One of the developments in the reorganization and restructure of the minor leagues by MLB was turning the minors into a testing ground for rules MLB hopes will either speed up or increase the entertainment value of the game.
In the High-A West league, that means more stolen bases.
MLB is experimenting with a rule which requires pitchers to step off the rubber before attempting a pick-off move, drastically slowing down their motion and reaction time throwing to a base in hopes of controlling the opposing team’s running game.
So far in the High-A West, stolen bases are up. Way up.
The Spokane Indians have taken full advantage of the new rule. In six games through Sunday, the Indians were 16 of 21 in stolen base attempts. Ten players had at least one attempt at a stolen base with nine successful, led by middle infielder Eddy Diaz with four. He’s tied with three others for the league lead.
On Friday, Hillsboro stole 11 bases in one game. The Hops lead the High-A West with 21 steals and have been caught just once. Overall the league has been successful on 72 of 91 attempts (79%), brought down by Tri-City going just 3 of 6 so far.
Players and coaches agree: the new rule is having a dramatic affect on stolen base attempts.
“I think it’s definitely affecting the running game,” Indians catcher Willie MacIver said. “But I think it’s going to make pitchers be quicker to the plate.”
Let ’em run, MacIver said.
“For me, as a catcher, it’s fun. I like it when guys try to steal so I can throw guys out.”
He acknowledged others might not see it that way.
“It’s definitely more difficult on the pitchers, but it’s a part of the game that we’re gonna have to adjust to,” MacIver said. “If the pitchers are quick to the plate and give the catcher a chance to throw (runners) out, you know, we can manage the run game that way. But it’s definitely an adjustment period for (pitchers).”
Manager Scott Little thinks it’s incumbent on the pitchers to be aware of what’s going on on the base paths.
“You can combat it a little bit as a pitcher,” he said. “We try to stress to our kids if you give our catchers a chance it doesn’t really matter. You’ve got to have a good time to the plate and you have to mix your times, you have to do a good job. (Friday) they just walked off (first base) a couple times, because we weren’t aware of what’s going on. But yeah, I mean (the new rule) definitely has an effect on it.”
Right-handed pitcher Ryan Feltner said it’s going to take some time for pitchers to get used to the new rule.
“Yeah, it’s different,” he said. “It’s harder to second base than it is to first base, for sure.
“To be honest with you, I’ve only done it really a handful of times in practice – haven’t done it in a game yet.”
Feltner hopes practice will make perfect.
“So you know, just trying to try to get those reps in and just making sure that becomes second nature, because sometimes guys can get excited and kind of go back to the old way of doing things,” he said. “I think after a while it’ll become second nature.”
As a baserunner, outfielder Niko Decolati relishes the extra opportunity to steal a base.
“There’s definitely going to be a ton of stolen bases, especially (against lefties),” he said. “If they have a big leg (kick), and a lot of those guys are readers – they’ll see a guy start to leave, and they’ll just pick over – it takes away that aspect. I mean he’s been pitching like that his entire life. So it’s tough, but as a base runner or as a position player I’m all for it.
“I’m going to get more opportunities to steal.”
The new rule effectively eliminates the “Andy Pettitte move” where a lefty can start his delivery to the plate then sling a throw over to first base. Runners have long decried the move as a balk, and now – at least in the High-A West this season – it is.
“It can be tough sometimes,” MacIver said, “especially when you’ve been playing baseball a certain way your whole life, now all of a sudden we can’t do an inside move to second base, lefties can’t do a normal pickoff (move).”
“Those pitchers can get away with that because they’re able to use their peripheral vision and pick over,” Decolati added. “So it’ll be interesting to see how it goes. I mean, (the Indians) are going to lead the league in stolen bases regardless, that’s just how we always are.
“The Rockies organization, we love to steal bases, we have a lot of speed on the team so it’s definitely going to work out in our favor.”
As for MLB using the minor leagues as a testing ground, the players were somewhat split on the idea.
“I guess we got to do it somewhere, right?” MacIver said. “And you know as players, we’re going to adjust to the rules. We’re going to make it work for us.
“So I think it’s harder on the pitchers especially and sometimes it can be a little frustrating but you kind of just have to, you know, take it one step at a time and learn and adjust to it.”
“You know , I think it’s great,” Feltner said. “Forward thinking, I think, is always a good thing in whatever it is. They’re trying to make the game better and more enjoyable for fans and, you know, part of that is just marketing the game and part of that also is the pace of play. I think it’s good.
“I think it’s always good to mess with stuff. As long as they don’t push the mound back, I don’t care.”
Of course, it makes Feltner’s job a little bit harder.
“Everything’s against the pitchers,” he said. “Nobody likes pitchers.”
Decolati thinks it’s good that MLB is trying out new things – to a certain point.
“There’s got to be a line on what we’re trying to do with these new rules,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s an entertainment aspect. It’s not going to speed up the game with more stolen bases. Who knows?
“I don’t mind that one, but I think that the more we can keep baseball, baseball, the better.”