Baseball welcomes its new robot overlords

Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League have announced an experiment to essentially blow up the way baseball is currently played.

The independent minor league will test out several ideas this season. It’s clear that if they work, Major League Baseball will try to convince its unions to adopt them for the big-league game.

The most striking addition? Robot umpires. Sort of.

The home plate umpire will be “assisted,” the league says, by the TrackMan radar tracking system, the same technology that powers golf simulators, and provides TV viewers with graphics to notice how often umpires get the call wrong on balls and strikes.

But wait, there’s more.

The shift — moving infielders to one side of the field to take advantage of hitter egos that refuse to allow them not to try to pull the ball — is dead. Under the new rules, two fielders have to be on each side of second base and if not, the pitch will be called a ball.

Other changes:

  • No mound visits permitted by players or coaches other than for pitching changes or medical issues
  • Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters, or reach the end of an inning before they exit the game, unless the pitcher becomes injured
  • Increase size of 1st, 2nd and 3rd base from 15 inches square to 18 inches square
  • Time between innings and pitching changes reduced from 2:05 to 1:45
  • Distance from pitching rubber to home plate extended 24 inches, in the second half of the season only; with no change to mound height or slope

Many of these are intended to speed the game up. But that isn’t the entirety of the problem facing baseball.

The lack of traditional strategy is, as articulated this week by former Philadelphia Phillies shortstop and manager Larry Bowa in an interview with The Athletic (paywall).

“I’m a little concerned — and I’m not going to lie to you — that the game has evolved as a whole that it’s a strikeout, a walk or a home run,” he said.

I like to see guys score from first on a double. I like to see guys make great plays. I like to see stolen bases. I like to see the complete game.

It’s become a game of matchups, which back in the day if you tried to take (Steve) Carlton out in the fifth inning, you’d have a fight right on the mound. That part of the game upsets me a little bit.

I think baseball is an exciting game, but I’ll be honest, I watched some games last year and got bored. You’d have eight walks and 12 strikeouts. I don’t like a man on third and less than two outs, and a guy is swinging like the count is 3-0 and he ends up striking out instead of, “Hey, the infield’s back, let me score this run. Let me put this ball in play.” I would like to see that come back a little bit.

Then again, I watch a team like the Red Sox, who won it all, and they did all that. I’m happy about that. Houston, that’s another team that does that. So, maybe we’re slowly and surely getting back to complete teams. But that one part of the game bothers me a bit.

The new rules will also change how baseball looks.

The catcher’s box will be eliminated and a chalk line will be painted from the back of second base to the outfield grass as a restraining line for the shifts.

In exchange for being Major League Baseball’s lab rat, the Atlantic League will get more of its players scouted and be given better technology for scouts to use.

(h/t: Paul Tosto)

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