MLB’s independent partner league will experiment with moving mound back a foot, hybrid DH rule

Big changes could be coming to Major League Baseball ... eventually. MLB announced Wednesday that the Atlantic League is moving the mound back a foot in an attempt to lessen strikeouts and increase balls in play.

The change will go into effect during the second half of the Atlantic League's season. The Atlantic League is an independent league. Its teams have no affiliation with MLB franchises. The Lancaster Barnstormers are not a Double-A club of any MLB team, as an example. The Barnstormers are completely independent.

Despite that, the move could have massive implications on the future of MLB. In 2019, the Atlantic League entered into a partnership with MLB. The move was made to allow MLB to experiment with potential rule changes by first introducing them in the Atlantic League.

Since the partnership, the Atlantic League has experimented with robot umps, altered pick-off rules, larger bases, a three-batter minimum for pitchers, restricting defensive shifts, reducing mound visits, stealing first base and allowing batters to bunt once with two strikes.

Some of those experiments — like larger bases, pick-off rules and restricting the shift — have made their way to MLB minor leagues. Others, like the three-batter minimum, were quickly adopted by MLB. Many of them didn't make it out of the Atlantic League — hello, bunting with two strikes.

Why is MLB moving the mound back in the Atlantic League?

In a statement, MLB revealed its reasons for experimenting with the mound in the Atlantic League. MLB wants to give batters a better chance to see and make contact with the ball. The league believes more balls in play will add excitement to the game. The league is also hoping to curb strikeouts, which have been on the rise for 15 straight seasons. MLB players struck out in 16.4 percent of plate appearances in 2005. That figure is at 24.7 percent in 2021.

MLB believes moving the mound back a foot will not lead to an increase in pitcher injuries. It cited a study performed by the American Sports Medicine Institute that stated pitchers did not need to alter their mechanics to adjust to the altered mound. Velocity and strike percentage remained consistent with the moved back mound, according to the study.

Atlantic League will change how DH is used

In addition to moving back the pitcher's mound, the Atlantic League will also adjust how the designated hitter is used. Under the experiment, all teams can use a designated hitter until their starting pitcher is removed from the game. At that point, the reliever will either have to hit or be replaced by a pinch hitter at the plate.

The change is being made as a way to marry both the American League and National League approach to the designated hitter. Teams won't have full-time designated hitters, and fans will still get to see double switches and manager strategy at the end of games. MLB is calling the rule the "double-hook," as it will result in both the starting pitcher and designated hitter leaving the game at the same time.

MLB also believes the move will incentivize teams to leave their starters in longer. Starters are staying in games less often than ever before. Some teams have utilized openers — pitchers who only pitch the first inning — as a way to cover for poor rotations. Under the new Atlantic League rule, those teams would lose their designated hitter after just one inning, making it more likely they would use a traditional starter rather than an opener.

When are these rule changes coming to MLB?

There's no guarantee either change will make to MLB. Plenty of ideas introduced in the Atlantic League have died before reaching MLB or the minors. There could, however, be some momentum to move the pitcher's mound back. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has talked for years about how to make the game more exciting. His answer usually involves more balls in play. If the pushed back mound results in higher batting averages and fewer strikeouts, Manfred could push to implement that rule in the minors or majors.

The designated hitter issue is somewhat of a wild card. Many assumed the universal designated hitter was here to stay after both leagues used a designated hitter last season. The players and MLB couldn't agree on the issue in 2021, but it's expected to be part of collective-bargaining negotiations when the current CBA expires in December.

The players support the universal designated hitter, but it's unclear whether players would be on board with the new "double-hook" rule. It does give every team a designated hitter, something the players want, so perhaps players will view it as a fine compromise.

The push for the "double-hook" could come more from MLB's side depending on how the league feels about teams using openers. If the league wants to incentivize teams to rely more heavily on starting pitchers, it could be the driving force behind the "double-hook" rule getting more play in the minors and — eventually — the majors.

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