Revs players discuss the Atlantic League's new automated ball-strike system prior to its debut at the league's all-star game on Wednesday in York. ROB ROSE, 717-505-5418/@robrosesports
With one Apple Airpod in his right ear connected to the sport's newest technology, Morgan Sword watched and listened from the press box as baseball history was made on Wednesday night at PeoplesBank Park in York.
The senior vice president of league economics and operations at Major League Baseball was in attendance when the first pitch of the Atlantic League All-Star Game was called a strike by the automated ball-strike system. Sword, MLB and the Atlantic League collaborated on the implementation of the TrackMan system as a testing ground for MLB. It's part of a newly created three-year partnership between the leagues.
However, fewer than 24 hours after creating headlines with the debut of the so-called “robot umpire,” the Atlantic League and MLB weren’t done making news. Thursday, the leagues announced four new rules that will be implemented during the second half of the Atlantic League season.
The sport is changing: The new rules for the second half are:
►The pitcher is required to step off the rubber in order to attempt a pickoff.
►One foul bunt is permitted with two strikes before a strikeout is called.
►Batters may “steal” first base on any pitch not caught in flight. (The batter can be thrown out if he attempts to run.)
►The “check swing” rule is made more batter-friendly.
These rules are in addition to changes made at the beginning of the Atlantic League season that include:
►No mound visits permitted by players or coaches other than pitching changes and medical visits.
►Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters or reach the end of an inning before they can exit the game, unless the pitcher becomes injured.
►Increasing the size of bases from 15 inches square to 18 inches square.
►The time between innings and pitching changes are reduced.
The reactions from players to these new rules were not surprising in a tradition-bound sport.
“That’s not baseball,” York Revolution first baseman Telvin Nash said Monday at the debut of the TrackMan software. “I don’t know who came up with these rules. They’re just not baseball.”
MLB’s explanation: So, why were these rules put in place? For Sword and MLB, there is a method to what traditionalists would consider madness.
“We are looking for ways to reduce the strikeout rate,” Sword said during Wednesday’s all-star game. “We’re definitely trying to put a premium on athleticism. Incentivizing bunting, baserunning and hustle plays is something we’re looking to do.”
Starting with the first rule, which forces pitchers to step off the rubber before a pickoff attempt, Sword said that it seemed unfair that left-handed pitchers had an advantage over right-handed pitchers on pickoffs and that this rule puts them on a level playing field.
As for the extra strike allowed on bunt attempts with two strikes, Sword admitted it probably won’t have a major impact, but would push the game in the right direction.
Now, by far the most controversial of the new rules, according to players, is allowing players to “steal first base.” This rule allows any batter to try to advance to first base on any pitch that isn’t caught, which has pitchers concerned.
Southern Maryland Blue Crabs pitcher Mat Latos, who played in MLB from 2009 to 2017, said the rule is biased toward batters.
“I will have to disagree with the passed ball rule,” Latos said. “To me, now the hitter doesn’t have to earn their at-bat, but we still have to earn our pitches. If that’s the case, then if the guy steps out of the batter’s box with both feet, they should automatically call him out.”
For Sword and MLB, the rule is seen as an extension of the dropped third strike and was created with the idea of injecting more balls hit into play.
“Our competition committee endorsed the idea that allowing batters to run on wild pitches might force pitchers to throw more in the strike zone, throw more hittable pitches and create more contact,” Sword said. “We also think it creates an exciting play for fans.”
Resisting the change: The plan for creating plays that excite the fans is a tricky issue. A large number of current baseball fans don’t want these new rules added and MLB runs the risk of alienating the sport’s diehard followers while trying to attract the casual sports fan who is looking for more action instead of a pitchers' duel.
Latos said that the focus should be on perfecting the TrackMan system, which he was told was supposed to be ready in June, but debuted on Wednesday. He added that he believed the sport is fine in its current form.
“They need to leave baseball the way baseball has been for 100 years and just let us play,” Latos said. “I think they’re trying a little too hard.”
Sword and MLB are aware that players and fans might hear that batters can have a fourth strike or steal first base and feel the league is changing the sport they love too much.
While some players and fans may be opposed to the new rules, Sword said MLB are listening to their concerns, but haven’t strayed too far from the traditional game that became America’s pastime.
“We’re sensitive to that,” Sword said. “With these rule changes, we’ve tried very hard to stay within the framework of baseball tradition and history. We appreciate that there is a limit to where it stops being baseball. That’s a subjective decision and we think we’re still on the right side of it, but I totally understand the hesitance.”
Reach Rob Rose at email@example.com.