Potential rule changes receive test run in Triple-A game

September 9th, 2022

This story was originally published earlier this season, but we are resurfacing it today in light of the announced rule changes for 2023.

CHARLOTTE -- It was baseball as you know it … and yet not.

To the untrained eye, Saturday night’s game between the Triple-A Charlotte Knights and visiting Syracuse Mets at Truist Field was the sport we know and love. The Knights were victorious, 4-3, on the might of three monster home runs off the bats of Mark Payton, Lenyn Sosa and Micker Adolfo. There were nine innings and three outs per side and four balls per walk and three strikes per K. There were hot dogs at the concessions (you could even order one covered in macaroni and cheese!), there was a seventh-inning stretch and, as per Knights tradition, a midgame mascot “Royalty Race” in which King Mecklenburg was victorious over Queen Charlotte, Good Knight Charlie and Jerry the Jester. And when it was all over, there were fireworks shot off into the downtown Charlotte sky.

But this 2-hour, 17-minute game was also a much crisper, faster-paced brand of baseball than many of us are accustomed to. The MLB Network cameras were trained on Truist Field on this summer night because the Minor Leagues this year are a professional baseball petri dish. And in the ongoing evaluation of various rule change experiments that could one day be implemented at the big league level, it is essential to generate opinion from an important and influential observer:

You.

Surveys say fans want more action, a faster pace, more balls in play and more exhibition of athleticism. That led MLB consultant and former Red Sox and Cubs executive Theo Epstein and others involved in the Competition Committee and Playing Rules Committee to reverse engineer rules that might lead to those outcomes, then use the Minor Leagues to test them out.

This game between the Knights and Mets was an opportunity to show a wider audience some of the results of that process, with three experiments -- the automated ball-strike (ABS) challenge system, the pitch timer and bigger bases.

With MLB Network host Greg Amsinger joined in the booth by MLB senior vice president of on-field operations Raúl Ibañez and MLB vice president of on-field strategy Joe Martinez, a national broadcast of this random Triple-A tilt turned out to be a compelling contest and an excellent example of what big league baseball could one day look like.

So, what did we see? Let’s assess.

THE ABS CHALLENGE SYSTEM

How it works: In the challenge system, the home-plate umpire calls balls and strikes in the traditional manner, but teams can appeal to the Hawk-Eye “robot ump” on certain calls they deem to be incorrect.

• Each club starts the game with three challenges.
• A correct challenge is retained; an incorrect challenge is lost.
• Challenges may only be made by the batter, the catcher or the pitcher (i.e., no help from the dugout).
• Challenges must be made immediately following the umpire’s call.

What we saw: The Knights and Mets combined for five challenges, only one of which was overturned. This was an extreme example of a wider trend in which umpire calls in Single-A and Triple-A games using the challenge system this year have been upheld roughly 55% of the time.

On the lone call that was overturned, Charlotte pitcher Tanner Banks challenged a ball called by umpire Derek Thomas on a 1-1 pitch to Dominic Smith with two on and one out in the top of the fourth inning, with the Knights trailing 2-0. Immediately after Thomas’ call, Banks tapped his cap -- the signal used to initiate a challenge.

The Hawk-Eye visual was then quickly broadcast on the big video board in left-center field and on MLB Network, and it showed that the pitch had nicked the bottom edge of the strike zone. With the Mets threatening to add to their lead and the difference between 2-1 and 1-2 known to be consequential in baseball. So it was a good challenge by Banks, whose Knights have been using the challenge system at home games since July.

“What I’ve liked most is that the players understand that they have to understand the umpire’s strike zone,” Knights manager Julio Mosquera said. “You see a lot of players could get selfish [with the challenges], but we have spoken as a team and our players are pretty aware of when to use them and when not to use them, and it’s been working out pretty good for us.”

Both teams, though, issued a pair of unsuccessful challenges -- the Knights in the second and seventh innings, the Mets in the fourth and fifth. That meant both teams entered the eighth inning with only one challenge remaining. Mets catcher Juan Loyo may have demonstrated the human element of the robo-challenge system when he asked for a review of a ball four to Sosa shortly after Payton had tied the game with a big two-run blast. The pitch was quite clearly a ball, but the frustration of losing the lead and then walking the next batter seemed to get the best of Loyo in a regrettable challenge.

All told, the challenge system played out as advertised -- adding a strategic and entertaining element that does not exist with traditional umpiring, while retaining the art of calling balls and strikes and the art of catcher pitch-framing.

“It has a strategic element, and a lot of that falls on the players, which is interesting because you have to understand the game situation,” Epstein said. “Obviously, a pitch might be really important to you, but if it's a nothing-nothing game in the second inning, it's not quite as important as big picture of saving it for later in the game when you may really need it. It promotes a team approach with how you use your challenges and intelligent decision-making. And it also promotes accountability for the players on the field and for the umpires, as well.”

THE PITCH TIMER

How it works: There is a 30-second timer between batters. Between pitches, there is a 14-second timer with the bases empty and a 19-second timer (18 seconds at the Double-A level and lower) with runners on base.

• The pitcher must begin his motion to deliver the pitch before the expiration of the pitch timer.
• Pitchers who violate the timer are charged with an automatic ball. Batters who violate the timer are charged with an automatic strike.
• With runners on base, the timer resets if the pitcher attempts a pickoff or steps off the rubber.
• Pitchers are limited to two disengagements (step-offs or pickoff attempts) per plate appearance.

What we saw: Well, for one, we saw a nine-inning game with seven runs, 13 hits, 17 strikeouts and eight walks that only took 2:17 to play. That meant families could see the entire tilt and the postgame fireworks and still be out of the ballpark before 10 p.m. Players could get the proper rest and recuperation they need over the course of a long season. The only thing absent was the unnecessary dead time between pitches so often seen when hitters stand around adjusting their batting gloves and pitchers pace around the mound.

Just for the sake of comparison, this game had 269 pitches in total. In MLB this year, there have been 19 games with exactly 269 pitches thrown, and those games have averaged 2:53, ranging between 2:37 and 3:12.

In the Minor Leagues this year, the average time of game has been cut by 25 minutes because of the clock.

“The pitch clock,” said Syracuse outfielder and occasional MLB pinch-running specialist Terrance Gore, “is freaking amazing.”

Fans seem to share the sentiment. The timer has an 80% approval rate among Minor League attendees surveyed by MLB this year. (Try to get 80% of people to agree on anything.)

But Saturday’s fast pace came in the face of what can only be described as a rarity: Four pitch timer violations, including three by Mets starter Jose Rodriguez. Though Rodriguez has spent this entire season in the Minors with the pitch timer rule in effect, he ran afoul of the rule three times in the game’s first four innings. His last violation resulted in an automatic ball three to Carlos Perez, followed immediately by a ball four that he unsuccessfully challenged.

Despite Rodriguez’s rough night, the game moved along briskly, not just because of the timer itself but its influence on pitcher and batter behavior. This game was evidence of a broader pitch timer trend in which pitchers are in and around the zone more frequently and batters are more prone to first-pitch swings. As a result, the MiLB game with the timer has a very different rhythm than what we currently see in MLB, where the average time between balls in play hovers around four minutes.

“When you don’t get out of the box and are locked in,” said Epstein, “you swing the bat more.”

BIGGER BASES

How it works: The bases, which traditionally have been 15 inches square, are instead 18 inches square. Though this can have a modest impact on stolen-base success rate, the primary goal of this change is to give players more room to operate and to avoid collisions. This is especially important at first base, where fielders have an extra three-inch advantage to stay out of harm’s way from the baserunner while receiving throws.

What we saw: We saw bases that are slightly bigger. That’s really it. This change had no meaningful impact on this particular game.

This was, however, a good opportunity to get the input of Gore, who has been a part of three World Series teams because of his ability to steal a bag.

“Running-wise, I couldn’t even tell the difference,” Gore said. “I thought it was gonna mess with certain strides, but I couldn’t even tell. The only difference I can tell is that the bases are flatter. So it’s a little easier to come off of now, because you just slide right off.”

With the bigger bases and -- more importantly -- the pickoff limits in the Minors this year as part of the pitch-timer rules, stolen-base attempts in MiLB are up from 2.23 in 2019 (the 2020 MiLB season was canceled, and the 2021 season featured the pitch timer in the California League, so the data is skewed) to 2.81 this year, while the success rate has risen from 68% to 77%.

Alas, we didn’t see any steals in this particular game. But we saw plenty of other intriguing things that could potentially point to a better baseball future.