The latest Arizona Fall League season ended Saturday evening at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale with Mesa defeating Surprise, 6-0, for the championship. This, after a month of experimenting with a host of new rules, some of which may be coming to a Major League Baseball stadium near you soon.
That is, if there is a next season, considering the current state of labor negotiations between the owners and players with only nine days left to go until the current five-year Basic Agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 1.
Talks have been ongoing almost daily, but the owners could still lock out the players.
“An off-season lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” commissioner Rob Manfred told the media after an owners’ meeting last week in Chicago, as quoted by The Athletic. “I understand, we understand, that time is becoming an issue.”
The AFL season was played with a pitch clock, no shifts and larger bases for its entire 30-game season this year, while a tackier baseball and an automated strike zone, were trialed in part-time experiments.
Those new rules may take a back seat in negotiations at this point, well behind the major economic issues. Even under terms of the current agreement, management can’t implement most of them for next season.
“I’m open to the pitch clock,” said Colorado Rockies veteran manager Bud Black, who was in the stands scouting some of his young players at Scottsdale Stadium last week. “That’s something I’ve talked about and been in favor of for the last couple of years. And the automated strike zone. At some point I was adamantly against it, but now I’m open to the idea.”
A rule that limited pitchers to two pickoff attempts per batter had its desired effect of promoting more stolen bases. AFL base stealers were successful on 74% of attempted thefts—184 of 249.
Bases were expanded in size from 15 inches per side to 18 inches.
“I like the bigger bases for safety and maybe more action,” said Danny Farquhar, a former big-league pitcher who was pitching coach of the Glendale Desert Dogs and works in the Chicago White Sox’s system. “They’re slightly closer.”
Other highlights include:
New rule: The automated ball and strike (ABS) was utilized only for all regular season games at Salt River Fields, plus the All-Star Game and Championship Game. The umpires are on board; their union voted in the last contract negotiations to help MLB devise the system.
ABS still needs to be installed in each of the 30 MLB parks, where the Hawk-Eye system already is used to accumulate advanced analytic data and judge the pitch-calling accuracy of all home plate umpires, said one MLB official, who asked to remain anonymous.
“I can see this happening because of the technology,” Black said. “The consistency of the strike zone will help the game overall getting balls and strikes right just as replay helped getting calls right on the field and the bases.”
In a cursory view, hitters seemed to be swinging at pitches earlier in the count. Hitters waiting to see how umpires would judge the strike zone and the illusion of catchers framing pitches were relics of the past. Hitters arguing ball-strike calls are gone as well, although Mets prospect Carlos Cortes did argue the timing of a pitch call and was ejected from an AFL game.
New rule: A 15-second pitch clock. If the pitcher doesn’t get there, it’s a ball. If a batter isn’t ready in time, it’s a strike. It must have worked. Games lasted 2:45 this fall as opposed to 3:10 during the Major League season. Even the televised Fall Star Game, replete with commercial breaks, was played in 2:30.
There were downsides.
“Tactically, it distracts a little bit,” said Ken Knutson, the pitching coach for the Salt River Rafters and a pitching coordinator in the New York Mets minor league system. “We have a hard time changing signs. We just do. Sometimes we just can’t change signs.”
New rule: No shifts. Two infielders must play anywhere on each side of second base and on the infield skin. That resulted in a slight .004 rise in batting average. It was small sample size since the Fall League lasted only 30 games. The impact on 162 games could be profound.
Major League hitters batted .244 last season, down 20 points since 2008 when Tampa Bay perfected the practice and as extreme shifts gradually became more prevalent.
There were 55,595 shifts utilized this past season on 30.9% of all plate appearances, according to Baseball Savant. Three of the teams to make it to each League Championship Series, including the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves and losing Houston Astros, were among the four most egregious users of the shift.
The Los Angeles Dodgers led the league by shifting on 53.6% of all plate appearances.
The Milwaukee Brewers, who won the National League Central and then lost to the Braves in an NL Division Series, were next to last among the 30 teams at 17.5%.
So, if there’s a will, there’s way to win without infielders shifting, particularly on each pitch.
“If you think about it, let’s just say you regulate the shift by requiring two infielders on each side of second base. What does it do? It makes the game look like what it looked like when I was 12 years old, watching the All-Star Game at camp,” Manfred told assembled baseball writers before the MLB’s All-Star Game this past summer in Denver.
“It would be sort of a restoration, right? That’s why people are in favor of [eliminating] them. I think front offices, in general, believe it would have a positive effect on play of the game. So, you know, I’m hopeful it will happen.”
New rule: A baseball that comes out of the box uniformly tackier and doesn’t need to be rubbed up with Delaware River mud that has amassed in a South Jersey tributary and been used for that purpose in the Majors since 1938. MLB has control of implementing this one and has already regularly changed the composite and texture of the ball.
“I’m for that, too, or at least experimenting with a consistent ball,” Black said.
According to players and coaches that worked the Fall League this year, the ball comes out of the box with a powdery substance on it. They’re not as slick to the touch as the baseballs that caused MLB to crack down mid-season on pitchers applying foreign substances like spit or Spider Tack to it. The punishment was a 10-game suspension, and after the edict only two MLB pitchers were penalized.
“We actually have a couple of options in terms of tackier balls,” Manfred said last week. “We could be in position to use a new ball next year. Maybe it’s going to be 2023 instead, but we’re continuing to work on it.” There will be testing this winter and in spring training.”