control good hitting. Now they are adding strikes for these guys and they are saying that they could take a base if the ball gets by a guy. They are trying to get it where it’s a little bit more fair for the hitter.”
Gozzo said the mound visit rule is the one new rule that has had the biggest impact.
“I don’t think our game has gotten any shorter,” Gozzo said. “I don’t know this factually, but just from reading on my postgame box scores. The game times are about the same, if not maybe even a little bit longer. The reason being, you can’t get that pitcher refocused at all. So now you’re having longer innings with that pitcher staying in there.”
While there hasn’t been a timetable given for how long these rules will be tried out until they are adopted or not adopted by the MLB, Gozzo said there is one rule he expects to be added to the Major Leagues.
“I heard a quote from our conference call that MLB thinks that the one rule that will go and get to the Major Leagues one day is the stealing of first base,” Gozzo said. “That supposedly came from somebody in the MLB office. That’s to try to create this offense and all that.
“I don’t know which rules they are going to take, what they are seeing with the rules. I can just say from a manager’s standpoint managing this team, I didn’t see a big difference but that one.”
Bradley said that while he is not totally sold on the new rules, he is honored that he is able to test it out for MLB.
“This is like the league for misfits in many ways,” Bradley said. “A lot of people find themselves here for many reasons all across the spectrum. Some guys are what’s considered too old. Some guys had a little black asterisk next to their name in affiliated ball. Some guys took time off and are trying to get back in, like me and (Mike) Carp.
“It’s just, you never know,” Bradley continued. “It’s a misfit league for misfit guys and I think we are the perfect people to test something on if you’re going to do that, because the talent in this league is unbelievable.”