New Season Brings Significant Rule Changes to MiLB

In an effort to reduce the time of games, MiLB has implemented a number of rules changes. These will likely serve as a test before putting some or all of them into effect at the major league level, though there has already been push-back on some.

Here’s a rundown of some of the changes you’ll see if you make your way to a minor league ballpark this season.

Extra Innings

At all levels of Minor League Baseball, extra innings will begin with a runner on second base. The runner at second base will be the player in the batting order position previous to the leadoff batter of the inning (or a substitute for that player). By way of example, if the number five hitter in the batting order is due to lead off the 10th inning, the number four player in the batting order (or a pinch-runner for such player) shall begin the inning on second base. Any runner or batter removed from the game for a substitute shall be ineligible to return to the game, as is the case in all circumstances under the Official Baseball Rules. For statistical purposes, the runner at second will be unearned for the pitcher, as if they had reached on error, but no error will be charged to a player or the team.

Chris Getz, Chicago White Sox director of player development commented. “We had it in complex [Gulf Coast and Arizona League] baseball last year, and I didn’t mind it. Now, obviously it’s climbing up towards the Major Leagues. At the Major League level, I’m still fairly skeptical of this. And I’m skeptical of bringing it to the Minor Leagues, however, I’m a huge fan of executing situational baseball. We’re big believers of that in this organization. We certainly believe that to be successful at the Major League level, you need to be hugely successful at scoring runs from second base. What a great opportunity to have a chance at that every single night, when it comes to extra innings. Obviously, it will add a little bit of excitement, I would like to think, for the fans that may be there. In terms of run expectancy and those types of numbers, I think this will be a test — whether we’re going to lay a bunt down here to get a guy over or we’re going to take our swings and try to score him from second base. From that aspect, I’m excited to see how this plays out.”

The most controversial of all the new rules, this one will offend purists as it dramatically changes the strategy of the game. As Getz alluded to a bunt and a sacrifice fly could decide the outcome of a game. How will defense try to counter such a strategy? One method could be to intentionally walk the first hitter to set up a force at second and third. This will give the batter much less margin for error as a poor bunt could result in a force at third or a double play. This will also eliminate the batter trying to push the ball to the right side as a ground ball could result in a quick two. Still, I’m sure Getz would welcome the added pressure as it will only aid in player development in situational hitting.

Our number 9 prospect outfielder, Blake Rutherford added “[It’s] going to take a little bit of the flair out of the whole extra-inning thing, but whatever’s best for the game I’m all for. I guess that’s their decision, and there’s nothing we can really do or say about it, so it’s whatever’s best for baseball.”

To Rutherford’s point, this could impact the game in ways the rule did not intend. For example, a manager could consider tanking in the ninth inning knowing he’ll start extras with a man in scoring position. Depending on the situation (i.e middle of the order up in the 10th), he could decide to take his chances on holding the opponent in their half inning hoping for a quick score in the extra frame.

Mound Visits

Non-pitching change visits by coaches and position players will be limited based on the classification level. Triple-A clubs will be allowed six (6) visits per team per game, Double-A clubs will be allowed eight (8) visits per team, Single-A clubs will be allowed (10) visits per team and there will not be a limit on mound visits for Short Season and Rookie-level clubs.

For any extra-innings played, each club shall be entitled to one additional non-pitching change mound visit per inning.

This rule is also being implemented at the MLB level and caused a bit of a stir when announced. One of the more vocal opponents was noted frequent mound visitor Cubs catcher Willson ContrerasHe was quoted in a recent Chicago Tribune article as saying “If they said there are six mound visits, what about if there is a tight or extra-inning game and you have to go there?” Contreras asked. “They can’t say anything about that. It’s my team, and we just care about winning. If they fine me (for) the seventh mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”

Mound visits have become more frequent in recent years. There are reports that 45-50 mound visits were made during some games in the 2017 playoffs, so it’s understandable why this is an area that the league is focusing on to reduce the overall time of games. With an aging fan base, MLB is looking to attract new younger fans and they feel that lengthy games could be a deterrent for the demographic they’re attempting to reach.

Limiting mound visits seems like a logical place to start as it does not significantly impact the game. Players cite increased sign stealing as the need for more visits and that may be true, but with guys regularly dialing up 100+ MPH fastballs it doesn’t seem to provide much of an advantage to a hitter.

The minor league pitch clock in action (from WIkiMedia open library)

The minor league pitch clock in action (from WIkiMedia open library)

15-SECOND PITCH TIMER

  • Pitchers at the Triple-A and Double-A levels will be allowed 15 seconds to begin their wind-up or the motion to come to the set position when no runners are on base.
  • The pitcher does not necessarily have to release the ball within 15 seconds, but must begin his wind-up or begin the motion to come to the set position to comply with the 15-second rule with no runners on base.
  • With runners on base, the pitch timer will go from 15 to 20 seconds.
  • The timer shall start when the pitcher has possession of the ball in the dirt circle surrounding the pitcher’s rubber, the catcher is in the catcher’s box and the batter is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.
  • The timer will stop as soon as the pitcher begins his wind-up, or begins the motion to come to the set position.

The pitch timer was discussed at the major league level as well, but the decision was made not to put it into effect at this time. A couple prominent MLB pitchers were at opposite ends of the spectrum on the matter.

Indians reliever Andrew Miller said  “Everybody agrees we can be better and everybody agrees it would be a positive if we get games to move a little bit better, be shorter and the downtime was tightened up,” Miller said. “It’s just how to get there. A lot of players, myself included, are not fans of the pitch clock. This isn’t something we’re trying to pick a fight on. It’s more just how you get there.”

Conversely, former White Sox and current Red Sox pitcher Chris Sale stated “I like working pretty quick, keeping my guys behind me in it. Plus, there’s not much else to do. You’re the only guy out there. Catch the ball, get on the mound and throw it. I’m a fan of it, but I don’t speak for everybody on that.”

Sounds like Sale learned a thing or two from Mark Buehrle. While this may not have the impact on the strategy that the extra innings rule does, it will be a major adjustment for a number of pitchers throughout the league.

The first 15 days of the season (April 5-19), will serve as a grace period, with players receiving warnings for infractions. Beginning April 20, rules will be enforced as written.

Looks like minor league fans will be spending less time at the ballpark this season. The results of these changes and the overall pace of play at the MLB level will determine if these rules are looked at more closely going into 2019. An unintended consequence could be less beer and hot dog sales at the ballpark. Hmm… maybe MLB will decide they like long games after all.

For full, gory details on the rules changes, click here.

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