MLB Makes New Offer to Union on Rules Changes, Enlists Atlantic League to Test Robo-Umps

The latest development in the ongoing saga of baseball’s pace-of-play initiatives is being presented as a compromise, but it feels more like calculated misdirection. According to a report from ESPN’s Jeff Passan, MLB’s latest proposal to the players union calls for implementation of a pitch clock to be put on hold in favor of a few other changes beginning in the 2020 season.

These new rules have all been discussed at some point over the last month or two and seem to be at least as intrusive as the 20-second clock. Passan notes that the league is asking for a three-batter minimum for pitchers; single trade deadline of July 31st; 26-man roster that expands to 28 in September; 15-day injured list and 15-day minimum optional assignment; further limitations on mound visits, position-player pitching, and time between innings.

Rather than delve into each of those things again, let’s talk about how lopsided this all seems. Commissioner Rob Manfred has been pounding away at this pace-of-play issue, using his ability to unilaterally implement a pitch clock as a cudgel. As such, he’s created a fear of change that is probably much greater than the change itself. More than the clock, it’s the commissioner’s ability to force it upon baseball that grates at the union.

And Manfred has done such a good job of threatening to use this power that it’s possible he’ll be able to affect even more sweeping change just by acting as though he’s willing to compromise. He’s not and this is just a blunt-force strategy, so it does feel at this point that some changes are inevitable whether the players like it or not.

Speaking of which, MLB is doing a little work behind the scenes to test out some more novel wrinkles to the game. According to J.J. Cooper of Baseball America, MLB has reached a formal agreement to use the independent Atlantic League as a testing ground for changes to rules and equipment changes.

Several experiments will be conducted, most notable among which will be moving the mound back and utilizing “robo-umps” to call balls and strikes.

Under the decision, beginning this season, the Atlantic League will adopt new rules at the request of MLB and then will 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.

If all goes according to plan, this will be a mutually beneficial arrangement that allows MLB to get in-game testing with minimal pushback while giving indy players better access and exposure. Or at least that’s what the folks at the top are saying. And even if some of those benefits are overblown, it does make sense that the attention paid to this initiative will put many more eyes on Atlantic League players.

In addition to moving the mound back to counteract rising pitch velocities, it’s possible the league could experiment with lowering the height of the mound. MLB last lowered the bump from 15 to 10 inches following the pitching-dominated 1968 season, a move that has long been credited with spurring offense. But they also raised the bottom of the strike zone and cracked down on doctored baseballs, so it’s not possible to isolate a single variable.

Lowering the mound by a couple inches could indeed remove some of the advantages pitchers currently enjoy, but the real benefit might be to health. A recent study in Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that pitching from lower mound heights “may slightly reduce shoulder and elbow kinetics, possibly reducing the risk of injury.” That sounds like something both MLB and the Atlantic League would be interested in.

We’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out, since the aforementioned rules changes are still just in the proposal stage at this point. And it looks everything would go into effect in 2020 if accepted. The stuff in the Atlantic League, however, should be implemented this season, so you might want to get out to catch some indy ball if you’re interested in robo-umps. Who knows, you might even see some former Cubs in action.

Given Manfred’s doggedness in this effort, we can pretty much guarantee that some significant rules changes are coming to MLB. So I guess you can just consider this your 38th warning to buckle up and prepare for impact.

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