Hall officials agreed to take the earpiece, an Apple AirPod, from the game between the Long Island Ducks and New Britain Bees.
The decision represents a major vote of confidence for the Atlantic League and its rule trials. Major League Baseball officials for generations have avoided acknowledging independent baseball’s place, though nonaffiliated teams have been around as long as the game itself. Then in February, Major League Baseball signed a three-year agreement with the Atlantic League that allowed Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office to install experimental rules in line with his vision for a faster, more action-packed game.
Among the changes discussed was an automated balls and strikes system, run via a panel made by sports data firm TrackMan above home plate. After a half-season of testing, the system was ready for the All-Star Game and is rolling out at all eight of the league’s stadiums beginning Thursday in Long Island; Lancaster, Pa.; and High Point, N.C. The final team to activate the software will be the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs on Aug. 2.
“I think it’s testimony to our players, our umpires, our coaches, everybody in the league,” Atlantic League President Rick White said in a phone interview. “This is recognition of our contribution to the game. One of the reasons we [made the agreement with MLB] was to raise the profile of the Atlantic League. We’ve always been confident of our impact on the game with the number of players we send to the MLB. But this is another sign that we have a solid place in the game.”
Even before that agreement, insiders viewed the Atlantic League as a division that pushed the envelope on baseball innovation. While big league pitchers and higher-ups have bickered for years over a pitch clock, the Atlantic League in 2018 installed a 12-second timer between pitches and capped the time between half-innings. For hitters, rules were made for how frequently they could step out of the box.
And in addition to the electronic strike zone, opponents of which derisively call “robo umps,” the league extended the dropped third strike rule to all counts, allowing batters to steal first base. It also mandated pitchers step off the mound on pickoff attempts and banned mound visits and defensive shifts, among other changes.
The league already is tweaking its new rules, namely the electronic strike zone. Players, managers and umpires have generally spoken in favor of the software but noted concerns over pitches at the upper and lower extremes of the zone. Most umpires will not award a strike on pitches that graze the upper or lower edge of the strike zone because they’re hard for catchers to present as a hittable pitch.
But the TrackMan system will grant those pitches, leading to strike calls on breaking balls that dive into the dirt just after they cross home plate or fastballs that appear neck-high when a batter stands in an athletic position.
Officials recalibrated the strike zone this week to award a strike only when the entire ball is inside the upper boundary of the hitting area, not just a portion of it.
“I’m happy that they’re making an adjustment. It made me feel good that they’re looking at it to get rid of those extreme calls,” Somerset Patriots Manager Brett Jodie said in a phone interview. “But from the players, there’s some hesitation with it. There’s some uneasiness because there are pitches that guys have been taking for years that have been balls and now they’re going to be strikes. They just want to know and be able to learn it and know it without going back and forth.”
The league is also experimenting with the ball itself. Long Island and New Britain played the first game of a day-night doubleheader Wednesday with a “consistent-grip” baseball, a prototype from MLB supplier Rawlings.
The experimental ball is tackier than the model used in both affiliated baseball and the Atlantic League. It’s also a brighter white to help batters more easily spot the ball. Baseballs used in the professional ranks are rubbed with a dirt substance after coming out of the box to make them less slippery. It also dulls their bright white shine to a grayish eggshell tone.
“It feels tackier,” Long Island General Manager Michael Pfaff said in a phone interview. “I feel like if you took the baseball and held it in your hand and you had a game ball that hadn’t been rubbed up in your other hand, you’d feel the difference.”
MLB has experimented with models of “consistent grip” balls since Arizona Fall League play in 2016, according to an MLB official, and will extend the trial to the Atlantic League during the second half of the season.
It’s another supporting nod to the league that has embraced the challenge of being the proving ground for what’s to come in baseball.
“There’s a lot of variables in these rules,” Jodie said. “I don’t know if they’ll be exciting or good for the game. I don’t know yet if they will or won’t. But there’s a lot of variables that I’m not sure that everyone has thought about.”