While Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred may not be summoning his inner Dr. Miles Bennett Dyson to create Skynet and give rise to the machines, the warning sirens went off today as MLB announced a series of experimental rule changes that will take place for this upcoming season in a new agreement with the Atlantic League.
The announced changes are:
–Home plate umpire assisted in calling balls and strikes by a TrackMan radar tracking system
–No mound visits permitted by players or coaches other than for pitching changes or medical issues
–Pitchers must face a minimum of three batters, or reach the end of an inning before they exit the game, unless the pitcher becomes injured
–Increase size of first, second and third base from 15 inches square to 18 inches square
–Require two infielders to be on each side of second base when a pitch is released (if not, the ball is dead and the umpire shall call a ball)
–Time between innings and pitching changes reduced from 2:05 to 1:45
–Distance from pitching rubber to home plate extended 24 inches, in the second half of the season only; with no change to mound height or slope
The experimental playing rules and equipment changes are part of a new three-year agreement between MLB and ALPB, which also calls for MLB to provide statistical and radar tracking data from ALPB games to MLB Clubs. Per the press release, MLB will analyze the effects of these changes before deciding on potential additional modifications during the 2019 ALPB All-Star Break and in future seasons.
So maybe a Terminator won’t be showing up on field anytime soon, but the idea of robot umpires certainly has now moved a step closer with the Trackman systems now “assisting” umpires. And that’s a shame.
To use these systems to help evaluate the performance of an umpire could be useful but the human element should not be removed from the game. Like even a Hall of Famer in the field, even the best umpires will make mistakes. A missed call, a missed pitch–perhaps painful or costly for a player and team at the time but that’s part of the game.
What any player asks for from an umpire is consistency. If a pitch low and away is a strike, both pitchers and hitters will adapt if called that way the entire game. Trackman should be used to evaluate umpires, not make the calls for them.
Likewise, we’ve seen many a catcher praised for a timely visit to the mound to give his pitcher a chance to catch his breath and regroup. But that’s now eliminated with the rule changes. If there’s confusion on the signals and plan of attack, no mound visit to make sure everybody is on the same page. Another disappointing decision as MLB is taking strategy and managing the human element out of the game. Imagine Yadier Molina no longer being allowed to go speak with the Cardinals pitcher on the mound unless it was to say goodbye as the pitcher headed to the showers.
The effort to speed up the game should not come at the expense of damaging it.
As for the removal of the defensive shift and forcing pitchers to face at least three batters–again, why remove strategy? If a team is willing to take the risk, let them live with the consequences good or bad. If a team is willing to leave one side of their infield open, then it’s up to the hitter to make them pay for it. Yes, there have been some compelling reasons given as to why that has been more difficult for hitters than one might expect, but that shouldn’t mandate eliminating the strategy. Hitters have to be better.
And if a team wants to use a pitcher against one hitter, that should be their prerogative. A pinch-hitter is primarily used for just one at-bat, so why can’t a pitcher be deployed in the same fashion?
Moving the pitching rubber back two feet? And waiting until the second half of the season to do so–there is no more blatant attempt to bolster the offensive advantage.
Experimental rule changes? Yes, but it appears that a mad scientist is in the laboratory.
photo credit: Shanna Lockwood, Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports