AKRON  Fans are using to changes and new looks when they attend an Akron RubberDucks game at Canal Park.

Minor league baseball is a place where players are promoted or demoted on a near-daily basis and where trades can send a fan favorite packing with no notice, but rarely do those changes impact the fundamental nature of the game that fans see on the field. New rule changes announced recently by Minor League Baseball will do just that, with measures aimed at reducing the length of extra innings games and the number of mound visits during a game.

The procedures, created in partnership with Major League Baseball, will take some getting used to for all involved, but those involved in making the changes believe they will reduce the number of pitchers used in extra innings and the issues created by extra innings games, including, but not limited to, shortages of pitchers in the days to follow, the use of position players as pitchers and the transferring of players between affiliates due to pitching shortages caused by extra innings games.

"We believe these changes to extra innings will enhance the fans’ enjoyment of the game and will become something that the fans will look forward to on nights where the game is tied late in the contest," Minor League Baseball President Pat O’Conner said. "Player safety has been an area of growing concern for our partners at the Major League Baseball level, and the impact that lengthy extra innings games has on pitchers, position players and an entire organization was something that needed to be addressed."

One such change will see MiLB borrow a page from fast-pitch softball, with teams now beginning their turn at bat in each extra inning with a runner on second base. The runner at second base will be the player in the batting order position previous to the leadoff batter of the inning, or a substitute for that player. For example, if the fourth batter in the order is leading off the 10th inning, the third batter in the order will start the inning on second base.

"I think everybody in baseball is all for speeding up the game without a doubt and you’d be hard pressed to one person who doesn’t speed up the game," new RubberDucks manager Tony Mansolino said. "When you put runner on second base to start an inning, it goes against what we’ve done the whole lives, so there may be some concerns initially, but I do understand it could have the ability to help control injuries on the minor league level. If you can avoid having those 16-inning games,which makes you extend pitchers at the lower level, it will positive impact on players’ health and that’s a good thing."

In an interesting quirk, for the purpose of statistically calculating earned runs under Rule 9.16, the runner who begins an inning on second base pursuant to this rule shall be deemed to be a runner who has reached second base because of a fielding error, but no error will be charged to the opposing team or to any player.

By putting a runner on second base to start the inning, the idea is that teams will be more likely to score. Of course, the potential drawback is that both teams will see their odds of scoring in each extra inning increase by an identical amount, upping the chances that both teams will score and the game will still be tied.

Another change mirrors one made by Major League Baseball, as MiLB will limit pitcher’s mound visits by coaches and position players.

Triple-A clubs will be allowed six visits per team, Double-A clubs will be allowed eight visits per team, while Single-A clubs will be allowed 10 visits per team and there will not be a limit on mound visits for short-season and rookie-level clubs.

The mound visit rules will apply whether a game is scheduled for seven or nine innings and in the event of an extra-inning game, each club will be entitled to one additional non-pitching change mound visit per inning.

Another rule change applies only to the Triple-A and Double-A levels, where a 15-second pitch clock will be in place, down from 20 second last season. Pitchers will be allowed 15 seconds to begin their wind-up or the motion to come to the set position when no runners are on base and while the pitcher does not necessarily have to release the ball within 15 seconds, he must begin his wind-up or begin the motion to come to the set position to comply with the 15-second rule with no runners on base.

When runners are on base, the pitch timer will go from 15 to 20 seconds and the timer will start when the pitcher has possession of the ball in the dirt circle surrounding the pitcher’s rubber, the catcher is in the catcher’s box and the batter is in the dirt circle surrounding home plate.

Mansolino said he and his staff will spend time going over the new rules and figuring out their strategy when dealing with the game situations the rules will bring about, but doesn’t believe there is a major need to talk about them with players.

"I’m very interested in seeing it (the new extra-innings rule). I have’t seen it anywhere, they did try it rookie baseball but this will be new for professional baseball. The reviews were mixed, but we have to embrace it," Mansolino said. "Fifteen seconds should be enough … pitchers will have to stay on the mound. They can’t walk halfway to the plate to get the ball from the catcher, but I don’t see to many problems. Our coaches will have discussions about how to handle it. The players be fine, they’ll handle it."

HONORING JOE

The RubberDucks are one of several Northeast Ohio teams honoring retired Cleveland Browns tackle Joe Thomas, albeit with a slightly different take on the concept. While the Cleveland Cavaliers recently held a halftime tribute to Thomas and the presumptive Hall of Famer included a hug from LeBron James, the RubberDucks will honor by adding a special Extreme Foods Menu item only for the 2018 season.

The new Extreme Food is a sandwich called, "Thanks, Joe!" It features two butterfly-sliced Five-Star Brand bratwursts, covered in craft beer cheese, onions and peppers, served on a hoagie roll. The sandwich will be sold at The Dog Pound concession stand for $10, in honor of Thomas’ 10 NFL Pro Bowl seasons.

"Canal Park’s Extreme Foods Menu is one of the highlights of coming to a RubberDucks game," RubberDucks General Manager Jim Pfander said. "For a larger-than-life offensive lineman, we thought there was no better way to honor him than with a larger-than-life sandwich! The ‘Thanks, Joe!’ will be available every game, just like Joe."

Thomas’ new sandwich will be available beginning on opening night, April 13 at 6:35 p.m. when the RubberDucks face the Trenton Thunder.

Reach Andy at 330-580-8936
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On Twitter: @aharrisBURB