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As the weather warms and baseball returns, innovation is in the air

Paul Davis, the Mariners pitching coach, has no professional playing or coaching experience. Teams are thinking outside the box perhaps more than ever. (Masterpress/Getty Images)

Decades from now, baseball historians may look back at the spring of 2019 as the moment the game entered a new era in its evolution, a period we might call the innovation era. For a sport that traditionally has been slow to evolve, sometimes to the point of self-destruction, the rate of change has had a dizzying effect, and is certain to be in evidence as the 2019 season begins.

This was the spring of rule changes — immediate, future, proposed and experimental — that could shape the way the game is played on the field, in ways large and small. This season will see a reduction in mound visits. In 2020, a three-batter minimum for new pitchers. And perhaps someday soon: a universal designated hitter and a limit on defensive shifts.

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This was the spring that bullpens and batting cages across the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues were overtaken by high-speed Edgertronic cameras, Trackman and Rapsodo data-tracking devices and Blast Motion bat sensors. Once used by only a handful of progressive, analytics-driven franchises — the Houston Astros are widely credited with being the first — by this spring they had become almost ubiquitous, offering pitchers and hitters detailed data on every aspect of every pitch or swing.

This was the spring coaching staffs across the game began to reflect the shift toward innovation and technology, with hitting coach and pitching coach positions — for decades the domain of grizzled ex-big leaguers toting fungo bats and stopwatches — being given to young candidates with no professional playing experience and backgrounds in college baseball or data-focused, private training facilities.

“You have to be open to innovation these days,” said 36-year-old Mike Elias, the Baltimore Orioles’ new general manager and a product of the highly progressive Astros front office. Among his first moves with the Orioles was to hire Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer who helped build out the Astros’ industry-leading analytics department, as an assistant.

“The whole sport is doing it,” Elias said. “It’s not really an option [to not innovate] right now. Things are different than when it first came out. There’s success you can point to, and some of that happened in Houston. So players [on other teams] were naturally jealous and curious, and they’re excited to have it on their side now. Nobody likes being outgunned.”

Increasingly, the language of the game is rooted in innovation and technology. Think of some of the terms that have entered the baseball lexicon in the past few years: Launch angle, exit velocity and spin rate — phrases stemming from data-tracking. And the opener — the concept, first popularized last season by the Tampa Bay Rays, of starting a game with a short-stint “relief” pitcher to get through the top of the opponent’s order, before giving way to a more traditional “starter.”

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If you’re still out there trying to resist all the change, based on a preference for some old-school style of baseball, there’s some bad news for you: You’ve already lost.

“Some people didn’t like the radar gun either when it came out,” Seattle Mariners Director of Player Development Andy McKay said. “Progress is hard, because it takes a lot of relearning. It takes a lot of letting go of things you always thought of as the truth — even though there was really no evidence to support it. Now there are very few things we can’t support with evidence.

“You can stare at the evidence and try to deny it. [But] that’s just a really bad idea right now, because the evidence is overwhelming.”

The Mariners were one of a handful of teams that made hires for critical coaching positions that would have been considered radical just a few years ago but these days have become almost the norm. Paul Davis, the Mariners’ new pitching coach, has no professional playing or major league coaching experience — but he is a former college psychology professor whose only previous professional baseball experience was as the manager of pitching analytics for the St. Louis Cardinals.

A few others: The Los Angeles Dodgers’ new hitting coach is 32-year-old Robert Van Scoyoc, whose playing career topped out at Cuesta (Calif.) College but who is credited with helping start the launch-angle revolution thanks to his work as a private instructor with J.D. Martinez and others. The Minnesota Twins’ new pitching coach is Wes Johnson, formerly of the University of Arkansas, who has a master's degree in kinesiology and a deep interest in analytics, and who is believed to be the first pitching coach in history to jump straight from the college ranks to MLB.

After the Rays named 28-year-old Jonathan Erlichman, a former Princeton math major whose last playing experience came in tee-ball at age 5, as their “process and analytics” coach — who will be in uniform in the dugout during games — Rays Senior Vice President Chaim Bloom told reporters the addition is evidence of the organization “having no ego about how we get better and where good ideas come from.”

Undoubtedly, some of the innovation in baseball can be attributed to the fact it has a commissioner, in Rob Manfred, who has made it his mission to modernize the sport — largely in an effort to make it and keep it relevant for younger fans — and is not afraid to upset the old guard in doing so. Within days of officially taking over for Bud Selig, in January 2015, Manfred underscored that stance (and shocked much of the industry) by telling ESPN during a live broadcast that he was in favor of pitch clocks and would explore eliminating defensive shifts in the interest of “injecting additional offense” into the game.

Indeed, this year, MLB experimented for the first time with a pitch clock during spring training games (though it will not be used during the 2019 regular season), and will use its new partnership with the independent Atlantic League to experiment with other profound changes — including limitations on shifts, “robo” umpires and a pitcher’s mound that will be moved back two feet from its standard 60 feet 6 inches.

But Manfred has argued that tweaks such as these are not being made or proposed in an effort to create significant change for its own sake, but to manage the “organic” change already in evidence across the sport — brought about, in large part, by the widespread innovation and technological advances that have altered the fundamental dynamics of pitcher vs. hitter. The explosion in technology, for one thing, has forced the sport to rewrite its guidelines for sign-stealing and prompted it to experiment this spring with smartwatches for relaying signs from catcher to pitcher.

“We’re not up in New York thinking, ‘Baseball has been this way for a long time — how are we going to change it?’ That’s not the question,” Manfred said. “The [issue] is, we’re watching it change organically in response to decisions that are made by 30 different general managers in an effort to win two more games in a year. And I think we have come to the realization that that change is going to affect the product on the field, and we have to be a little more aggressive in managing that organic change.”

The coming years are likely to see more innovation and more changes. Many industry insiders believe it is only a matter of time before the National League adopts the designated hitter. Manfred has his eye on expanding eventually to 32 teams, with perhaps one of them playing in Montreal or Mexico City. There will be additional in-game rule changes, perhaps even a limit on shifts.

And as the past few months and years have shown us, the next advancements in analytics and technology are not simply waiting to be found — they’re already happening.

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