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MLB and Cal Ripken’s Hit & Run program teaches baseball through a new lens

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The future of baseball might be starting at the lowest levels

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MLB: AL Wild Card-Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a version of baseball where there is a cap on batters per inning, each batter starts with a set count, and each frame starts with a varying number of baserunners on base. Where players switch positions every inning to adapt to new experiences, and where teams get pace of play bonuses depending on how fast they take the field during changeovers.

While these concepts have been considered or alluded to by Major League Baseball, it of course is not the sport fans are watching 162 games a year. So far professional baseball has remained mostly untouched by rule modifications as drastic as these.

Yet these changes do exist in MLB’s new Hit & Run Baseball program, a youth program that provides rule modification outlines for ages eight to 18 with the intent of teaching young players the game more effectively. Cal Ripken, Jr. was integral in the planning of the program, and sees it as a way for players to not just learn the sport at a young age but find new ways to understand it too.

Rule modifications

At first glance, some of the changes might come off as too different from what you could have experienced as a youth player. Objectively, the rules aren’t any more wild a set of alterations than kids using a tee instead of a pitcher.

But the differences are the point. Ripken (unsurprisingly) has an analytical baseball mind and when discussing this initiative he ruminated multiple times about aspects of the pro game and how people actually learn pieces of the sport. From common plays to unexpected situations, Ripken has put a lot of thought into the best way for kids to learn exactly why they are making the choices they do.

With the rise of tournament baseball and focus on game play over practice in many local leagues (spurred by field availability and other factors), the program is built to achieve a “more action-oriented and more situational” version of the sport. Rather than practices mimicking a game situation, this lets the game mimic practice instead.

It’s a hybrid system, and as Ripken explains it “you’re not fully teaching, you’re just giving more opportunities for the kids to play a full game.” There are teaching opportunities built in to the program, like coaches encouraged to be on the field versus instructing from the dugout, and it “makes it a whole lot more interactive. By putting some really good, strict guidelines around it you create a competitive game that way.”

Not just learning, but understanding

Comprehending baseball, not just learning the rules, is a major focus of the program. Ripken compared much of what it aims to accomplish with how he taught his son (who is now a minor leaguer in the Orioles’ system) the game: beginning with permutations of what major leaguers do to confirm understanding but secure interest, then escalating things in stages from there.

When you’re explaining some of the subtleties of the game, some of the things you know about, you’re educating someone about the game, and in this format you’re educating the kids in a deeper way about playing the full game, not just learning how to hit and throw.

By leaning on concepts and the small pieces of the game at first, everyone involved gains a deeper understanding and a deeper appreciation of baseball. It’s not oversimplifying things as much as it is asking for more from young players while still keeping things straightforward.

Not every young baseball player will make the pros, of course. Yet if the game wants to continue printing money the way it does now, hopefully every young baseball player will grow up to be a baseball fan. A hopeful side effect of Hit & Run is that so will the family members driving them around and watching every game.

Understanding the game is a major component of that happening, being invested in every situation throughout a three to four-hour game makes it more compelling and keeps eyeballs on the action.

As Ripken described it,

... the more you understand what’s going on — hitting, pitching, counts, bunting — the more you’re thinking that way the more you’re going to be into the game and you understand the game, and you understand when situations are important.

He described the program’s rule changes as “creat[ing] other conversations,” and that’s not only important when it happens on the field. If players start thinking about the game abstractly, not only when they’re forced to do so during games but after they’ve left game action as well, it lays a foundation for more baseball fans thinking analytically.

Exercising players’ curiosity is the core of the program, but there’s also a world in which it nets far more fans than just those on the field thanks to the way it breaks things down and allows everyone watching a modified game to have their interest piqued.

Is this MLB’s future?

The Hit & Run program isn’t an official incubator for future changes in Major League Baseball. It was built to stand alone as a teaching tool. But looking at the rule changes makes it easy to see ways in which MLB could monitor the alterations and in turn make future decisions about the sport at its highest levels.

There are aspects of the program that are already similar to current MLB plans, even though Ripken told me that wasn’t intentional.

One, pace of play, has been in the news a lot lately. With a pitch clock seemingly imminent and mound visits capped in an effort to shorten game times, Ripken knows the inclusion of pace of play in the Hit & Run materials could draw comparisons to what’s happening in the majors. He explained,

When they really focus on pace of play, this modified game is not a long range to quicken the pace of play. That’s an issue at the highest level. But if you understand all the things that are going on, and there’s a reason for the pace and the thinking of the game and the strategy, and it’s a thinking person’s sport.

Rob Manfred just discussed MLB’s vision in this area with The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, in an exchange that hints heavily towards a focus on increasing the action versus just pace, as Hit & Run does.

Manfred: I think the clock probably would be a positive on pace of game. I am thinking about what our strategy should be for the next off-season. I think some of the things we have seen this year suggest that maybe we should be thinking a little broader than just pace.

Rosenthal: This is the next question — pace of action. This is an ongoing issue. The trend is clear that there are fewer balls in play, and it’s not just a one-year trend. How concerned are you that for some fans — maybe not all — the game is simply becoming too dull?

Manfred: I don’t believe the game is dull. I just absolutely will not buy into the characterization of our game as dull. I do believe this: There is a growing recognition that analytics have produced certain trends in the game that we may need to be more pro-active about reversing.

There are owners that feel that way. There are fans that feel that way. To me, those are really important indicators of what we ought to be thinking about.

There’s a distinction between pace of action-oriented and pace of play-oriented, and MLB has been content up until now to publicly focus on the latter. Monitoring the U14 or U18 games to see how things are panning out wouldn’t be the worst idea.

The other area is reducing the wear and tear of pitchers, another side effect in a program that wasn’t centered around that problem. Ripken told me “if you’re encouraging kids to throw the ball over the plate and the count is forcing you to throw the ball over the plate ... it’s more likely to be put into play, and there’s less pitches thrown by the pitcher.”

Pitcher rest is a constantly changing discussion in college ball and the pro game. While it’s only a side effect of the program it’s something that could encourage coaches and players to start thinking about arm health far earlier than they currently do.

Ripken’s one word of warning when it comes to this program, and the only way he could see it being a drawback, is if it’s taken too seriously rather than treating it as what it should be: an open-plan baseball map that can be tweaked as needed for various teams and levels.

That perspective is also a great way to imagine how this set of modifications could evolve and be adopted by college or even the majors one day.

While a pitch clock or baserunners in extra innings might be implemented within a few years, there’s also a chance Manfred and the owners will reach a point where their saving grace will be to open up their perspectives, finding solutions from programs like Hit & Run where the game gets a little bit broken in the service of making it better.