To Speed Up Baseball, LI Ducks Try Novel Approach: 3 Balls Is A Walk

Long Island Ducks
Long Island Ducks starting pitcher struck out three in four innings of work in the Ducks’ spring training opener on Saturday, April 18. (Photo Credit: Long Island Ducks)

The fans had barely settled into their seats for the Long Island Ducks spring training opener on Saturday when Bridgeport Bluefish diminutive centerfielder Nick Van Stratten lined a leadoff double down the third base line, an ominous start for the home team. Next up was third baseman Sean Burroughs, who came to the plate with the opportunity to knock in the first run of the game, but all he could manage was a harmless two-strike foul ball that landed on the first base side of foul territory. With that, Burroughs’ at-bat was over—the home plate umpire had called him out on strikes.

Burroughs was forced to grudgingly retreat to the dugout, but only after receiving much-needed clarification from umpire Tony Senia.

“Sean’s reaction was basically one of non-knowledge,” Senia said in a statement afterward. “He really didn’t have an idea of what was going on when I called him out on the two-strike foul. I just said to him that it was a foul with two strikes, and therefore, an out. He said, ‘You’re kidding me?’”

Nope, this wasn’t a belated April Fools joke.

“I was the goat,” Burroughs would later say, following the Ducks’ 1-0 victory at a sun-splashed Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, where season ticket holders were treated to a barbeque with their favorite players. The nine-inning game lasted two hours and 15 minutes.

Indeed, under Saturday’s radical one-game novelty rule changes, Burroughs was the first player to suffer from the ego-crushing two-strike foul-out regulation. During the exhibition game, the Atlantic League also experimented with a three-ball walk rule. Therefore, no at-bat could last longer than five pitches. After the game, Burroughs said the rules were “completely ridiculous.”

“They’re trying to speed up the play of game, but really it just makes the game boring,” Burroughs added.

The unorthodox rules, which aren’t under consideration for the 2015 season, are part of the Atlantic League’s continued effort to streamline games. In June 2014, the league established a “pace of play” committee, charged with investigating ways to reduce the length of games and improve the overall fan experience.

On Saturday, 10 players succumbed to the two-strike foul rule and nine worked three-ball walks. Despite the near-split, several players in post-game interviews were all in agreement that the rules favored pitchers. The Ducks officially scored such outs as strikeouts. Some players didn’t know what to call it.

The Atlantic League and Major League Baseball, along with its minor league affiliates, are responding to a perception that baseball games are too damn long and they’ve become dominated by too many idle moments on the field: a batter fixing his gloves and scratching himself in between each pitch, the pitcher cursing himself while taking a self-imposed punishing lap around the mound, umpires taking liberties with the strike zone.

What the Atlantic League’s pace of play committee came up with wasn’t Earth-shattering. Among the initiatives adopted on a trial basis late last season was a three-“time out” rule, prohibiting more than three mound visits from a coach or position player. Ducks manager Kevin Baez, a former Met, said he had no problem with the rule, noting that he tries to limit trips to the mound, anyway.

Umpires were also told to enforce an existing rule directing batters to remain in the batter’s box in-between pitches and to call “balls” and “strikes” as instructed by the rule book. Also, relief pitchers would be allowed two fewer warm-up pitches (down to six from eight), and an intentional walk would be awarded to a batter simply by signaling to the umpire instead of having to throw four consecutive balls out of the strike zone, as is now customary. The rule concerning relievers was the only one that didn’t carry over to the 2015 Atlantic League season.

MLB instituted its own rules to begin this season, and the early returns appear heartening. According to the New York Daily News, the average time of the first 124 nine-inning games of the season ran under three hours at 2:54.33—a nearly eight-minute difference from last year. The big leagues appeared to follow in the Atlantic League’s footsteps this year by implementing the same batter’s box rule. MLB, at least for the time being, has successfully reduced the length of games without placing pitch-timing clocks in stadiums, something minor league teams are experimenting with.

Plenty of baseball purists are unable to come to grips with the game’s changes, but even former players with decades in baseball are embracing these new initiatives. Consider Ducks bench coach and club co-owner Bud Harrelson, an advocate for pace of play experiments.

“The families are coming, they don’t want it to be three and a half hours, they don’t want it to be three hours,” Harrelson said in an interview a day before the team’s spring opener.

“The game is getting slow,” added Harrelson, who spent 13 years with the Mets and was part of the team’s 1969 World Series-winning team.

Harrelson began noticing the game becoming sluggish years ago, especially when players become more effective at stealing bases. Batters, he said, have also become too comfortable interrupting pitchers by stepping out of the box, a strategy that wouldn’t fly back when he played. Often, batters and pitchers engage in a sort of cat-and-mouse game, which can delay the at-bats.

“In the old days if you would’ve done that, they would throw at you. The Gibsons of the world and guys like that would’ve been like ‘Woosh’ stay in there!” he said, mimicking a ball sailing close to a batter as he referred to the great Cardinals ace Bob Gibson, whom he had to bat against back in the day.

Harrelson admitted to actually dozing off during a recent Mets game, despite the team’s impressive start.

“All of a sudden it’s not a fun game to watch,” he said.

Even for Harrelson?

“At times,” the 70-year-old former infielder admitted.

Trying to pick up the pace won Baez’s approval.

“I think it’s good,” the Ducks manager said last Friday following morning workouts. “As long as it’s not taking away from the game, and I don’t think it is right now.”

Ducks players appeared unaffected by recent rule changes. They weren’t as enthusiastic about Saturday’s directives, however, brushing them off as a “fun” one-game experiment and nothing more.

Most players were diplomatic when asked about it, perhaps because the person who suggested playing under such unorthodox rules, author Paul Auster, a lifelong Mets fan from Brooklyn, was in attendance.

“I think my idea would cut down pitch counts and therefore keep starters in games longer, and there’d be fewer of those dead intervals where there’s just nothing happening,” Auster told a scrum of reporters inside the stadium press box prior to the first pitch. “Five pitches would be the limit for any at-bat. I think it would become a more fascinating, exciting game that would appeal to young people more who are not interested in baseball anymore at all. I don’t see any harm in trying it out. I know it’s radical, it’s Baseball 2.0, I understand that.”

Paul Auster
Paul Auster (left) speaking with Ducks center fielder/hitting coach Lew Ford. Auster, an author, created the three-ball walk and the two-strike-foul-out rule the Atlantic League adopted for Saturday’s exhibition game between the Ducks and Bluefish. (Rashed Mian/Long Island Press)

Auster is the sort of baseball fan who would seemingly decry such changes. After all, he’s watched baseball for six decades. He cut junior high school to see the Mets’ third-ever game at the Polo Grounds, and he has followed the game passionately ever since. He detests the idea of a pitch clock, but is intrigued by the two-strike foul-out rule, which he initially pitched in a letter to The New York Times, which was subsequently published. A sports writer for the Daily News interviewed Auster about it, and the idea eventually made its way to the Atlantic League, which has been at the forefront of pace of play changes.

Auster, whose idea provoked mixed reactions from his friends, could barely contain his excitement. He asked Ducks officials about it during its media day press conference before the 1 p.m. game and discussed the concept with players on the field.

He sat several rows behind the home dugout along first base, a one-day press pass wrapped around his neck and aviator glasses guarding his eyes. Nearly every time a two-strike or two-ball situation cropped up, he took careful notes.

After Burroughs fouled out—err, struck out, sorry—in the first inning, Auster and the Daily News reporter who accompanied him to the game wondered out loud what to term the eccentric out. They decided on “Klunkout”—written “KL” on the reporter’s scorecard.

Auster appeared delighted by the results, but he had plenty of detractors.

“This is never gonna fly!” a fan shouted within earshot of Auster, who didn’t respond. But when nearby fans mistakenly thought the umpire blew a “Klunkout,” a perceived out that would’ve helped the home team, they chided the umpire. A spattering of fans joined in, but considering it was spring training the moment of discontent did not last very long.

History reared its head again in the first inning when Bluefish outfielder Welington Dotel worked the count to 2-2—leading to the first ever “Do-Or-Die” pitch, a term Auster and former Yankees public relations director Marty Appel came up with while watching the game together.

“This is the first time there’s been a game in which the pitch coming will have to have a result, and that’s never been the case before,” Auster said. “There’s something exciting about those do-or-die moments.”

The top of the first inning lasted seven minutes, breezy but not uncommon.

The first history-making three-ball walk came at the expense of Bluefish starter Cody Scarpetta, who walked Ducks outfielder Trayvon Robinson on three consecutive pitches out of the zone.

Burroughs was the second batter to hit in the top of the third, this time benefiting from the rules. He earned a walk after a four-pitch at-bat. This time, he remembered the rules and jogged 90 feet to first base.

Although the players didn’t take too much stock in rules, they did strategize around them. Ducks catcher Jose Morales estimated that the pitching staff threw 80-percent fastballs in order to attack batters and get ahead in the count.

Ducks centerfielder and hitting instructor Lew Ford swung at the first pitch in all three at bats, earning two singles.

Ford, the league’s most valuable player last year despite the Ducks missing the postseason, admitted afterward he wanted to avoid two-strike counts.

“It worked out,” he said.

The Ducks broke a 0-0 tie in the bottom of the fourth when second baseman Blake Davis singled home John Griffin, who had made it to second on a double. It was the only run the Ducks would need, shutting out a Bluefish offense that managed four hits.

Of course, there’s no telling what would’ve happened if batters had the opportunity to foul off a few two-strike pitches. There was one occasion in the second inning when Bluefish first baseman Andres Rodriguez ripped a long, one-out single to left field. He advanced on a passed ball, and then went to third on an error by shortstop Dan Lyons. With runners on first and third and one man out, catcher Luis Rodriguez fouled off an 0-2 offering to shallow right field. Rodriguez shrugged and made the short trek to the dugout before the ball had landed. The next batter grounded into a force-out at second, ending the inning.

Although the game was indeed short by baseball standards, it’s not unheard of for a 1-0 major league game to end within two and a half hours. Also, Saturday’s exhibition featured anemic hitting and no mid-inning pitching changes. Unless games are played out under these rules dozens of times, it’s nearly impossible to determine whether the unique rules were a factor in shortening the length.

Asked after the game what he thought of the changed rules, Ducks catcher Jose Morales smiled and said, “It was a quick game.”

Still, he never wants to see those rules implemented when games count. He has a championship on his mind.

“It’s hard enough to hit the regular way,” Morales said. “It can get frustrating because as a hitter you want to battle, put the ball in play.”

Auster reminded Morales that there were some “regular” strikeouts, too.

“Yeah,” Morales laughed, “we got a couple of those.”