Major League Baseball will have its eyes this summer on towns like Charleston, W.V., Central Islip, N.Y., and York, Pa., as the independent Atlantic League plays with a pitching mound one foot farther from the plate than the standard distance.

The Atlantic League — as it has been before — will be used by MLB as a laboratory to test rule changes that could be implemented in the majors if they find footing in those small towns.

Baseball is desperate to inject more offense as teams are struggling to hit while striking out at record rates. They’ll see this summer if the answer is having pitchers throw from 61 feet, 6 inches.

But Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, who admitted his bat would benefit from pitchers firing from an extra foot away, thinks the league can fix its offensive woes by simply looking to the current mound.

“I think the substance issue is real. I think pitchers are using a lot more substances now than they have in the past,” Realmuto said. “Not just a lot more, but it’s been more effective than it has been. Guys are increasing their spin rate. That’s why there’s so many walks and strikeouts every game, because guys are just letting it rip with all the spin. It’s harder to control but also harder to hit. I think if they fix that idea that could help a lot.”

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Pitchers have been accused for more than 100 years of doctoring baseballs, but the league was concerned enough this season about the use of foreign substances — such as pine tar — that it informed teams during spring training that it would be cracking down.

In 2020, Trevor Bauer told HBO that “probably 70%” of pitchers use a foreign substance to add spin to their pitches. The tackiness is a bigger advantage, Bauer said, than steroids ever were because it can alter the movement of every pitch.

The league’s memo, which was first obtained by The New York Post, said MLB would use data to study spin rates and identify irregularities that could be caused by foreign substances. The league has compliance officers monitoring teams this season and removing baseballs from games to take to a third-party lab where they would be analyzed for foreign substances.

“You see pitchers out there all game long doing this,” Realmuto said Wednesday as he touched his glove hand. “They’re not doing anything about it. I think if they cracked down on that, that would honestly help the offense a lot, get the ball in play more often, and less swing and miss.”

Worst in baseball history

Teams entered Wednesday hitting just .236 this season, which would be the worst mark in baseball history. Teams are averaging 8.97 strikeouts per game, which is an all-time high and nearly a strikeout more per game than 2016. And they are striking out in 24% of their plate appearances after setting a record last summer by striking out in 23.4%.

The average fastball velocity — 92.8 mph — is the fastest in baseball history and the average spin rate has increased each season since Statcast started tracking it in 2015. As of Wednesday, the average spin rate on a pitch this season is more than 100 RPMs faster than seven years ago.

“Guys are spinning the ball more than they ever have,” Rhys Hoskins said. “Shoot, man. I don’t know what the average velocity is, but it has to be up a couple miles per hour from what it used to be. Guys have better stuff and they know where we’re going to hit the ball more.”

“Guys are taught now to just go up there and throw as hard as they can and rip sliders as fast as they can. It’s not heading in a good direction and pitchers are getting hurt a lot more often because of it.”

J.T. Realmuto

Pitching has never been more dominant. And perhaps it’s because pitches have never been tougher to hit.

“Guys are taught now to just go up there and throw as hard as they can and rip sliders as fast as they can. It’s not heading in a good direction and pitchers are getting hurt a lot more often because of it,” Realmuto said. “… Everyone has swing-and-miss stuff from top to bottom and it’s not because everyone got so much better in the last three years. To be honest, that stuff helps a lot.”

“Let the hitters take steroids,” Realmuto said with a laugh. “And they can do that.”

The major-league rule book says that a pitcher cannot intentionally “discolor or damage the ball by rubbing it with soil, rosin, paraffin, licorice, sand-paper, emery-paper or other foreign substance.” An offender is to be ejected from the game and suspended for 10 games.

But the onus falls on the manager to petition the umpire to check the pitcher’s glove.

“But what manager is going to complain?” Realmuto said. “Because that manager is going to do the same thing to his guy. I think Major League Baseball as a whole needs to step in and fix that issue and not leave it up to individual teams and individual managers.”

Strike three

The major-league strikeout rate increased for 15 consecutive seasons from 2005 to 2019, pushing baseball to search for a solution. The Atlantic League, a partner league of MLB, announced two years ago that it would extend the pitcher’s mound by two feet before scrapping that plan.

This season, the league will move the mound back a foot in August for the second half of their season.

“I don’t think it’s smart. I think it’s kind of dumb,” Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola said. “We’ve pitched 60 feet, 6 inches ever since we started. I don’t know what made them think of that. Just keep the game the same. If they experiment, I just hope guys don’t get hurt because that one foot adds a little more stress.”

Baseball last changed the mound in 1969, when it lowered the mound’s height from 15 inches to 10 inches. That decision was also intended to add offense after teams hit just .237 in 1968, still the lowest single-season average.

And even then, there were complaints about doctored baseballs. Phillies coach Andy Seminick told The Inquirer a year after the mound was lowered that the real problem was the “Vaseline ball.” In 1920, baseball outlawed the spitball, but pitchers in the 1960s had moved on to petroleum jelly.

Each team, Seminick told The Inquirer in 1969, had two or three pitchers who threw a Vaseline ball. Unlike today, Seminick said pitchers of that era used foreign substances to reduce spin and were able to make pitches almost stop at home plate.

“All of our stuff is predicated to the distance that we pitch at right now. There’s a lot of work that goes into it.”

Aaron Nola

He accused Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry of using a doctored ball against the Phillies.

“The ball was covered with Vaseline,” Seminick said. “Gobs of the stuff. I told the umpire, ‘Here, you want proof? Look at this.’”

Baseball established the mound’s distance — 60 feet, 6 inches — in 1893 in another attempt to combat overpowering pitching. Strikeout rates and low batting averages were the norm in baseball’s early days before the mound was moved back. The original “pitcher’s box” was flat on the ground and 55 feet, 6 inches from home plate.

MLB said the extra foot in the Atlantic League is intended to provide batters with more reaction time, which they believe will help hitters make contact more frequently, put more balls into play, and create more action.

“All of our stuff is predicated to the distance that we pitch at right now,” Nola said. “There’s a lot of work that goes into it, especially at this level. It’s not easy to fine-tune your pitches to the strike zone and try to keep the ball in the ballpark and on the ground as much as possible. Moving it back, you would maybe have to reinvent some things and reintroduce a lot of things. It would be too new, not natural.”

Atlantic League as test lab

The eight-team Atlantic League is composed mostly of former major and minor leaguers who are hoping to use independent baseball as a way to catch an organization’s attention.

The league has tested rules such as an automated ball-strike system for umpires, restricting defensive shifts, and banning mound visits. It plays the full season with a “double hook” rule, which means a team will lose the designated hitter for the rest of the game once it removes its starting pitcher.

In August, the mound will move back. And Major League Baseball will be watching closely to see what happens.

“I think it would make a huge difference. I really do,” Realmuto said. “It would put the hitters at a little bit more of an advantage than we’re at right now because we would have that extra foot. It would make breaking balls break earlier.

“The good guys have stuff that breaks late, so you don’t see it. But now basically everyone’s stuff you’re going to see because it will be breaking earlier in the box. I feel like it will help hitters a lot. I don’t necessarily like the idea of it. I think there’s other ways we can get more runs on the board and get more balls in play more often.”