Inside Baseball’s Laboratory

TD Bank Park, home of the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League, will be one of the testing home for some of MLB’s potential future rules. (via Michael Stokes)

Welcome to the Atlantic League!

Here, from Somerset, Massachusetts to Sugar Land, Texas–home of the defending champs–players look to build the sample sizes that will earn them longer, better deals in other, affiliated leagues. The competition is more ferocious in an independent league like Atlantic League Professional Baseball, as it exists as a separate vein from Major League Baseball’s bloodstream, catching college players who didn’t get drafted on their way up, and former big leaguers looking to extend their careers on the way down.

It’s an outpost for baseball survivors, filling in the national baseball map in places where the sport’s major league platform is too expensive or far away. With the rosters always changing shape, and franchises rising and folding, there’s a lot of change in a league like the Atlantic League. But not baseball. Baseball never changes.

That’s the lie we tell ourselves every time baseball tries to change.

Meet MLB Chief Operating Officer Rob Manfred. It’s 2014, and he’s just been named COO after the position has sat uninhabited for four years. But it was easy to tell without too much squinting what was really going on: according to the press release announcing his new role, he would “oversee day-to-day management of the Commissioner’s Office.” Bud Selig was knighting Manfred as his successor on his way out the door, to the ethereal field that former MLB commissioners stand in after they’ve finished serving. Before the transition was complete, Atlantic League president Rick White managed to get a message to Manfred.

“It was widely reported that he was going to be the next commissioner, widely speculated,” White recalls. “I had worked with Rob years ago when I had founded MLB Properties, and he was working for MLB’s outside legal counsel. Long story short, we introduced the [Atlantic] League to him, we talked about our high quality of play, and in that discussion, we actually talked about the idea of beta testing, although we were not in any way specific.”

From that exchange was born what White calls a “relationship” between the ALPB and MLB that allowed for more the seamless and regular transfer of players between the two leagues. Upon Manfred being named Commissioner, White’s previously established connection with him allowed him to make more frequent visits to the Commissioner’s office, and it was during one of these drop-ins in which White mentioned his league was about to look into what would become one of Manfred’s favorite topics.

“Informally during that time, this is now about three and a half years ago,” White says, “we quietly shared to MLB that we had assembled a blue chip committee of executives to study the idea of pace of play, and as things moved along, we were – without any expectation whatsoever – going to share the results of our work with the commissioner’s office and anybody else who cared to ask about it.”

Every other week, ALPB let it be known what rules it was going to be enforcing in order to cut down its average game time. By the end of the experiment, they’d gone from three hours and one minute to two hours and forty-three minutes.

“We’ve since discussed it, but while no one made any announcements or was very public about any of this,” White recalls, “it was clear to us that baseball was monitoring our progress. Again, we felt this was important for our league and for baseball, and we invited them to pick up on that however they saw fit.”

Manfred and the league took a liking to a few of White’s moves. One was changing intentional walks to not require any throws from the pitcher, something Manfred has overseen the implementation of in MLB. The other was a three-visit limit on mound visits.

People were starting to take notice.

“Again, we continued to stay in touch with the Commissioner’s office,” White says, “and as a result of the continuing high number of transfers we were coordinating with MLB, we began to hear from scouts regarding how we could give them greater benefit and greater insights into our players’ performance, in regards to the installation of advanced analytics systems and believe it or not, MLB’s statistical services.”

Without the technology and resources to log advanced analytics in their ballparks, scouts who would see players in the ALPB would have to transpose numbers to make them into the statistics big league clubs wanted to see. Instead of relying on cold, hard math, scouts had to rely on emotional appeals to directors of player development, and not all scouts have “emotional appeals” under the “special skills” subhed of their resumes.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Which brings us to this past winter. White traveled to Las Vegas for the MLB Winter Meetings and got in a room with some of MLB’s top brass.

“I met with Morgan Sword, Jeff Pfeifer, and Reed MacPhail at the Winter Meetings,” White says, “and at that time, they presented to us a proposal that ultimately has become what you’ve read about. Effectively, it was renewing our transfer agreement, but far more importantly, partnering up on the opportunity to test MLB rules and equipment initiatives. Over the course of time as they were paying more and more attention to our league, they became aware of a couple of things: Number one, the fact that our players are going out and playing each day to win because they want to impress scouts so that they do get a chance to return to affiliated or MLB levels of baseball. Second, our players are truly exceptionally skilled.”

The deal White and the ALPB struck was put into bullet points and released to the public:

  • 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

In exchange for testing out these rules, the ALPB got what it wanted: an agreement that covers the transfer of its players to MLB, intensified scouting from major league teams, and the “statistical and radar tracking data” that will let player production speak for itself.

The league got what it wanted. The players got what they needed. One would think that the Atlantic League will begin its 22nd season on April 25 with an agreement in place that’s made everyone happy.

“I’ve talked to players, multiple players, over the last couple weeks,” says Scott Schuman, a right-handed pitcher and three-year Atlantic League vet. “There’s been talk of protests. There’s been talk of asking for your release to go to another league. I’ve been trying to get to the big leagues since I was old enough to throw a baseball, and all of a sudden now, you expect me to just lay down my career and be a guinea pig for you? Really, a lot of guys feel a level of disrespect: ‘You’re the most expendable, we don’t really care.’”

Don’t get them wrong; disgruntled Atlantic League pitchers aren’t taking issue with most of the rules MLB will be testing during the 2019 season, which opens on April 25. In fact, a lot of them are working in their favor.

“That makes any player happy, that there’s going to be more scouts and more exposure for our league,” says Mike Antonini, a lefty who played for the Somerset Patriots in 2018. “No matter where you’re at, that’s what you want.”

“The automated strike zone, TrackMan, advanced scouting, that’s great,” says Cory Riordan, who pitched two seasons with the Bridgeport Bluefish before spending last season with the Somerset Patriots. “That’s the way things have to trend because everything has gotten so analytical. There are some positives in here – the pace of play and the time between innings, that’s great. The pushback is with the mound.”

When you train to play a game a certain way, at a certain distance, you get to know how your own specific mechanics function at that distance, and what adjustments you need to make to throw the ball the way you want to throw it. The way you’ve trained, prepared, and made yourself as appealing as possible to the other teams with which you’re hoping to get a shot, has all been based on a set of parameters you never thought would suddenly change.

But during the Atlantic League All-Star break, that’s exactly what will happen: The mound will be shifted back an additional two feet. It may not sound like much, but it’s put quite a distance between the ALPB and a few of its pitchers.

“I don’t know if anyone is really putting much thought into how much of an adjustment it’s going to be for the pitchers,” says Riordan. “You’re not telling NBA guys, ‘You’re gonna play on 11-foot rims.’ You just don’t do it.”

“You have your arm slot, you have your offspeed, and you’ve trained for however many years at the 60 feet mark to have someone say, ‘Oh we’re going to move it back to get some more offense in the game,’” Antonini laments. “Like… why? I just don’t understand that aspect. So in those four days [at the All-Star break] we have to be able to adjust our off speed and arm slot, all that stuff.”

Antonini, and others, have noticed that the rule changes seem to tilt the game in the direction of greater offense, which makes their jobs as pitchers all the more difficult. And they’re not wrong, as Morgan Sword, MLB’s Senior Vice President, laid it out in the press release: “This first group of experimental changes is designed to create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning, and improve player safety.”

“At this point, I’m 32 years old,” says Riordan. “The Atlantic League was founded to help guys get back to affiliated baseball. In my eyes, the drawback is 29-year-old guys that are gonna try to get back to pitching in Triple-A or the big leagues, they’re not going to come be some guinea pig throwing off a 62-foot mound. If it directly translated to the major leagues right now or to affiliated baseball, then I’m all for it. But the problem is, in the foreseeable future, you and I both know, the MLBPA and whoever it may be, the Commissioner, there’s no way these rules are going to go into effect anytime soon.”

Should a pitcher catch a scout’s eye, he would have to switch back to the 60-foot mound in any of the leagues he’d be trying to reach. Conversely, if a pitcher saw any success throwing at the ALPB 62-foot distance, they’d have to prove they could be just as effective from 60. Either way, it raises an extra question for anyone scouting an ALPB pitcher. And for some pitchers, the issue is simply the idea that MLB is using the Atlantic League as a laboratory at all. They remain unsatisfied by the notion that they’ll stop by once in a while to tap on the glass.

“I’ll go on record saying anybody who says that this is a good thing for baseball is lying through their teeth,” Schuman says. “That is ridiculous. A lot of guys in this league are 27-30 years old, trying to make that jump back into affiliated ball. It’s not risking your career for $2,000 a month just because somebody wants to see if they can make baseball more exciting.”

If not the Atlantic League, then where would MLB test out its new ideas? Few leagues check as many as their boxes for them as the ALPB, and even the players have to admit that given MLB’s objectives, their league is the ideal choice.

“I understand why they’re doing it,” Schuman admits. “If I had to do the same thing and test on a league, I’d probably choose the Atlantic League. But that doesn’t make it right.”

Riordan suggests bumping the trial runs down a level. “Maybe some younger kids? Maybe some of the kids in the Frontier League, I think it is, where you have to be below 27? Kids that are trying to break into pro ball that didn’t get drafted, that many of them haven’t played affiliated baseball. They’re still very very talented, it’s just maybe, let’s try it with them, let’s not try it with the 31-year-old veteran that has 1,500 innings under his belt.”

With no guarantee that rules like the new distance from plate to mound will be permanently installed at any level, for pitchers in the Atlantic League this season, it could be the dawn of a new era for baseball, or just that weird half-summer when they had to throw from 62 feet.

White confirms that this three-year deal with MLB is subject to change, depending on what is learned:

“The agreement is elastic, so we expect that they may substitute something here, they may take a longer view of something there, they may take a look at an initiative from a couple of different perspectives over the course of the agreement,” he explains. “We haven’t really addressed what would happen at its conclusion. Ours is merely a step, but not necessarily the sole determinant of whether something is going to be adopted at the major league level.”

White understands – and along with his colleagues, predicted – the concerns of players who will have to play under these rules. He and his team raised similar concerns, he says, all throughout the development of the agreement.

“We spend a lot of time privately talking about player health and welfare,” says White. “Player wellness concerns go into virtually all of our travel and housing issues. Now, we aren’t always as effective as we’d like to be, but it is one of our primary concerns.”

White’s answer for pitchers is that they’re more prepared for the mound distance to change than they might realize, as they already vary the distance from which they throw on a regular basis.

During warm-ups, soft tosses, pitch and catch sessions, long tosses, lob tosses, and other workouts, White says pitchers never measure out specific distances. Depending on where a batter sets up in the box, there could be a difference of three feet. Catcher positioning and arm extension also inadvertently contribute to variations in distance.

“Because of that, subtly, virtually on every pitch, always with every batter, there is the prospect of the ball traveling anywhere between two and a half and five feet of difference, depending on the batter and the catcher and [those] variables,” White submits. “Pitchers never talk about that–that doesn’t meant hey aren’t mindful of it, but they never talk about it.”

Distance, White also says, isn’t the biggest issue when it comes to pitcher health: the slope of the mound factors far more into throwing a pitcher out of whack. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I think that has a lot to do with MLB’s decision not to lower the mound as was so widely speculated before we announced this.”

Even so, the initial reaction from some ALPB pitchers has been not only discouragement and frustration, but in some cases, a deterrent to sign an ALPB contract.

“I actually might have a friend coming to the league for the first time, trying to get back to affiliated baseball,” says Riordan. “He was informed of the rules and he was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I thought this was supposed to be the gateway back to where we wanna get.’ It’s put a little wrinkle in there.”

“Why would a guy come out and risk his career for the second half when they’re doing this so hitters can have a better chance?” Schuman asks. “Okay, well I’m a pitcher; the only way I’m getting out of this league and a chance to get back to the big leagues is if I have good numbers. So you might as well go ahead and chalk it up – if you’re in the Atlantic League in the second half, you’re not getting signed. So what am I doing wasting my time? I might as well go get a job doing something else before winter ball.”

The job of the league president and the team executives is to get more fans in the seats. They can do that through a closer relationship with MLB. They can do that by ingratiating themselves to MLB by being a laboratory for its rule experiments. And they can do that by fostering whatever the league has determined to be a more entertaining version of the sport, which, based on the rules they’ll be tinkering with in the season to come, seems to lean toward creating more offense.

The job of the players is to get out of the league. They are former big leaguers, college players who didn’t get drafted, and athletes looking to extend their careers. The competition level in the Atlantic League makes it a step up from the minors, yet its lack of direct affiliation with major league teams makes it uniquely suited for MLB’s motives.

When something changes anywhere in baseball, somebody is going to feel it. The ALPB has made itself stronger through its agreement with MLB, creating a wider path for future players to reach their goals through a bounty of new assets. But here in the present, a planned mid-season shift has left pitchers feeling like they’re simply a casualty of the league’s plans.

“It’s all that was talked about for about a week after it got done, whether it be coaches or players that have played in the league with me for a couple years,” says Riordan. “I just don’t see there being much of an upside for us.”

“Everyone’s goal in that league is to get signed or get another chance, and if that happens, we have to revert back to the 60 feet,” Antonini agrees. “I just think there’s no need for it in the game or what they think is going to come of it.”

Schuman sighs. “It feels like they’re giving us a little and taking a lot.”

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.
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3 years ago

I understand the feelings of players on the back nine of careers…but I’m also intrigued. I will take the 20 minute drive to see how it plays.

Shane Tourtellotte
3 years ago

Thanks for the peek back into the Atlantic League, Justin. I wonder whether it would have been better for MLB to bite the bullet and move back the ALPB’s mound at the start of the season, at least to give the pitchers more time to adjust. It doesn’t quite sound like a mutiny is brewing, but there’s potential for a light train wreck.

One correction to make. The Somerset Patriots do not play in Somerset, Massachusetts, but in Somerset County, New Jersey (in the town of Bridgewater). Back when I still lived in New Jersey, I went to several of their games a season. Seeing the old ballpark in that photo brought back memories (from way back when it was still Commerce Bank Ballpark rather than TD Bank).

And I see by the big number on the press box that they retired Sparky Lyle’s number. He was their manager for a long time. Classy move. I would expect no less from the Patriots.

3 years ago

It’s really a bunch of good ideas, one there’s no harm in trying at the Atlantic League level (no shifitng), one that strikes me as a waste of time (are networks that pay for 2:05 of commercial time actually going to say “ohh, okie-dokie!” when you propose cutting that down to 1:45???), and one terrible, horrible, hideous Godawful idea. Moving the mound back (or forward) strikes me as a far more disruptive change than raising or lowering it. Just awful.

Pirates Hurdlesmember
3 years ago
Reply to  Richie

Seems like the pitchers can fix this really easy by going out and turning it into a farce league wide. If breaking pitches no longer work and a wild as suggested they would have to switch back to keep the league going. Its one thing for fastballs, kids in little league deal with a 4 foot change from 46 feet to 50 feet for tournaments, but I do buy into the issue with breaking pitches.

3 years ago

Oh, and thank you very much for this article, Justin. An excellent conception and execution!

Antonio Bananasmember
3 years ago

if they want more balls in play, move the OF fences back and increase the size of foul territory. those 2 things have changed dramatically and coincide with the increase of 3 true outcomes.