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RiverDogs ready for Major League Baseball rules experiment

Spring training has been about baseball fundamentals since major league teams prepared in places such as Hot Springs, Ark., Augusta and Charleston. But while big leaguers did their usual Florida and Arizona things in 2021, some fundamentally new drills were added to workout lists at every level of the minor leagues.

Major League Baseball is experimenting with game-changing ideas in the minors designed to make the game faster, livelier and more appealing to young fans.

“It’s very different, obviously,” RiverDogs manager Blake Butera said.

The RiverDogs and other teams in the new Low-A East (formerly South Atlantic) League will play with altered pickoff rules, starting with the Charleston-Myrtle Beach Pelicans season opener on May 4 at Riley Park (riverdogs.com or 843 577-DOGS for tickets).

Pitchers are limited to a total of two “step offs” or “pickoffs” per plate appearance while there is at least one runner on base.

A pitcher can attempt a third pickoff, but if not successful  the result is a balk.

Triple-A teams will try larger bases.

In double-A, it’s an anti-shift rule: the defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield.

High-A pitchers must disengage the rubber prior to throwing to any base in a pickoff attempt.

Low-A Southeast teams will try an Automatic Ball-Strike (ABS) system to help home plate umpires.

The Low-A West will introduce time limits between pitches, inning breaks and pitching changes.

“These experimental rules are designed to put more balls in play, create more excitement on the basepaths and increase the impact of speed and athleticism on the field,” former big leaguer Raúl Ibañez, MLB’s senior vice president of on-field operations, said in the official March announcement.

It’s all about fighting back against an analytics-driven trend more than 20 years in the making and popularized by famed baseball numbers-cruncher Bill James and the Oakland A’s of “Moneyball” fame.

MLB wants to see more running, bunting, situational hitting with fewer strikeouts and, necessarily, fewer home runs.

Expect a big jump in RiverDogs stolen bases – for and against – as speed becomes a more valuable tool. Catchers and middle infielders are going to be much busier.

The RiverDogs started working on pickoff moves with pitchers and baserunners when they opened camp on April 1 at Tampa Bay Rays spring training headquarters in Port Charlotte, Fla.

“We experimented the whole time in spring training just to familiarize ourselves with it,” said Butera, a 28-year-old former Boston College infielder and team captain. “It’s definitely something to get used to.”

It helps that Butera and RiverDogs pitchers have a veteran minor league pitching coach in 60-year-old Steve “Doc” Watson.

“It’s gone well,” Butera said. “We’ve come across different questions and scenarios. Like, ‘What if this happened?’ It’s still being ironed out as a whole across baseball. But we have a pretty good grasp on it.”

For baseball purists, there are more drastic changes than what’s going on in the Low-A East.

The Pioneer League, an independent league without MLB affiliates but an official MLB Partner League, will replace extra-inning baseball with a “sudden death” home run derby.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

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