Change Tested Over the Atlantic

Results from using the Atlantic League as a testing ground for MLB

Potential changes to baseball are constantly swirling and ever-threatening the ideas of what the game should look like, while traditionalists hold on to what the game once was when they fell in love with it. This tension has never been more evident than now as rule changes—to evolve the game and fix its pace of play problem—are being deemed improvements by its supporters

These changes, though imperceptible to untrained eyes, were being used as a bargaining chip in an all-out war of attrition by millionaires and billionaires as fans collectively held their breath for the go-ahead to be excited about the 2022 season.

Luckily, the feeling of relief came mid-afternoon on March 10th and replaced the uncertainty of whether we would have baseball or not.

But we are left with a question: What will these changes mean for the game of baseball?

 

Change is in the Air

 

The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball recently entered the national consciousness for the first time since its inception in 1998 when it was announced it would be the testing ground for these once hypothetical ideas. This originally came to pass in the 2019 season when MLB struck an accord with the Atlantic League for the independent league to utilize automated umpires that season.

Hypothetical and what-if rule changes were no longer spun in a board room, as fans were actually able to see these proposed alterations live and in action when seeing their local teams play in front of less than a nightly minor league crowd.

Under the bright lights of promotional nights, with giveaways and fireworks to draw people into the ballpark, experiments were being conducted with severe ramifications. Most of the changes conjured behind closed doors were officially tossed into the lab of an above Triple-A standard ballpark. They were as follows:

  • Robot Umpires
  • Check Swings will be more batter friendly
  • Reduced time between innings (from 2 min 5 sec to 1 min 45 sec)
  • 3 batter pitcher minimum
  • Ability to steal first (any dropped ball treated like dropped 3rd strike)
  • Banning mound visits completely
  • Moving the pitcher’s mound back 1 ft (from 60’6″ to 61’6″ away)
  • Restriction of shift (2 infielders on either side of second base)
  • Increase in base size (from 15 in to 18 in, excluding home plate)

 

With the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, the data became less plentiful than originally anticipated going into the 2022 CBA gridlock, but it has been useful nonetheless. The data has ultimately helped decide whether these changes have a place on the field. It has also aided fans and players to develop expectations in case these changes were agreed upon in the future. Consider it a form of exposure therapy.

This future, once looked upon as being too far away to worry about, has arrived. The owners were originally seeking the ability to implement any on-field rule changes 45 days after formally proposing them to players. They sought for a pitch clock, bigger bases, and the elimination of the shift for the 2023 season, which has been tried and tested in the Atlantic League since 2019.

However, the Players Association wanted to grant MLB the ability to lock in three specific on-field changes (with a 45-day notice), all starting for the 2023 season. Those changes include a pitch clock, larger bases, and shift restriction.

It seems as if what was thrown out there as hypotheticals years ago is now an inevitability that needs to be accepted. Larger issues concerning revenue had owners and players far apart. This had taken the focus off the hot button issue of rule changes. Traditionalists are no longer in a position to stand their ground because they just wanted the game back on the field. Or perhaps they are just too tired to fight back, worn down from holding the line. Change is here, and it seems like it is the job of everyone to just accept it now.

 

Atlantic League Goes Back to the Future

 

With the role that it played in the rule changes during this CBA negotation, the Atlantic League can now be looked at more as a window into the future than just a self-isolated testing ground.

Armed with data from the 2019 and 2021 seasons, players and fans alike can at least approach these proposed and potentially agreed-upon changes with the semblance of knowledge of what it would be like if this were to happen in the MLB. According to ESPN, over 40% of players in the Atlantic League have major league service time, and most of those players have spent some time in an affiliate of a major league team. Despite it being an independent baseball league, the Atlantic League nonetheless sees many former MLB players taking its field and having to adjust to these changes. Their opinions and feedback matter.

Going into the 2022 season, the Atlantic League announced they would be reverting to traditional baseball rules by returning the pitcher’s mound to 60’6″ away and reinstating home plate umpires to call balls and strikes behind home plate.

“As we enter 2022, we reaffirm to players and fans that ball-strike calls, and the distance of the pitching rubber, will return to accepted norms,” said Atlantic League President Rick White. “We retain several past MLB test features, such as 17” bases, extra innings tiebreaker, and anti-shift rules, among others. The test rules and equipment are transitional by definition: Some elements remain, others are tweaked, and still, others are abandoned. That’s why MLB and the ALPB conduct the tests.”

The Atlantic League and MLB partnership will announce 2022 proposed changes and potential experimentation later this spring:

“We are honored to pioneer the future of the game with Major League Baseball,” said White. “We’re proud that many tests today will find their way to the big leagues in the future. We will continue to closely corroborate on tests with MLB.”

 

Compromise is Key

 

What the data say is subjective to who is looking at it. For some, the leisurely pace of baseball is the appeal, while others will claim it is what makes it hard to watch. The casual fan is often the squeaky wheel, so their input holds more weight.

Much like the CBA that took forever to be agreed upon, visions for the future of baseball also differ among its fans, each with a unique love of the game and a unique perspective of what they value in the game. It is a compromise and a delicate balance to attract casual fans while not alienating the diehards. It is the same in every form of entertainment. How do you bridge the gap between these two groups while widening the audience and keeping everyone happy with the product on the field?

Another important question that needs to be asked is: What do we make of the fact that the Atlantic League is going back to traditional norms while MLB potentially moves forward with these changes? MLB as an entity should be the benchmark and standard for all things baseball, so shouldn’t these rule changes be kept if they were indeed beneficial?

It seems like the toothpaste is out of the tube and there is no turning back now. But much like the owners and players representing the union, a compromise had to be made to get and keep the game we love on the field.

But forget all of that for now…we have baseball back and that supersedes any of these feelings of uncertainty.

 

Graphic by Shawn Palmer (@Palmerdesigns_ on Twitter)

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