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MLB to have Atlantic League experiment with moving back mound, ‘double-hook’ DH

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Major League Baseball has once again teamed with the independent Atlantic League to test rule changes designed to keep starting pitchers in the game longer and create more balls in play.

In the second half of Atlantic League play this summer, starting Aug. 3, the pitching rubber will be moved back 1 foot — to 61 feet, 6 inches — giving hitters more time to react to pitches, according to a release by MLB on Wednesday.

With strikeout rates increasing for 15 consecutive years, MLB determined that the additional foot would be the “minimum interval needed to evaluate a change in mound distance.” The hope is less swings-and-misses and more contact — a change that is “meaningful without being disruptive,” according to the release.

“We are grateful that the Atlantic League — which has been at the forefront of successful rule experiments in the past — has agreed to test a 12-inch increase in the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate during the second half of the season,” MLB consultant Theo Epstein said in the statement. “We expect to learn a great deal about the impacts of such a change and whether an adjustment to this critical field dimension is worth potential future consideration at other levels of professional baseball.”

In 2019, the last full season, strikeouts set a record for the 12th consecutive year at 42,823, up 33% from 32,189 in 2007. Strikeouts exceeded hits the past three seasons after never occurring before in major league history.

The mound has been at its current distance since 1893, when the National League moved the rubber back 5 feet. Strikeouts declined from 8.5% in 1892 to 5.2% in 1893, and the batting average increased from .245 in 1892 to .280.

Two years ago, MLB had announced that Atlantic League mounds would be moved back 2 feet to 62 feet, 6 inches, for the second half of that season but abandoned the experiment before it began.

The Atlantic League will also implement a “double-hook” rule, where a team will lose its designated hitter when it removes its starting pitcher. That rule will be in effect the entire season, which starts May 27. The goal is to see starters pitch longer into games, creating more value for them and increasing late-game strategy.

“Major League Baseball is being more aggressive than they’ve ever been in experimenting with new rules,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said Wednesday morning. “We have to wait and see what the effects are. I’m not sure how it’s going to affect the game.”

The experiments in the Atlantic League come after baseball instituted several rule changes at the minor league levels, including bigger bases, regulating the shift and forcing pitchers to disengage the rubber completely before throwing to any base.

“We have to do something to get more offense into the game,” Chicago Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said. “We need to make adjustments. The DH originally came from these adjustments. The mound being lowered [in 1969] came from these adjustments. I love baseball, but the rules aren’t written on stone tablets.”

The Atlantic League will continue to use the automated ball-strike computer umpire system that it started with in 2019. The ABS will be used in some low Class A Southeast League games this season.

In a change, the strike zone in the Atlantic League this year will be two-dimensional, measuring at the front of home plate, rather than three-dimensional.

“One we think will better match the human zone people are expecting,” MLB executive vice president of baseball operations Morgan Sword said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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How Chris Sale’s return to Boston Red Sox could shake up the American League

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The reasons for optimism continue adding up around Fenway Park.

Two and a half months into the season, the Boston Red Sox are in the thick of the American League East race, within striking distance of the first-place Tampa Bay Rays and comfortably ahead of the rival New York Yankees, the preseason favorite. Many of Boston’s questions heading into the season centered around its rotation, led by Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez by pedigree, but anchored in performance for much of the season by Martin Perez, Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards.

Underscoring the excitement around the 2021 team is the impending return of ace Chris Sale, who has not pitched in a game since August 2019. While Sale’s role upon his return from Tommy John surgery remains unclear, the addition of a Cy Young Award winner at midseason potentially represents a bigger addition than anything the team might add at the trade deadline.

Or, as Red Sox minor leaguer Connor Seabold put it on Twitter, “Boogeyman’s coming.”

“We are taking it day by day,” manager Alex Cora said. “Let’s see how he comes back tomorrow and we’ll do the next thing that we have to do, but we’re not even talking about how we’re going to use him, where we’re going to use him or when he’s going to pitch.”

Publicly, the Red Sox are taking things slowly, but the return of Sale and how well he can perform represents an undeniable X factor in the team’s ambitions this season. According to front-office sources, the team views Sale playing a role in the team’s push toward the playoffs. While Boston surprised many baseball observers out of the gate by thrusting itself into the conversation among the best teams in the sport, the addition of a pitcher of Sale’s caliber could make the team an even more serious contender, if he can stay healthy.

While the back end of the rotation carried the pitching through the first two months of the season, the trio of Perez, Pivetta and Richards has come back down to earth a bit, with their ERAs all sitting above 4.00. Eovaldi leads the staff with a 3.76 ERA, a 1.23 WHIP and 1.6 WAR. Rodriguez, meanwhile, is struggling to the tune of a 6.21 ERA and minus-0.4 WAR in 13 starts.

Sale, and potentially calling up top outfield prospect Jarren Duran, could force other teams in the East and around the American League East to bolster their rosters. Tampa Bay lost its ace, Tyler Glasnow, to injury on Tuesday. While Boston could make some additions around the trade deadline, moving top prospects such as Duran, Jeter Downs and Triston Casas in favor of an all-in postseason run during the 2021 season appears unlikely.

“As much as we are in this for the long haul, every chance to make the postseason is important,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom said earlier this month. “We’ve talked about it going back to the offseason, that balance between now and the future, and as much as we can trying to do things to help us on both fronts. That’s obviously hard to do. It’s not that simple.”

Sale threw off the mound at Fenway Park last Friday for the first time since undergoing surgery, but while Cora and company are trying to temper expectations, their enthusiasm after the session was undeniable.

“We need to try not to get too excited. He was that good,” Cora said. “Just the energy and the quality of the pitches, the tempo, he looked really good. Really good. He said that’s the best he’s felt throughout the process.”

Sale’s effectiveness upon his return is not a given. New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard — who underwent Tommy John surgery around the same time as Sale did in March 2020 — needed to be shut down for six weeks in late May after inflammation emerged in his right elbow. For the time being, Sale appears to be on schedule to return sometime this summer after a bout with COVID-19 in January delayed his timeline.

Sale — among the most competitive pitchers in the sport — expects to return to top form upon his return to the mound.

“I expect to be myself, be the guy that I’ve always been,” Sale said. “I just started throwing breaking balls and the first couple weren’t pretty, but my expectation level was as high, if not higher than it’s ever been.”

Even though Sale could play a role in the team’s march toward the playoffs, expect Boston to be cautious given the time remaining on his five-year, $145 million contract, which is set to expire after the 2024 season. FanGraphs’ Steamer projections for 2021 suggest Sale returning for nine starts, posting a 3.21 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 1.06 WHIP with 11.9 K/9 across 52 innings.

Sale suggested an openness to a role in the bullpen if that meant skipping rehab starts and returning to the roster sooner.

“If they told me that we needed a guy in the bullpen or they wanted to build me up there instead of doing a rehab assignment, I would be game for that,” Sale said. “The quicker that I can get back on this team, I would like that. That is way above my pay grade and where I’m at right now. I’m focused on my next day and getting off the mound, and then whatever the next step is, take that.”

Sale defines his rehab process — which continued with a session in the Triple-A Worcester Red Sox bullpen on Tuesday — as the “hardest challenge I’ve had in my life” and said that “there’s been some really good days, there’s been some good days, there’s been some s— days.”

Now more than a year removed from the procedure, Sale is beginning to turn the page to the next phase of his career.

“I’ve been able to let go of the fact that I have a huge scar on my arm and it was cut open 15 months ago,” Sale said. “When I’m throwing, I feel normal. I feel like how I did when I was a kid. I don’t have this thought in the back of my mind about the surgery on any given throw or anything … I feel like I’m starting to build up as a pitcher as opposed to on the back of a rehab. I don’t feel like I’m rehab-throwing. I feel like I’m pitching-throwing.

“If it was up to me,” Sale said, “I’d be starting tomorrow.”



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Philadelphia Phillies’ Bryce Harper exits early with back tightness

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Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Bryce Harper exited Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers after the fourth inning with lower back tightness, the team said.

Harper struck out swinging to end the top of the fourth. He was 0-for-2 on the night at Dodger Stadium.

In the bottom of the fourth, Luke Williams shifted from shortstop to right field and Ronald Torreyes took Harper’s spot in the lineup, batting fourth at shortstop.

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Los Angeles Dodgers shuttle outfielder Cody Bellinger to 10-day IL as left hamstring issue lingers

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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Dodgers placed outfielder Cody Bellinger on the 10-day injured list Tuesday night prior to their game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Los Angeles filled the active roster spot with right-handed pitcher Mitch White.

On Monday, as the Dodgers defeated the Phillies 3-1 to open the series, Bellinger missed his third straight game, with the team saying at the time that he wouldn’t play until Wednesday at the earliest. He was on the field pregame Monday with his teammates, working on his movement, before the team decided not to start him.

The 2019 National League MVP isn’t recovering as quickly as Los Angeles anticipated from left hamstring tightness. He has appeared in only 16 games this season, and is hitting .226 in 62 at-bats with just one home run and 10 RBIs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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