(Photo courtesy of Darren Yamashita, USA Today Sport)
(Waldorf, Md., Aug. 19, 2019) – In its quest for a more efficient, error-free and hopefully optimized game experience, Major League Baseball’s transformation of the Atlantic League from the game’s last-chance motel into its test lab has largely been a rousing success.
An automated strike zone that converts the home-plate umpire from arbiter to mere messenger is right far more often than it is wrong. A ban on mound visits and relief specialists undeniably speeds the game’s pace.
And rules changes aimed to encourage balls in play and runners in motion – Thou shalt not shift defensively, but you may “steal” first base – gives hitters options beyond launching balls over a vexing alignment of fielders.
Yet as its experiment with a “robotic” strike zone and other nuances enters its second month, the formal partnership between MLB and the Atlantic League illustrates the upsides and consequences of optimization.
Umpire-player conflicts may be few. That doesn’t mean players, managers and umpires don’t feel somewhat conflicted about their roles as pioneers when the outcome may eventually marginalize their respective crafts.
“I think it’s really cool to be around this,” says Kent Blackstone, the shortstop for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, “because if they can get it right, I see this being in Major League Baseball in three to five years.
“For us to be the first ones to use it, if I want to get into the operations of baseball, I can say I was there during all this. I try to shift it to the positive.”
Spend an August day in the Atlantic League, and you get the overwhelming sense it’s only a matter of when, not if, the radical experiments bubble up to the big leagues. When MLB officials descended on the Blue Crabs’ training camp in Lakeland, Florida, to discuss this most unusual season to come, momentum was palpable.
“There’s a lot of people who say, ‘This will never be passed at the major league level,’ ” says Stan Cliburn, the Blue Crabs’ 62-year-old manager. “Well, people better look back and see that baseball’s about change, life’s about change.
“Is it the direction Major League Baseball is going? They’re certainly taking a hard look at it.”
That will certainly delight fans who chafe at every blown ball-strike call, screen-shotting the injustice in a bid for social media glory. Yet the “robot ump” path from the sun-baked fields of independent ball to the big leagues will have its detours.
The greater dilemma might revolve around what’s lost on the way.
'You have to adapt'
Creature comforts in the Atlantic League – with franchises in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and suburban Houston – are few. A sack of Egg McMuffins might constitute the morning clubhouse spread, and the Blue Crabs’ unofficial motto – “If you don’t like it, play better” – reflects the players’ collective hope to latch on with an MLB-affiliated club.
An ominous device affixed to the stadium façade, however, goes a long way toward making them feel like big-leaguers.
TrackMan is, for now, the device that powers MLB’s Statcast, producing a trove of statistics that are increasingly mainstream: exit velocity, launch angle, pitch movement, sprint speed and so on. Without the MLB partnership, Atlantic League clubs would not have that data and, several players note, it will now be easily accessible for major league organizations that might have an interest in signing them.
TrackMan also provides the brainpower behind the automated ball-strike system, peering down on home plate. Though inanimate, it nonetheless pops up in conversations in manners like, “Well, TrackMan missed that one,” or, “I think the TrackMan went out for a bit.”
And TrackMan certainly has its quirks. For one, do not lie to TrackMan.
Blackstone found this out the hard way. Since he has not played affiliated ball, the 25-year-old shortstop had no previous data – such as height or batting stance – in the TrackMan system. Like many athletes of a certain height, Blackstone gifted himself an extra inch in submitting his player information, because who wouldn’t prefer a 6-foot shortstop over a 5-11 shortstop?
Trouble was, the generous height was entered in the system to establish his strike zone. And so in his first few games with the auto strike zone, several very high strikes were called against him.
“I always say I’m 6 foot,” says Blackstone. “But that’s over, man.”
Like anyone associated with baseball, TrackMan prefers sunny skies.
A recent Blue Crabs game at High Point (North Carolina) was delayed by rain and lightning, and when it resumed, Cliburn insists the conditions affected the strike zone. “The game ended,” he says, “on a strike that was nowhere close to being a strike. And I think the weather had something to do with it.”
And therein lie the bugs. While the strike zone is intended to be uniform, in any stadium, members of the Blue Crabs and Long Island Ducks pointed out parks with obvious variances. High Point likes the high strike. Lancaster (Pennsylvania) was missing the low strike, the true pitcher’s pitch.
Overall, the system received high marks for its lateral work, nailing pitches on either edge of the plate. Vertically? Not so much.
“If a ball hits that bottom of the box on TrackMan, it’s a strike. But that ball might hit the ground. To me, that doesn’t look good,” says Blue Crabs right-hander Daryl Thompson, a 2003 draftee of the Montreal Expos. “I feel like they need to tweak it a little bit more to get it to adjust to every hitter that gets in the box. If we can’t do that, it’s not going to be any use.”
Says Blackstone: “There have been times where the ball hits the ground and they’re calling it a strike. Textbook-wise, it might be a strike. We all would like to not get hosed on a strike three on a ball at our ankles. But you have to adapt.”
Or develop a foolproof system.
TrackMan is just one of many pitch tracking systems available, though many of the best are on-field devices and not suitable for live game action. Multiple reports indicate MLB will be shifting from TrackMan to the Hawk-Eye tracking system – best known for its work policing tennis serves – for Statcast and other purposes in 2020.
“There were a couple games where TrackMan malfunctioned,” says Thompson. “In the middle of the at-bat, the umpire would be like, ‘Hey Stan, this one’s going to be on me. TrackMan’s broke right now.’ That right there to me says this isn’t baseball if we’re going to be doing that.”
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred indicated last month that automated ball-strike systems would get an extended look in affiliated minor league ball before any serious consideration was given toward using them in the majors. “We kind of feel it's incumbent to figure out whether we could make it work,” he said, “and that's what we are doing.”
And that might put another baseball fixture – the home-plate umpire – on the clock.
Just one four-letter word
After MLB instituted significant replay review for the 2014 season, it was impossible not to notice how much quieter it was on the field, with little for managers to argue. It’s even quieter for Atlantic League umps, who now hear only one-four letter word when they work the plate.
The call comes straight from the automated ball-strike system to their earpiece, delivered in the same monotone, be it off the plate or a strike.
“You hear the pop,” says Atlantic League ump Jerry Martinez of the roughly two seconds it takes for pitch litigation. “And then you hear the voice. Strike, or ball.
“And then you have to render your mechanic. If it’s a strike, you call it a strike.”
Martinez’s crew mate, Scott Hart, was recently summoned to work games in the Class AA Eastern League, where he was besieged with questions from fellow umpires perhaps wondering where their next meal might come from.
“Before, it was kind of a mental battle,” says Hart. “You’re focused. The catcher’s trying to get a pitch from you. You’re reading the catch. That’s taken that out the window.”
But the auto-ump can’t totally replace the human element – unless it somehow develops a sense of humor.
“Every once in a while,” Martinez says of the voice in his earpiece, “it will tell you, ‘Hey, clean the plate.’ ”
“Nah, I’m only kidding.”
So let’s tally the casualties of baseball’s enacted and proposed rule changes:
Instant replay killed most of the game’s arguments. An automatic strike zone would marginalize the home-plate umpire. A three-batter minimum for relievers – in place in the Atlantic League and slated for enactment in the 2020 MLB season – would render the lefty relief specialist virtually extinct.
And in an automated era of balls and strikes, the catcher would be rendered almost irrelevant.
The most important position on the field – a virtual breeding ground for future major league managers – would be reduced to the mere act of catching the ball, destroying the art of pitch-framing at a time advanced metrics have quantified the skill better than ever.
Mike Falsetti is training the next generation of receivers how to receive. Now, he’s not sure what to think.
The 28-year-old Blue Crabs catcher is no Crash Davis – he has six home runs and a .188 average in five years of independent ball – but his measured vibe and cerebral nature make him a dead ringer for any major league backup catcher.
In the offseason, he trains catchers at a Chicago-area facility and will even meet up with pupils on the road in the Atlantic League. And every pitch whose ball-strike fate is determined before it meets his glove feels like another dig at his livelihood.
“The changes it makes to the position are drastic,” he says. “I’ve always thought every single pitch that’s received, the catcher has to earn the strike call. TrackMan rewards the lazy catcher, the bad receiver, and devalues the good receivers, and that’s a big part of the game.”
No more, at least not here.
Falsetti says the catcher-ump relationship – one of baseball’s deepest connections – remains, but it’s more a commiseration of their shared fate, and an occasional ask of whether the pitch would have been a strike if the ump had an actual say in the matter.
“I know they just want to get it right,” says Falsetti. “And it has been right, for the most part. It’s going to take a lot for the (TrackMan zone) to get to the big leagues. And I just hope that process sheds light on just how important that good-receiving catcher is.
“There’s a lot that goes into every single pitch: It’s the hitter’s mind-set, it’s the bickering between teams, it’s a lot. And you lose a feel for the game.”
It will be up to Manfred, or perhaps his successor, and the players’ association to determine that cost. In the meantime, the self-proclaimed guinea pigs of the Atlantic League will play on, realizing it’s futile to rail against agents of change, automated or human.
“You can’t yell at that machine up there,” says Cliburn. “He’s not gonna listen.”