There is a chance we may be seeing the future of baseball being played in the Atlantic League this year. We learned that the independent Atlantic League, as part of its new partnership with Major League Baseball, will implement a number of rules changes for the 2019 season.

“Robot” Umpires

Perhaps the biggest of all of these rules changes is one that has been talked about for years, the idea of robot umpires.

The Atlantic League will be using TrackMan Radar to help umpires call balls and strikes. According to ESPN Stats and Information, the correct call rate on balls and strikes last season was 91.1 percent. The average MLB game in 2018 resulted in 297 pitches, 157 of those being called strikes or balls. With an incorrect call rate of 8.9 percent, that equals about 14 missed calls per game.

Some of the best catchers in the league are the ones who can frame pitches for strikes. By turning to a “robotic” umpire, that aspect of the game is basically eliminated. Pitchers and catchers adjust in-game to call pitches differently based on how an umpire is calling the game (depending on a wide or tight strike zone). With radar technology calling the game at a consistent rate throughout the whole game, the strategy of adapting to a particular umpire’s strike zone is no longer needed.

There are many factors that need to be addressed to perfect this technology of calling perfect balls and strikes, which is why the Atlantic league will be testing this idea out, to give the MLB a chance to see what needs to be altered in order for this idea to make its way to the Majors. As Jeff Passan from ESPN put it, “When there are robot umps — and there will be — it will be Version 3.0 or 4.0. This is 1.0.”

Three-Batter Minimum For Relievers

The one rule change that we might see the earliest in the MLB is a three-batter minimum for all relievers. This rule change is being considered for the 2020 season by the MLB and the players’ association.

The idea is that fewer pitching changes could help speed up the pace of play, an issue that has become quite a hot topic across the MLB as of late.

Last season there were 1,145 relief appearances of one batter faced and 1,143 of two batters. This is a rule that would mostly impact lefty relievers such as Andrew Chafin or Jerry Blevins who are specialist pitchers that usually come in to face one left-handed batter and then are removed from the game.

Increase In Mound Distance

Another rule change that pitchers will not be in favor of is increasing the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate by two feet, from 60 feet, 6 inches to 62 feet, 6 inches (in the second half of the season).

The mound has been at 60 feet, 6 inches since 1893. While the height of the mound has changed over the years, the distance has remained the same.

The distance change will certainly impact the number of strikeouts in the league. The distance change would give batters a longer reaction time, but would also result in pitchers having to adjust to throwing from a distance different than what they have been accustomed to most of their lives.

The distance would require pitchers to adjust their breaking balls and off-speed pitches as well.

This change would result in more hits and more home runs, something that the league is in favor of, but would also lead to longer games due to the increase in runs, something the league doesn’t want.

In 2018, batters against fastballs from 92-93 mph slashed .272/.361/.474 and from 95-96 mph those numbers dropped down to .246/.330/.406. When the height of the mound was lowered in 1969, the average runs per game jumped from 3.42 in 1968 to 4.07. If the same 19 percent increase were to result due to this rule change, that would increase average runs per game from 4.45 in 2018 to 5.30. That number would be higher than any season of the steroid era, which was 5.14 runs per game in 2000.

Banning The Shift

The idea of banning the shift in baseball will also be tested. Over the years more and more teams have been using the shift, which has resulted in a lot of would-be hits turned into outs (and sometimes what should have been easy outs into hits). The new rule change would require that two infielders must be on each side of the second-base bag when the pitch is being released. Failure to do so would result in the pitch being called a ball.

According to Sports Info Solutions, around 35,000 shifts were used during the 2018 season, counting only balls in play during the shift. That is a 30 percent increase from 2017 and a 93 percent increase from back in 2014. SIS estimated that Matt Carpenter was the player who lost the most hits due to the shift last year. Carpenter lost 33 hits to the shift, while also gaining 10 in the process, resulting in a net loss of 23 hits. That would have changed Carpenter’s batting average from .257 to .298.

Other Changes

Other rule changes in the Atlantic league include eliminating mound visits except for pitching changes and injuries, increasing the size of the first, second and third base, and reducing the time between innings and pitching changes.

The MLB will monitor the effects of these rule changes during the first half of the Atlantic League season before deciding whether or not to implement any further modifications are the league’s All-Star break.

As part of an official league release, MLB’s senior vice president of league economics & operations Morgan Sword said, “this first group of experimental changes is designed to create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning and improve player safety. We look forward to seeing them in action in the Atlantic League.”

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