By Chuck Hixson, PBI Editor
The truth is that independent minor league baseball leagues have to come up with something to survive. They know that their product is inferior to affiliated baseball and that very few of their players really have a shot at ever playing in – or returning to – the majors. Most of the rosters are made up of guys who were either never drafted or made it part of the way through the affiliated minor leagues, flamed out and are attempting to get back to affiliated ball.
Good for them for chasing their dreams.
The problem is when you have a league like the independent Atlantic League that looks for any sort of hook to put fans in the seats. This is the same league that swore up and down that they would build a stadium in towns like Allentown, PA. Said the financing was in place, and in the case of the Lehigh Valley, even started construction only to run out of money and abandon the idea. Heck, I still have a Lehigh Valley Black Diamonds hit, the team that was supposed to be playing not far from where the Lehigh Valley IronPigs now play. It was a freebie given to the media as they swore everything was in place. Anyway, I digress.
While the Lehigh Valley never really did have a team, the Atlantic League has survived. Their latest gimmick is to serve as somewhat of a petri dish for Major League Baseball. Any idea that’s even too weird for MLB to institute in their minor leagues, they pitch to the Atlantic League and they run off and put it into action.
There are currently some ideas that the Atlantic League has put into their baseball laboratory to test, with MLB viewing from above while wringing their hands with a Hannibal Lecter grin on their faces. The first is the robot umpire. A TrackMan computer system relays whether the pitch was a ball or strike to an iPhone in the home plate umpire’s back pocket. That call is then received through an earpiece worn by the home plate umpire and he makes the call, obviously with a slight delay.
Pitcher Daryl Thompson pitched in the first game where the system was in use and gave the Associated Press a review. “One time, I already had caught the ball back from the catcher, and he signaled strike.”
The umpire is there to cover the shortcomings of the system. For instance, if a ball bounces in the dirt and goes over the plate in the strike zone, TrackMan calls it a strike. The umpire is also there in case the system goes nuts and calls a pitch well out of the strike zone a strike or vice versa. They’re also there in case the system just dies in the middle of the game. In Atlantic League play, the umpires are also allowed to overrule the system and make the call themselves.
Here’s the thing. The TrackMan technology is actually pretty good, but it’s only as good as the job it’s used for. Rather than having it replace umpires and the human element that they bring, why not use it to assess the job that home plate umpires do and hold them responsible for their performance, both good and bad. The best of the group are given raises and the plum assignments – All-Star Game, World Series, etc. – and the bad ones find themselves in the Atlantic League, hoping to work their way back to the majors. Oops, I forgot. The umpire’s union wouldn’t like that. The Teamsters have nothing on the Umps Union.
Now, the Atlantic League brings us back to an old baseball adage; you can’t steal first base. Well, why not? With the start of the second half of the Atlantic League season, if the pitch is not “caught in flight,” it will be considered a live ball, no matter what the count on the batter. If the batter so chooses, he can take off for first base and if he beats the throw there, he’s safe, if not, he heads back to the bench on a 2-3 putout. The rule would work like a dropped third strike works, only on any count. Now, players like Roman Quinn are the ones wringing their hands with that wicked grin on their face as they think of the possibilities.
If you think MLB isn’t watching, you’re wrong. The two leagues have an actual agreement in place, which runs for three years, for the Atlantic League to test out these ideas. MLB gives the Atlantic League ideas to test out so that they can measure their effects on game play, strategy, player development and, of course, game tempo and length. In exchange, MLB has promised “enhanced scouting coverage of the Atlantic League” and they’re also giving the league hardware that will allow the Atlantic League to better study the analytics of players in the league. You have to believe that the last part is basically a way for MLB to get more analytical data on Atlantic League players.
So what else is going on in the Atlantic League Baseball Laboratory?
- Well, they’ve already banned shifts. Teams must have two infielders on either side of second base on each pitch, and they must be on the infield; they can not play on the outfield grass.
- No players or coaches may visit the mound unless a pitching change is being made. MLB has already tinkered with the mound visit rules to limit the number of non-pitching change visits per game.
- Pitchers will be required to face a minimum of three batters. In other words, no more left-handed specialists.
- The Atlantic League used to have 2:05 between innings. This season, it’s 1:45.
- Pitchers mounds are now 62′ 6″ from home plate, an increase of two-feet. This is an effort to both reduce strikeouts and increase offense. Does MLB realize that more offense means longer games?
- All of the bases are now 18″ rather than the 15″ norm in the majors and minors. This way, the fielder and runner can more easily share the bag. Isn’t that nice?
None of these ideas can be instituted by commissioner Rob Manfred without the agreement of the Player’s Union, which means they’re not likely to hit the majors until after the current CBA expires in 2021. Although, the three-batter rule is being instituted next season with the blessing of the union. Perhaps the fact that baseball will also have a 26-man roster (not 25) in 2020 put the union in a good mood.
If you think that these ideas won’t be implemented, think again. The pitch clock originated in the Atlantic League before jumping to Double-A and Triple-A games a few years back. Major League Baseball is serious about using a 20-second pitch clock in the majors, which would be negotiated in as part of the next collective bargaining agreement. Currently, the Atlantic League uses a 12-second pitch clock in their games.
As much of a traditionalist as I am, I can – if I squint very, very hard – see where the dropped pitch idea could be interesting. I would have to hold my nose every time I mark a runner reaching base on the rule on my scorecard, but I guess it can be done. The auto-ump takes away the human element of the game, which is a great part of the game. The problem is, that Major League Baseball – and the Players Union, for that matter – won’t stand up to the umpires and make them call a strike a strike. Failing a new approach to evaluating and disciplining umpires, perhaps we should give into the robots. But when they revolt and start taking over the world, let the record show that I blame umpires!