Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League — in which the Lancaster Barnstormers and seven other teams play — recently announced several rule changes, with the independent minor league set to serve this summer as a test laboratory to see how the adjustments work. One of the changes involves the use of computers, or “robo umps,” to call balls and strikes.
We always enjoy the opportunity to catch the Barnstormers at Clipper Magazine Stadium.
Having minor league baseball back in Lancaster County for well over a decade now — in a venue that’s still a great place to watch a ballgame — is a real treat.
And now we have this three-year Atlantic League agreement with Major League Baseball, which Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper said is essentially unprecedented.
“It’s hard to underplay what a significant day this is for the Atlantic League,” he wrote when the announcement was made. “This is the first time in memory, and likely ever, that there has been a joint press release issued by Major League Baseball and an independent league. Ever since the Frontier League and Northern League debuted in 1993, independent leagues were long seen by many in affiliated baseball as the rogues of professional baseball.”
The word “rogue” might be a little strong, but we don’t doubt affiliated baseball leagues have long looked down on independent baseball. This collaboration with the big boys is a feather in the Atlantic League’s cap, for sure.
Of all the Atlantic League rule changes, the robots calling balls and strikes has gotten the most attention.
“Plate umpires will wear earpieces and be informed of ball/strike calls by a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar,” according to The Associated Press. “Umps will have the ability to override the computer, which considers a pitch a strike when the ball bounces and then crosses the zone. TrackMan also does not evaluate check swings.”
(On a lighter note, this might leave some of the more vocal fans in a quandary. How do you boo a computer?)
By testing in the Atlantic League, with teams that each play a 140-game schedule, “MLB will get significantly more data than it could in any spring training or Arizona Fall League trial,” Cooper wrote.
“The game is typically American,” MLB umpire Joe West told AP. “It’s always somebody else’s fault when they lose — and usually it’s us.”
Major League Baseball has evaluated its umpires since 2001, initially using a QuesTec system that umps criticized for inaccuracy. QuesTec was last employed in 2008.
A PitchF/x system was the basis of evaluations from 2009-16, and the TrackMan system has been used to evaluate umpires since 2017, the AP reported.
An MLB umpire since 1976, West said the 2016 testing left something to be desired.
“It missed 500 pitches in April, and when I say it missed 500 pitches, that didn’t mean they called them wrong. They didn’t call them at all.”
So perhaps we’ll get to see how far robot umpires have come in the Atlantic League this summer.
Here are the other rule changes being tested:
— The distance between home and first will be shortened by 3 inches.
— Bases will become 18-inch squares, up from the 15-inch squares standard since 1877. (We’re curious: Would some records need an asterisk if MLB took up some of the rules changing longtime standards, such as this one?)
— Infield shifts will be restricted by requiring two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitcher throws. Infielders also won’t be allowed to set up on the outfield grass.
— Each pitcher (unless injured) must face at least three batters or complete a half-inning.
— Between-inning breaks will be cut from 2 minutes, 5 seconds to 1:45.
— Mound visits are banned unless there’s a pitching change or a medical issue.
— Beginning July 12, the ground between the mound and home plate will lengthen 2 feet. The 60-foot-6-inch distance between the front of the pitching rubber and the back of home plate has been standard since 1893.
“That’ll make a bigger difference” than the 3 inches subtracted between home and first,” New York Yankees first baseman Greg Bird told AP.
The thinking is that moving the mound farther away from the plate will help hitters put more balls in play, thus cutting down on strikeouts.
We somewhat understand the rationale behind this; we just hope the extra distance doesn’t expose more pitchers to arm injuries.
Overall, however, we’re intrigued by the changes and wouldn’t be surprised if some are eventually adopted by MLB.
So, when you attend Barnstormers games this year, remember as you eat that mustard-slathered hot dog that you could be watching some onfield history, too.
Hearts broken again
At least 49 people were killed in mass shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Friday, The Associated Press reported.
The mosques were full of worshippers attending prayers, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said many of the victims could be migrants or refugees. In addition to the dead, officials said 48 people were being treated for gunshot wounds, the AP reported.
Our hearts go out to the victims of this senseless and hateful violence.
Our hearts to out to Muslim communities here and everywhere.
We grieve alongside you.
We stand, we must stand, against all forms of hatred.