Let's be clear: There's really nothing about changing, tweaking or mucking around with the rules of baseball that Buffalo Bisons manager Bobby Meacham likes.
"Yeah, I don't like the whole thing," Meacham said. "I mean this game has been going along pretty good for a while now."
To be fair, baseball has always been adjusting the intricacies of the game – such as adding the designated hitter and adjusting the height of the mound. But lately, baseball has been focused on pace of play, attempting to find a way to speed up a game, which in the major leagues can drag on more than four hours. That's not much in line with modern-day attention spans or the current climate of sports entertainment options.
But before Major League Baseball summarily institutes some rules, they are tested in the minor leagues.
And that's where we begin, already with a runner on second base.
This year, in all levels of minor league baseball, extra-inning games have a new feature – each team starts each inning with a runner on second.
The idea, according to the official release from Minor League Baseball in March, isn't just to speed up the game. It's to reduce the number of pitchers used in extra innings that can cause a chain reaction of issues – a depleted bullpen for days after, positional players pitching, and transferring pitchers between levels to make up for a shortage of healthy arms.
The eye rolls were plentiful when the rule change was announced.
But now more than a month into the season, how has it been in practice?
Well, Meacham still doesn't like it.
"Games are still going long," Meacham said. "The runner on second is for everybody, right? So nothing really changed, I don't think, that much. I guess it's good to try new things to see if they work, but I'm kind of a fan of the way things were."
The players, however, haven't been completely against the new extra-inning rules. It's been a new challenge for them, something they've never seen before, and something that brings out additional strategic thinking.
Through Monday's games, the Herd was 3-2 in extra-inning games. Of the five games, two have gone to 10 innings and two have gone to 11. Only once has the team gone to 12 innings – the first game they played on April 9 at Pawtucket.
"It's interesting to say the least," infielder Jason Leblebijian said. "It kind of makes it a little more fun because you've got to strategize a bit – are they bunting, are we bunting? It's kind of weird at first, but you start to get more and more comfortable with it. Some teams are playing for the win right away and some teams are playing for the one-run bunt. You never know so you might be out of position defensively. Kind of just have to look at the team and figure it out."
The strategy isn't as simple as bunting the runner to third and scoring on a sacrifice fly. The Bisons have scored in extra innings on home runs and singles, as well as using the bunt strategy. Meacham hasn't adjusted his approach with the new rules. He still does what he does – creates a plan based on the team they're playing, where they are in the lineup, and what the game has brought them to that point.
"I've thought about different ways, and the first one I came up with, I'm not going to change a thing," Meacham said. "I'm just going to have our guys, if it's the right hitter and the right runner on base, do what we would do in those situations. Maybe it's a bunt sometimes. One of our lower guys in the order, maybe we'll bunt him over. … It just depends. I haven't run any steady strategy on it. It just depends on who's hitting and what we need as a team."
While extra-innings have generated plenty of talk, the pitch clock remains a source of head-shaking among the pitching staff.
First instituted in 2015, and still only in the minor leagues, the clock underwent some adjustments this season. Pitchers have 15 seconds to complete their wind-up or begin the motion to come to their set position when no runners are on base. The time expands to 20 seconds with a runner on base.
There are ways around that, however. Pitchers can bluff a throw to first if a runner is on base, or step off the rubber before the clock expires. Bisons pitching coach Bob Stanley noted that since the rule grants discretion to the umpires, some are hard-line sticklers and others are more lenient using what Stanley called "common sense."
Meanwhile, all of baseball, major leagues included, has a limit on trips to the mound by catchers and coaches. The tally is kept on the scoreboard under "MV" for "mound visits." Each team is allotted six per game, gaining additional visits in extra innings.
For the Bisons, the change has been easily adapted. Stanley doesn't make many mound visits anyway and the catchers have adjusted their preparation, adding signs to avoid unnecessary trips to the mound.
"We just change the way we prepare before we go out there," Bisons starter Chris Rowley said. "Instead of using a mound visit, we have signs for things we would have used a mound visit for. The thing that I've seen it affect the game is I've seen more cross-ups this year between pitchers and catchers than I have in years past. I don't know if that's a correlation to the mound visits. I don't know how much that's impacted the game."