NEW BRITAIN - Big changes are coming to the Atlantic League in the 2019 season, and the New Britain Bees are waiting with open arms.
As part of a new partnership with Major League Baseball, the Atlantic League has agreed to adopt a number of new rules this season to test their impact on the pace of baseball, including the elimination of mound visits, shift restrictions, increased base sizes, fewer time in between innings and moving the pitcher’s mound two feet farther away from home plate for the second half of the year.
The Bees, just weeks away from starting their spring training in preparation for Opening Day on Apr. 26, have welcomed the changes that are sure to require an adjustment period. But they believe it will ultimately result in more exposure for the team and its players that hope to find themselves in affiliated baseball at some point this season.
“I think overall the reaction has been positive,” assistant general manager Paul Herrmann said. “There's give and take everywhere, but overall, being so close to MLB and for those guys to be scouted from MLB clubs, I think that's a tremendous opportunity for these guys to be seen. These guys will be scouted more than they typically have been in the past.”
While the Hardware City has softened up to the changes planned for America’s Pastime, others around the league haven’t shared the same warm embrace. Tyler Badamo, a pitcher for the Long Island Ducks (where former Bees manager Wally Backman prepares for his first season in the same role) who has pitched as high as the Triple-A level, took to Twitter to voice his displeasure shortly after the new rule changes were announced.
“I’ll wait for someone, anyone to argue with if you think moving the mound back is a good idea,” Badamo said in his tweet. “My career 3.48 ERA in the Atlantic League is about to double. But yeah, these changes will get me back to affiliated baseball.”
Members of the Bees acknowledge such concerns, but ultimately, they are ready to make the necessary adjustments and be a pioneer for the potential future look of baseball.
“It's going to be a challenge, but at the same time, it's only two feet,” Bees pitcher Kyle Simon said of the distance the pitching mound will be pushed back. “I've been used to 60 feet, 6 inches my whole life, but I'm looking forward to it. It may be different for different kinds of pitchers. Guys that throw hard may lose velocity, but me, I'm a sinkerballer, so my stuff is going to move more. There are specific pitches I can mess with a little more and make them move a little more.”
Of course, Simon’s sinker will need its own adjustments, since his current sinker which currently breaks below a hitter’s knees would break two feet in front of home plate in a few months. He plans to throw on flat ground from the new distance of 62 feet, 6 inches as the second half of the season draws closer and throw a few bullpen sessions in the weeks leading up to the new style of baseball.
“Baseball has always been a game of adjustments,” Simon said. “We just have to deal with it.”
Simon and other Atlantic League pitchers will also have to do without mound visits from their pitching coach, a change that Simon considers minor, given what mound visits are actually used for nowadays.
“I wish [mound visits] could be recorded, because the majority of those visits are just relaxing the pitcher,” Simon said. “It's always been a slowing down of sorts. It will be interesting for younger kids, but the Atlantic League is filled with veterans and MLB-caliber players. The majority of them know what they need to do to get through an inning without a mound visit. It won't affect me.”
While some of the changes have pitchers around the league frustrated, there is a tradeoff that comes with the revolutionary TrackMan technology that will be installed across the league, allowing pitchers to see their spin rate, velocity from various release points and the exact movement of their breaking balls, which could help scouts discover hidden gems that may not have been noticed before.
“I think that's one of the drawing aspects of this agreement,” Herrmann said. “These guys are really intrigued to see that, especially with the uptick in advanced stats in Major League Baseball. Maybe they'll see that and one of these MLB teams will take a chance on them.”
Position players are also looking forward to receiving a more detailed analysis on their offensive performance, including infielder Vinny Siena, who had access to TrackMan technology when he was a part of the Mets farm system.
“I think it's going to be huge for people in this league, especially since it wasn't always readily available,” Siena said. “I know a lot of my buddies after an at-bat, they can go right to the clubhouse and see where exactly a pitch was and if it really was a strike, or did they do something right, how hard they hit the ball, things like that. That's huge for a league that didn't have that kind of information.”
Ultimately, the Bees hope the new changes lead to larger crowds who want to get a first-hand look at how MLB might look in the coming years, with the Atlantic League and New Britain serving as Ground Zero for such groundbreaking alterations.
“I think some baseball fans in the area are intrigued by it and will stop by New Britain Stadium and see how these new rules affect how the game is played,” Herrmann said. “They are potentially the future of baseball and this will be the first place they get to see it.”