It appears Major League Baseball has found an outside testing ground for so-called “robot umpires” and a longer distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.
The independent Atlantic League has agreed to make changes to its playing rules at MLB’s request over the next three seasons; Baseball America reported Tuesday that among the changes will be the use of technology to call balls and strikes and a move of the pitching rubber back from its current 60 feet, 6 inches to the plate. It’s not known how far the rubber will be moved.
Baseball America also reported that the Atlantic League will provide feedback to MLB after each season on the effectiveness of the changes.
Neither MLB nor the Atlantic League has confirmed Baseball America’s reporting on “robot umps” or changes to the mound. The two sides said in a joint statement Tuesday that rule changes will be announced in the coming weeks.
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“The Atlantic League prides itself on innovation,” league president Rick White said in the statement. The league’s most notable innovation has been a series of changes beginning in 2014 to speed the pace of play. The changes have shortened the average time of league games.
MLB has implemented its own speed-up policies in recent years, and commissioner Rob Manfred has been trying to get the players association to agree to a 20-second pitch clock at the major league level before he unilaterally imposes it. Pitch clocks have been used in minor league parks since 2015.
Moving back the mound has been one of the main suggestions for increasing offense in the majors, along with shrinking the strike zone and forcing relief pitchers to face a minimum of three batters rather than the current one batter.
Calls for technology to replace human umpires appear on social media whenever an umpire makes a controversial call behind the plate. The season-long use of technology in the Atlantic League will give the “robot” crowd even more fodder.
A “robot ump” has been used twice before in a professional setting: one game each in 2015 and 2016 in the independent Pacific Association. Former major league outfielder Eric Byrnes was the home plate arbiter both times. He voiced the calls that the electronic strike zone produced.
The eight-team Atlantic League, which stretches from Connecticut to eastern North Carolina to the Houston suburbs, plays a 140-game schedule from April through September. The league employs a wide range of players, from former major leaguers to career minor leaguers to undrafted players. Among the ex-big leaguers who pitched in the Atlantic League last season: James Russell, Robert Carson, Duane Below, Jonathan Albaladejo and Kyle Davies.
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