UTK Special: A Few Minor Changes

David Barshop looks at the Minor Leagues in 2021

The Minor League season is coming to a close, and what better way to celebrate another successful year then a recap of all the goings-on? After the pandemic resulted in a cancellation of all Minor League and Independent League games and activities in 2020, all the leagues returned this year with plenty of familiarities, but also several changes which affected play at every level. Contrary to popular belief, change is not always good or necessary, but don’t try telling MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that. Manfred has made it his goal to experiment with strange new ideas, using minor leaguers and independent ball players as lab rats, much to their confusion and dismay.

Manfred, who is seemingly on the hot seat, especially with the Collective Bargaining Agreement set to expire on December 1st, has staked his job and reputation on fixing the game in an attempt to make it more interesting while speeding up the pace of play. Unfortunately for him, he’s identified mostly wrong things to fix, none of which seem to have worked in terms of increasing attendance, creating meaningful change statistically or in improving the on-field product, and especially maintaining player happiness. It’s safe to say at this point that Rob Manfred’s time has passed, and the best change that can happen at this point is his ouster.

This past season we’ve seen Manfred implement changes that seemingly no one asked for or wanted, and frankly have done nothing to improve the game of baseball…or put butts in seats for that matter. The idea was to see if any of these changes were successful enough or well-received to “get called up” to the majors for future use, but none of them are looking like they’ll have enough support to do so. Meanwhile, it’s still unclear if any of these have garnered enough backing to stick around the lower levels for 2022.

Manfred’s 7-inning double headers and extra inning baserunners have already been deemed failures, and will not be brought back next year the league announced. So why should we have any faith in any of the other ones he’s conceived? My goal is to figure out why and how this has all come to fruition and whether Manfred is the right guy to be leading Major League Baseball and its many affiliates. And how have his unilateral changes impacted those who are forced to play by his new rules, rules that have many questioning his commitment to history and tradition in a game that many feel is already perfect.

Rob Manfred has made it a personal challenge to speed up the pace of play in baseball, which has resulted in his institution of sweeping, experimental changes throughout all levels of the minor leagues. Figuring that he had toyed around enough with Major League Baseball through his implementation of 7-inning double headers, limiting mound visits and the amount of times you can swap pitchers, as well as putting baserunners on second to start an extra inning, he turned his attention to the minor leagues and independent leagues where he must have figured there would be less public backlash and anger in response to some seemingly bizarre ideas. It seems however, that he was wrong.

Not all of his ideas/changes for the 2021 Minor League season were related to a perceived slow pace of play like the 15 second pitch clock that the Low-A (West League) had to adhere to this year or the 2 pickoff throw limit that was implemented throughout the entire Low-A league. Some changes, like banning the shift in Double-A, or High-A’s requiring the pitcher to fully step off the rubber before attempting to make a pickoff, were enacted with the intent of making the game more interesting, so to speak.

Manfred’s zany ideas have even spread to the Independent Baseball League, which isn’t even an affiliate of the MLB (or the MiLB for that matter). Although not in conjunction with the MLB, the Independent Leagues did establish a “partnership” with the big leagues in 2019 for the sole purpose of becoming the testing ground for these experiments.

Since then the Atlantic League (ALPB), traditionally a feeder league used to resurrect the careers of baseball players, instituted a “double-hook” rule, in which a team loses its designated hitter when the starting pitcher is removed and even new guidelines which allow a batter to “steal” first base (don’t ask me how that’s possible). The ALPB was coaxed into pushing the pitching mound back a full foot this season, the first time at any level or league this has been done since 1968, and the first time the mound distance changed since 1893. This was done in an effort to decrease the strikeout rate, giving the hitter more time to react.

So how have these changes been received by the ones most affected by this, the guys on the field? “With all the rule changes, and the systems that are in place, the league’s a joke,” said one anonymous pitcher. “They’ve turned it into a complete mockery. It’s not baseball anymore. I believe that MLB teams are seeing this, and they’re going elsewhere to pick up players.” Yikes, now them’s fighting words. Other ALPB players have noticed that fewer players than ever this year have had their contracts purchased by MLB teams, with several of them going to Mexican and Asian Leagues. At the time of this writing, no ALPB player’s contract has been purchased by a Major League club in five weeks.

Additionally, pitchers are complaining of arm soreness due to being forced to accommodate to the new mound by altering arm slots and release points. This is not the kind of thing you want to hear from players. It’s one thing to mess with the game, and it’s another to mess with their bodies. These guys have been doing something one way their whole careers, and are now suddenly forced to change! Not only that, but the adjustments they’re forced to make could potentially lead to a serious injury and that is not good.

With the ALPB lab rats being forced into altering their approach by Manfred, it begs the question: have any meaningful changes come from this? Let’s look at numbers from before and after the mound was pushed back a foot.

Well, considering the mound was moved back to benefit the hitters, cutting back on their strikeout numbers in particular, I’d have to say this experiment is a bust. Pitch selection hasn’t changed much either, with only 3.5% more fastballs being thrown. These numbers plus the public backlash it’s created amongst the players makes it easy to declare this Manfred experiment an abject failure. Pitchers are making all these adjustments, and for what? Apparently nothing. Have these changes made the game more interesting? Well, looking at these numbers, I’d have to say no. Strikeouts are still at an all-time high, and most everything else has stayed stagnant.

Let’s also factor in that a lot of players are pissed off, experiencing more soreness from adapting to this, and even bandied around the idea of a league-wide strike. These ballplayers are athletes, not lab rats. They have goals of reaching the next level and those dreams are being hindered while they’re make adjustments to succeed at this level. They aren’t here for Manfred to levy his wacky ideas on from his Big Brother position as Major League Commissioner. Frankly, this feels like an abuse of power to me. Plus it reeks of occupational therapy, and does nothing to improve the game. Verdict: Failure.

Some ALPB players have surmised that no Major League team wants to take a chance on bringing these guys in due to the possibility of a long re-acclimation period to the traditional rules and dimensions. Many players have approached their teams with trade and transfer requests to escape the wackiness and unfamiliarity of the league in its current state. Even reports of a league-wide strike have come to light, which never materialized due in part to the lack of a union and the hesitation of younger players who didn’t want to hurt their career chances before they ever really got started.

“Most of the guys were like, yeah, if we can do it, we would love to say ‘f--- these guys’ and ‘we’re not going to pitch,’ said another anonymous ALPB pitcher. It’s pretty scary to hear something like this from these players, and it is not a good sign that many of them want out or are willing to sit out rather than play the game they love.

If we shift our focus back to the Minor Leagues, we can see more of Manfred’s attempts at making the game more “interesting.” In Low-A ball stolen bases have increased significantly, up .83 from 2019 since pitchers are no longer allowed to attempt more than two pickoff throws in a single at-bat (a third would result in a balk). This represents a 71.1% increase from the prior season. After the second attempt, couldn’t the runner just cartwheel or flamenco dance over to the next bag while he makes faces at and taunts the pitcher?

I know pickoffs aren’t exciting, but how else do you keep these jackrabbits from taking ten foot leads off the base once they know you can’t throw back over there again? Now let’s move up a level to High-A ball where the pickoff restrictions get more complex. Pickoff attempts aren’t limited, but now they’re highly regulated, as pitchers can no longer make snap throws to a base or lift their leg (in attempt to fool the runner into believing they’re coming home with the pitch, the Clayton Kershaw specialty) prior to throwing over.

The data doesn’t lie: stolen bases and stolen base attempts have gone way up in High-A, with steals up 50% from 2019 and attempts up from 1.19 (in 2019) to 1.79 in 2021. Over the previous three seasons, catchers had been throwing nearly 33% of all attempted stealers out. Through the first few weeks of this year, that rate has dropped to 20.9%. It is not hard to see why this is, considering the pitcher has to all but telegraph to everyone inside the stadium that he’s throwing over. Guys are just getting more comfortable trying to take more in that initial lead, knowing that there are certain things they don’t have to look for. How is a reduction of strategy good for the game, or going to make it more interesting? I don’t believe it does, and it doesn’t sit right with me.

Baserunners have less to look for and therefore less to worry about, making it much easier to steal a bag. I must admit, stolen base attempts are fun and one of the more interesting parts of the game, but does that mean Manfred’s experiment here was a success? If it is, it’s at the expense of the pitcher. If this was the Major Leagues 25 years ago, Rickey Henderson might have another 500 stolen bases added to his career total. If a pitcher didn’t have the luxury of keeping him close to the bag on EVERY pitch, then any Henderson single would automatically be a “double” or possibly a “triple.” So is this the outcome Rob Manfred wanted? Yes. Should this endeavor be considered successful? Well, if the goal was to make the game more interesting for the fans, then why is attendance unilaterally down throughout all of High-A ball in 2021?

Granted, attendance has been down throughout the entire MiLB, but Manfred’s changes aren’t doing anything to help. The average attendance this year for Minor League Baseball is 2,926, a far cry from 2019’s 5,332 average. But Manfred’s changes to make the game more interesting haven’t brought in the crowds. In High-A, stolen bases are up, but interest is way down. Add in the fact that pitchers are being hampered by these silly rules so they can’t manage baserunners the traditional way, leading to frustration and resentment. So has this experiment been a success? To quote Dr. Evil: “How about NO!” Verdict: Failure.

If we get called up a couple levels to Triple-A ball, we can see more changes to the infield. In an experiment which Yankees first baseman Luke Voight called “stupid,” bases are now 18 square inches instead of 15, resulting in an 87 foot distance between each bag. This is one change in particular that has me riled up. Ever since the beginning of time, it has always been 90 feet between each base. I don’t care that Manfred’s alleged main objective is to reduce injuries by way of minimizing contact between runner and infielder, what he’s done is crap all over one of the most basic, oldest parts of the game. Ty Cobb is rolling over in his grave.

It seems strange to me that the commissioner is so hell-bent on making changes to the game to increase interest. Doesn’t he enjoy baseball as it is now? Why would the owners even appoint a commissioner who doesn’t seem to think baseball is exciting enough in its current state? I want a commissioner who loves baseball regardless and appreciates its long history, and Manfred is not that guy.

Now I’m not calling for his resignation or unceremonious firing, but what I would like is for baseball to maintain its essential, time-honored characteristics. Not just in the historical context, but on a league-wide basis. It can’t be good for all these different levels of the Minors to be operating with contrasting rules, different sized bases and lengths to those bases. Manfred is stunting the growth and development of these players! It doesn’t seem good for continuity and it won’t benefit the players who get called up a level only to find that they have to change their pickoff motion after doing it the same way since Little League. What happens if that same pitcher spends time in the Atlantic League where Manfred moved the mound back 12 inches?

12 inches may not seem like much, but baseball is a game of inches. Little things like a single inch can really make an impact. Just look at how lowering the mound from 15 inches to 10 after 1968’s “year of the pitcher” affected hitting the next year, as run scoring increased .65 runs per game, up more than 19% from the previous year.

We can see a situational similarity when we review the introduction of stars from the Japanese league (Nippon Professional Baseball or NPB), who didn’t find the same success here. In Japan the ball is smaller, lighter, and stickier. This could account for why big names in Japan like Hideki Irabu, Kazuo Matsui, and Kosuke Fukudome couldn’t achieve the same level of greatness in the Major Leagues. Fewer similarities between leagues, leads to longer periods of adjustment, and by virtue of that makes it harder to be successful.

This really should be enough to make Manfred appreciate continuity and structure throughout all the leagues he presides over, but clearly does not seem to be something he’s too concerned over. Pushing through his agenda at the expense of players and coaches who all have bigger goals in mind is hurting them (in some cases literally), but as long as he’s commissioner there’s no one to stop him.

Maybe Japan should change to assimilate and make the transition from the NPB to the MLB more streamlined, but why should any league be coerced into changing something that they’ve been doing successfully for several years? I can’t answer that. Ask Rob Manfred: that’s his area of expertise.

Manfred’s ideas simply haven’t worked out as we can see. It is now up to Major League Baseball to figure out 1) if these are actual problems that need to be addressed and 2) is Rob Manfred the guy to be leading meaningful change and the league as a whole. Despite all that’s happened, baseball has had one heck of a season despite what’s been percolating in the minors. I believe it’s time to dump Manfred and let baseball be great through great players, great games, and great fans.