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Atlantic League Expected To Add Robo-Umps, Other Changes From New MLB Agreement

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Tracy McGrady #1 of the Sugar Land Skeeters warms up in the bullpen before throwing against the Somerset Patriots at Constellation Field on May 10, 2014 in Sugar Land, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

The independent Atlantic League has long been an innovator, and they have long been happy to blaze a trail for Major League Baseball to follow.

Now, the two sides have formalized what was already happening informally, as the league and Major League Baseball announced a three-year agreement that will allow MLB to use the independent league as a testbed for rules and equipment changes.

And those rules changes will be significant. While no one with the Atlantic League would confirm the changes, Baseball America has learned that that the rules tweaks are expected to include moving back the pitcher's mound and using Trackman to call balls and strikes, both rules changes that have long been suggested but are significant enough to require plenty of in-game testing.

And those are changes that would be nearly impossible to first implement in any level of affiliated minor league baseball or the developmental Arizona Fall League, as all 30 teams would likely be hesitant to let their prospects loose on a mound that isn’t 60-feet, 6-inches from home plate. But the Atlantic League, which is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, will give MLB an opportunity to try out a rather significant change with high-caliber players. Last year, 32 Atlantic League players signed contracts to return to affiliated ball. In past years, pitchers like Rich Hill and Scott Kazmir have pitched in the Atlantic League before successfully returning to the major leagues.

Under the decision, beginning this season, the Atlantic League will adopt new rules at the request of MLB and then offer feedback on the advantages and disadvantages of the new rules. MLB will also now serve as the official statistician for the Atlantic League, and MLB will install Trackman radar devices at all eight Atlantic League stadiums so that all 30 MLB teams can receive in-depth data on each and every pitch and ball put in play at any Atlantic League game.

“We have enjoyed this working agreement the past four years that has largely covered the transfer of players. Informally when we commenced that discussion we began a dialogue. We told them that we will do things we believe are best interests of professional baseball. If it’s useful to you, great,” Atlantic League President Rick White said. “We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and their initiatives where it is now formalized.”

It’s hard to underplay what a significant day this is for the Atlantic League. 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 divide was significant enough that the National Association renamed itself Minor League Baseball in 1999 in part to help create a clearer distinction between affiliated minor league teams and independent league teams.

Now, MLB has gone into partnership with an independent league, using it to try out rules changes and developing closer ties to make it easier for MLB clubs to scout and sign players from the Atlantic League.

“It’s a wonderful collaboration and opportunity. To see our logo side by side with Major League Baseball is a great step forward for the Atlantic League . . . It’s a great day for the Atlantic League. We thank Major League Baseball,” Atlantic League Founder Frank Boulton said.

"We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and their initiatives where it is now formalized," White said.

The Trackman installations will be similar to that seen at most affiliated minor league parks. It will not be the full MLB setup where each player on the field is tracked at every moment. The Atlantic League’s officials believe that the new setup (and having stats provided by MLB) will help more Atlantic League players sign with MLB teams.

“Now each game we play will be transmitted to each of the 30 MLB clubs. A numbers of scouts had suggested over the past few years that if we could ever get Trackman it would make a difference in the exposure players receive,” White said. “Because of the nature of our players, virtually ever one of our games is scouted. But the challenge those scouts had was they were having difficulty interpreting their personal view versus the advanced analytics that every affiliated player has at the Double-A/Triple-A level. This gets past that.”

White would not specify any rules or equipment changes yet, but said that there will be several rules changes that will be announced before the season begins. Another pair of changes may be announced for the second half of the season. MLB has agreed to give the league 45 days advance notice before any rules change that happens before a season and 30 days for any change that occurs for the second half of a season. The Atlantic League is open to provide feedback and/or suggestions before any rule is adopted.

“We’ve been taking a lot to our clubs and to the Players Association about changes to rules on the field. We have prototypes of new equipment we want to see in action. Our group thought it was better to see them (tested) in an unaffiliated baseball league,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president of league economics and operations. “It gives us an opportunity to test some of these things in regular season competition.”

By testing in the Atlantic League, MLB will get significantly more data than it could in any spring training or Arizona Fall League trial. The league will have eight teams playing a 140-game schedule. It is almost extremely unlikely that teams would allow MLB to test-run a mound change with young pitching prospects. And by having Trackman, MLB will be able to track every item of the changes closely. The use of pitch tracking to call balls and strikes also explains a reason why MLB will need to invest in Trackman installations for all eight Atlantic League teams.

“There’s no question we would get better data,” Sword said. “I think the radar systems have two main benefits. It will very precisely measure the effects of the changes we are making. The second reason is clubs are hungry for this type of information for scouting purposes. This allows all 30 teams to have continuous access to on-field results,” Sword said.

Sword said he could not comment on what the actual changes would be, but that they will be announced before the season.

These rules tweaks will be significant changes, but when it comes to trying to adopt rules changes, the Atlantic League has been ahead of the curve. The league first rolled out new rules to speed up their games in 2013, when the league began ensuring the time between innings was limited to 125 seconds or less and emphasized to umpires that they should call the high strike.

Before the next season, the league added a pace of play committee to discuss and propose rules changes to help speed up games. For the 2014 season the league cut the warm-up pitches to six from eight, eliminated pitchers needing throw pitches for intentional walks and limited each team to three timeouts for defensive meetings per game. It also emphasized that umpires were to diligently apply the rule that keeps hitters from stepping out of the batter’s box.

Now, MLB has gone into partnership with an independent league, using it to try out rules changes and developing closer ties to make it easier for MLB clubs to scout and sign players from the Atlantic League.

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