Players and coaches in baseball’s Atlantic League had been dreading the change for more than a year. “I don’t understand why they’re doing it,” Danny Barnes, a relief pitcher for the Long Island Ducks, told me during batting practice a week before its debut at the beginning of August. “That’s a tough one,” said fellow reliever Joe Iorio. “We don’t want it to create injuries.” Ducks manager Wally Backman had heard these complaints and more. “The only reactions I have heard from the players are bad,” he said, sitting at his clubhouse desk at the Ducks home park in Central Islip, N.Y. Backman, who played for 14 seasons in the major leagues and won a World Series with the New York Mets, then mimed zipping his lips before he said too much.

When it happened, the big change was tough to spot from the stands. At an Aug. 11 game between the Ducks and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, I pointed it out to the father and son seated beside me: The groundskeepers had moved the pitching rubber back a foot farther from home plate. Since 1893, the white strip where the pitcher stands has been set at 60 feet, 6 inches, but now, in the Atlantic League, it was 61 feet, 6 inches. They were surprised to learn this, but the conversation quickly returned to how nice it was to go to a baseball game without spending hundreds of dollars.

The extended pitching rubber, hotly contested in clubhouses and barely noticeable to fans, is part of a wave of experimentation that Major League Baseball executives are hoping will drag their sport into the 21st century. Since 2019, MLB has been using the low-profile Atlantic League, whose players aren’t unionized and have little power to object, as a test lab for rules changes aimed at making games shorter and more exciting. These tweaks have included letting batters try to steal first base, making the bases bigger and easier to reach, strictly limiting visits to the mound by coaches, and using an Automated Ball-Strike system—robot umpires—to call pitches at the plate. MLB has already adopted some of the changes at the big-league level. If they work as intended, others will follow.

Baseball has a bloat problem. With every season, games take longer and less happens on the field. Over the past half-century, the average length of an MLB game has risen from about 2 1/2 hours to 3 hours and 11 minutes. The number of balls in play, meanwhile, has dwindled. Hits are near historic lows, strikeouts at historic highs. In 1980, roughly 1 in 8  trips to the plate ended in a strikeout. This season, the rate was twice that. This makes for long lulls in the action. According to the league, the time between batted balls has reached an average of nearly four minutes, up by almost a minute from two decades ago. It’s a worrisome trend for a sport that’s competing for attention with instantly refreshed social media feeds and eight-second viral videos.