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How different would baseball be, if baseball were different?

We’re about to find out.

Baseball’s potential future will be showcased in the independent Atlantic League this year, and it includes robot umpires, a 62-foot, 6-inch distance between the pitcher’s mound and home plate, and no infield shifting.

Those three rule changes are among a wide variety of experiments that the Atlantic League will run this season as part of its new partnership with Major League Baseball. The changes, announced Friday, include:

• Using a TrackMan radar system to help umpires call balls and strikes
• Extending the distance between the pitching rubber from 60 feet, 6 inches to 62 feet, 6 inches in the second half of the season
• Mandating that two infielders are on each side of the second-base bag when a pitch is released, with the penalty being a ball
• A three-batter minimum for pitchers — a rule MLB and the MLB Players Association are considering for the 2020 season as they near an agreement on a smaller set of changes
• No mound visits, other than for pitching changes or injuries
• Increasing the size of first, second and third base from 15 inches to 18 inches
• Reducing the time between innings and pitching changes from 2 minutes, 5 seconds to 1 minute, 45 seconds

While MLB has long tested potential rule changes in the minor leagues, its three-year partnership with the Atlantic League — an eight-team league that features former major leaguers trying to return to affiliated ball — offers the ability to try more radical rules.

“This first group of experimental changes is designed to create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning, and improve player safety,” Morgan Sword, MLB senior vice president, league economics and operations, said in a statement. “We look forward to seeing them in action in the Atlantic League.”

This story goes into more detail and analyzes how likely it is that MLB could adopt these changes, and how much effect they would have. Most of the proposals have been at least talked about for some time, with the possible exception of the base sizes, which are presumably to encourage more steal attempts. Like many people, I dislike the idea of restricting the ability of teams to field players wherever they want – bring on the weird defensive alignments, I say – but otherwise I am intrigued. And hey, one member of the Atlantic League is the Sugar Land Skeeters, so if I want to see what these changes look like with my own eyes, I can do that. What do you think? Craig Calcaterra and the Effectively Wild guys have more.

MLB adopts expanded instant replay

Excellent.

Baseball’s replay age has finally dawned, thanks to Thursday’s unanimous approval by owners of what commissioner Bud Selig called a “historic” expansion of replay to correct missed calls.

The new system, which will go into effect this season, will give managers most of the power to trigger reviews, by providing them with one challenge per game, along with a second potential challenge if their first is upheld.

Only after a manager has used up all of his challenges, and only from the seventh inning on, would umpires be authorized to initiate a review on their own.

For the first time, calls at first base, at the plate and on the bases will be reviewable. There will be limited exceptions, including the fabled “neighborhood play” at second base. But MLB executive Tony La Russa, one of the architects of the new system, estimated that almost 90 percent of all potential calls are now reviewable.

Disputed home runs will be reviewed under existing rules and do not need to be formally challenged.

Baseball officials paved the way for Thursday’s vote by negotiating late deals with the Major League Baseball Players Association and with the Major League Umpires Association. Sources said an agreement with the players’ union wasn’t finalized until Wednesday night.

“The Players look forward to the expanded use of replay this season, and they will monitor closely its effects on the game before negotiating over its use in future seasons,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

Meanwhile, MLB alleviated a key concern of the umpires by agreeing to hire two additional umpiring crews (a total of eight new umpires), and staffing the replay center in New York through a rotation of current umpire crews instead of with former umpires and umpiring supervisors.

“For some, the discussions regarding expanded replay appeared to move too slowly, too deliberately. But there were technical and operational challenges that needed to be addressed, and that took time,” World Umpires Association representative Brian Lam said in a statement.

More details are here. As you know, I’m a big supporter of replay technology to get as many calls right as possible. I just see no reason not to be able to review and correct where needed calls that are obviously, painfully wrong. Umpiring is hard – I’ve done it for youth baseball – and MLB umpires generally do an excellent job. But nobody is perfect, and even the best umps can get caught out of position or get a sub-optimal view. Why hang them out to dry when a fix is so easily done? The NFL has used instant replay with great success for years, and while it was controversial at first, there’s basically no one arguing against it any more. I’m sure there will be some reactionary voices this season, and I’m sure the system will need some fine-tuning – MLB has committed to tweaking it as needed over the next three years – but before you know it we’ll all be wondering what took so long. Pinstriped Bible and Hair Balls have more.

Calling a ball a ball and a strike a strike

Bobby Valentine says that’s the way he wants it.

A day after being ejected, Boston Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine was still steamed about umpiring, and said technology should be used to eliminate human error in calling balls and strikes.

“I want a ball called a ball and a strike called a strike. Figure out how to do it,” Valentine said before his team began a series Monday at Miami.

Valentine, upset with plate ump Al Porter, launched a tirade with two outs in the ninth inning of Sunday’s loss to Washington. The Red Sox dropped all three games in the series, and Valentine said his frustration about the way pitches were called built through the weekend.

But he said he has long been in favor of using technology to get such calls right. Covering the Little League World Series as a network announcer convinced Valentine change was needed.

“It was the most criminal thing I ever saw,” he said. “I wanted to cry when a kid, in the sixth inning with the bases loaded and his team down by one run, was called out on a strike three on a pitch that was six inches outside. He couldn’t reach it with his bat. I cried for him. That kid is scarred for life playing our game by an injustice.

“And then someone says the most ridiculous words that I ever hear — ‘But we like the human factor.’ It’s criminal that we allow our game to scar a young person like that. And then it continues. I think in 2012 it should not be part of the process.”

Valentine declined to propose a specific solution, but said the technology exists to improve the accuracy of calling pitches. He said he doesn’t fault umpires, because he believes it’s impossible to see the final few feet of a pitch traveling 90 mph and sometimes breaking sharply.

I share Valentine’s feelings about “the human factor”, which stopped being charming once it became undeniable how random it is. The technology to do this any better than the umpires isn’t there yet. When you see the “K Zone” on ESPN or whatever, you’re not seeing the whole picture, because the strike zone by definition is three-dimensional. If any part of the ball passes over any part of the plate at the right height, it’s a strike. It’s just a matter of time and having enough cameras in the right places to make it feasible. The question is whether the powers that be, and that very much includes the umpires themselves, want to see this happen. Cameras are only being used in a very limited way right now, for home run calls, so there’s a long way to go before the idea of technology supplementing, or perhaps supplanting, human arbiters takes hold. I think it’s inevitable, but I believe it’s at least a decade, if not a generation, away.

Forget the “human element”, just get it right

Regarding the debate over instant replay in baseball, two facts are incontrovertible. One, the umps have really been blowing some calls lately. I mean, Joe Mauer’s ground rule double to left in Yankee Stadium that Phil Cuzzi ruled foul even though it was fair by a foot was one of the more egregious things I’ve ever seen. And two, baseball has made numerous changes over the years to how the game is officiated, all of which were done in an effort to improve outcomes. Over a hundred years ago they professionalized the umpiring corps to prevent intimidation by home team fans. Over time they added a second umpire, then a third, and then a fourth, because it was too hard for fewer men to call the game. They added umpires on the foul lines in playoff games specifically because those calls can be very hard for an umpire stationed in the infield. Given all that, I don’t see why having an umpire in the booth, with the authority to step in and reverse an obviously wrong call, is such a big deal. To me, getting the call right outweighs any other concern. I fail to understand why that point is even controversial.