Press Box

WASHINGTON POST: First Came the 'Robot Umps.' Now an Atlantic League Batter 'Stole' First Base.

By: Jacob Bogage (Photo courtesy of Bert Hindman/Memories Photography)

Baseball purists, duck and cover. The experiments in the Atlantic League, the eight-team independent circuit Major League Baseball tapped to test a slew of new rules, are only getting more extreme.

First, it was the electronic strike zone, which officially debuted at last week’s All-Star Game. Next up: “stealing" first base, an experiment that has already been pulled off twice in the past week.

The Atlantic League previously announced that in the second half of its 140-game season, players could attempt to take first base on any pitch not caught in flight, essentially extending the dropped-third-strike rule to all counts.

The proposal was met with skepticism, especially from pitchers and catchers. The battery’s job is already more difficult with the new electronic strike zone, because catchers can’t frame potential strikes on the corners. Now, league officials have put every pitch in play.

“I am not okay with that rule,” James Skelton, the York Revolution catcher, considered one of the league’s top defenders, said at the All-Star Game. “I don’t like to talk bad about these things, but I think it changes the game. Me personally, I’m not going to first base. That’s a no in my book.”

Southern Maryland Blue Crabs outfielder Tony Thomas agreed. Players laughed at the idea when they heard rumors about it during the first half of the season, then dismissed it when their manager told them it was coming in the second half.

“If you asked me three days ago, I would say: ‘I’m not going. I’m never going to go,’ " Thomas said in a phone interview.

But then on Saturday, the Blue Crabs were down 1-0 to the Lancaster Barnstormers in the bottom of the sixth inning. Southern Maryland had finally knocked out Lancaster starter Buddy Baumann, but things were getting late early.

Thomas took strike one from reliever Alejandro Chacin, then watched his next pitch, a wipeout slider, fly all the way to the backstop, where it got lodged beneath the padding on the wall.

Thomas made a break for first. A batter becomes a runner, according to the rule, when he takes both feet out of the batter’s box toward first base.

Thomas was standing on first base before catcher Anderson De La Rosa had retrieved the ball.

“I thought: ‘Oh, I can get on base and help my team. I’ll take that 0-for and get on base and maybe start a rally,’ ” Thomas said. “If it would have ricocheted back, I wouldn’t have ran. But the catcher out of repetition asked for a ball from the umpire. The umpire went in his pocket for a ball, and that’s when I took off.”

The play is officially scored a fielder’s choice, which means Thomas did not get credit for a productive at-bat (or a stolen base). In the dugout, teammates mumbled about whether what he did was allowed. First base coach Joe Walsh gave him a high-five and said, “Way to take one for the team.” Many in the crowd of 4,210 stood and cheered.

“It’s a rule,” Thomas said of his change of heart. “I’m not taking advantage of anyone. And late in the game, it’s my job to get on base. I look at it like I have to help my team win, not like a bush league way to play the game.”

Four batters later, Thomas scored to tie the game on a (routine) fielder’s choice groundout to the shortstop.

The Blue Crabs piled on six more runs in the seventh and eighth innings for a 7-2 win, their fifth in a row to start the second half of the season.

League officials this week, though, recognized Jimmy Paredes of the Somerset Patriots as the first player to “steal” first base during a game against the New Britain Bees on Friday. In the third inning with a runner on first, Paredes struck out on a wild pitch for what would have been the second out. Traditionally, Paredes could not advance to first on a dropped third strike because the base was occupied, but under the new rule, he became a runner and advanced to first safely, and the man in front of him moved to second.

The “dropped pitch” rule is one of a number of new laws of the game that the Atlantic League debuted after its all-star break: Batters attempting to bunt may now foul off a single two-strike pitch before being called out, pitchers may not attempt pick-off moves while remaining on the rubber, and umpires have been instructed to rule on check swings in a “batter-friendly” manner.

In the first half of the season, the league rolled out larger bases, banned defensive shifts and mound visits, and required pitchers to face three batters before being removed from the game.

At the All-Star Game last week in York, Pa., the league officially debuted its electronic balls and strikes system, in which a computer program relays calls to the home plate umpire via a Bluetooth earpiece.

MLB officials have said they are looking to the Atlantic League to gauge the effect of the new regulations, which align with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s vision for a faster, more action-packed game, before considering them during negotiations over the 2022 collective bargaining agreement.

Players have voiced mixed reaction over the agreement that allows big league officials to toy with the Atlantic League rule book. While many have welcomed the increased attention of scouts and the media, some of the rules proposals, including the “dropped pitch” rule, have caused an uproar.

Already, the Atlantic League delayed a plan to push the pitcher’s mound back two feet over unrest from players and coaches.

“It’s all about what fans want to see. Do they want to see more action and balls in play?” Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Long Island Ducks outfielder who played six years in the major leagues for the New York Mets, Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Angels, said at the All-Star Game. “We’re professional ballplayers. We don’t answer that question. Our job is to get hits or get outs. We don’t change our approach based on what fans want to see.”

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