The independent Atlantic League has long been an innovator, and they have long been happy to blaze a trail for Major League Baseball to follow.
Now, the two sides have formalized what was already happening informally, as the league and Major League Baseball announced a three-year agreement that will allow MLB to use the independent league as a testbed for rules and equipment changes.
And those rules changes will be significant. While no one with the Atlantic League would confirm the changes, it is expected that the rules tweaks will involve moving back the mound and using Trackman to call balls and strikes, both rules changes that have long been suggested, but are significant enough to require plenty of in-game testing.
And those are changes that would be nearly impossible to first implement in any level of affiliated minor league baseball or the developmental Arizona Fall League, as all 30 teams would likely be hesitant to let their prospects loose on a mound that isn’t 60-feet, 6-inches from home plate. But the Atlantic League, which is full of veteran pitchers, many of whom have MLB experience, will give MLB an opportunity to try out a rather significant change with high-caliber players.
Under the decision, beginning this season, the Atlantic League will adopt new rules at the request of MLB and then will offer feedback on the advantages and disadvantages of the new rules. MLB will also now serve as the official statistician for the Atlantic League and MLB will install Trackman radar devices at all eight Atlantic League stadiums so that all 30 MLB teams can receive in-depth data on each and every pitch and ball put in play at any Atlantic League game.
“We have enjoyed this working agreement the past four years that has largely covered the transfer of players. Informally when we commenced that discussion we began a dialogue. We told them that we will do things we believe are best interests of professional baseball. If it’s useful to you, great,” Atlantic League President Rick White said. “We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and their initiatives where it is now formalized.”
It’s hard to underplay what a significant day this is for the Atlantic League. This is the first time in memory, and likely ever, that there has been a joint press release issued by Major League Baseball and an independent league. Ever since the Frontier League and Northern League debuted in 1993, independent leagues were long seen by many in affiliated baseball as the rogues of professional baseball.
The divide was significant enough that the National Association renamed itself Minor League Baseball in 1999 in part to help create a clearer distinction between affiliated minor league teams and independent league teams.
Now, MLB has gone into partnership with an independent league, using it to try out rules changes and developing closer ties to make it easier for MLB clubs to scout and sign players from the Atlantic League.
“It’s a wonderful collaboration and opportunity. To see our logo side by side with Major League Baseball is a great step forward for the Atlantic League . . . It’s a great day for the Atlantic League. We thank Major League Baseball,” Atlantic League Founder Frank Boulton said.
“We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and their initiatives where it is now formalized,” White said.
The Trackman installations will be similar to that seen at most affiliated minor league parks. It will not be the full MLB setup where each player on the field is tracked at every moment. The Atlantic League’s officials believe that the new setup (and having stats provided by MLB) will help more Atlantic League players sign with MLB teams.
“Now each game we play will be transmitted to each of the 30 MLB clubs. A numbers of scouts had suggested over the past few years that if we could ever get Trackman it would make a difference in the exposure players receive,” White said. “Because of the nature of our players, virtually ever one of our games is scouted. But the challenge those scouts had was they were having difficulty interpreting their personal view versus the advanced analytics that every affiliated player has at the Double-A/Triple-A level. This gets past that.”