Major League Baseball has identified the sites in which its 21st century mad scientists will conduct experiments.
We are not talking about Amazon here, folks. MLB is not building sprawling campuses in the midst of the urban life designed to test and create new products.
It is coming to small suburban centers; High Point, N.C, Central Islip, N.Y., New Britain, Ct., Bridgewater, N.J., Lancaster, Pa., Waldorf, Md., Sugar Land, Tex. and York, Pa.
These are the cities comprising the independent Atlantic League, resting place for unsigned players hoping to be discovered or re-cycled. MLB has announced the league will be its testing ground for whatever experimental rules and equipment flip-flops the game dreams of implementing.
And this will not be a one-year marriage. The leagues will collaborate until the end of the 2021 season, coincidentally when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players will expire.
“The Atlantic League prides itself on innovation,” league president Rick White said. “In that spirit, our board of directors, led by chairman and founder Frank Boulton, enthusiastically and unanimously approved this forward-looking agreement.
“We have enjoyed a 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. We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and their initiatives where it is now formalized.”
How unusual is this coupling? Really weird. MLB has done all it can since the birth of independent leagues, the Frontier and Northern in 1993 – to distance itself from a brand of baseball its considered tawdry.
It seems clear MLB wants all the information it can get before presenting new ideas to the players during what might be contentious negotiations.
Baseball America tells us what we might expect to see: moving back the mound and using a computerized data system, Trackman, to call balls and strikes, as well as to send in-depth data about every pitch and ball put into play in the Atlantic League. MLB will also now serve as the official statistician for the Atlantic League.
Before the start of Atlantic League play in April, MLB will announce what it’s up to. But regardless of what it is, it’s going to be fascinating to watch.
“We look forward to bringing some of the best ideas about the future of the game to a highly competitive environment,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president for league economics and operations.
This seems like a great place to discover things. Atlantic League stats indicate more than 40 percent of their players have had MLB service time and most have played in the minors. Last season, former MLB second baseman Wally Backman managed a New Britain Bees team that had a number of former MLB players like Josh Thole, Reid Brignac, Manny Delcarmen and Adam Loewen.
If you are looking for an example of one rule you might see in the Atlantic League this season, think about the pitch clock.
One of MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s favorite initiatives, designed to speed up the game, it will not be used in an MLB game until at least 2022 because the players are not in favor of it and Manfred does not want to do anything to make them angrier than they already are.
MLB has more important changes they’d love the players to consider, like implementing a three-batter minimum on pitchers and toying with roster size by 2020. MLB also is also pushing to limit position players’ usage as pitchers, getting rid of the waiver trading period, further cutting mound visits and potentially shortening inning breaks.
Along with imposing the three-hitter minimum, rosters would be expanded to 26 players with a maximum of 13 pitchers. MLB also wants to limit September rosters to 28 with a 14-pitcher cap in September. The union prefers the current 40-player cap.
There has already been some productive give-and-take between the sides. The use of position players as pitchers would come with rules. At the start of each season, every player on the roster would be identified as a pitcher or position player, except in cases of two-way players, like the Angels Shohei Otani.
Let’s put it this way: Mike Trout could pitch only after the ninth inning or following the sixth inning, if Los Angeles trails by at least seven.
And then there is this, which seems almost to inconsequential to even matter MLB wants to shorten inning breaks from 2 minutes, 5 seconds to 1 minute, 55 seconds in locally broadcast games, in addition to shaving 30 seconds off the current 2-minute, 25-second breaks in national games.
White told MLB.com the Atlantic League will be given 45 days advance notice of rules changes before a season and 30 days for anything that MLB wants to try out in season.
And just think, baseball fans in Sugar Land, you likely will be able to see this all come to life over the next three years.