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The Atlantic League rule changes aren’t about improving the game

If they really were curious, scientifically, they would introduce them one at a time.

Long Island Ducks v Sugar Land Skeeters Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Just over a month ago, I adopted my first dog. This was something I planned on doing once living out in the world, and especially with a job that affords me the flexibility to keep an eye on a new pup. We prepared with everything—toys, poop bags, treats, etc. and etc., and yet nothing really prepares you for the fact that this isn’t some automaton; they’re a being with urges and desires that sometimes run antithetical to your own at certain points, and that requires a good deal of patience.

Whatever our dog Curly’s circumstances were before we adopted her, she generally has a mind of her own, not in the necessarily destructive way—we got incredibly lucky on that front, not to mention she’s already house-trained—but you can see at many times she’s running a cost-benefit analysis on every choice, essentially saying “Is listening to mom and dad really worth the reward I’ll be getting?”

It’s tough to convince a different species that listening to you is in their best interest, so it requires gentle poking and prodding, introducing one stimulus, testing the response, and then re-adjusting based on the results. Each training “session,” even if it last a few seconds, is trying to slowly draw her into coming to your conclusions.

Yet dogs don’t speak human, and there is, naturally, a great deal of confusion if you’re not introducing just one stimulus. If I’m trying to get her to give paw; what if my tone of voice changes? What if it’s in a different social context or room? All of these not only confuse her but actually alter the experiment; it’s no longer about seeing whether this one request leads to her following; it becomes whether my request with this different context and that different context leads to the correct result, which becomes more difficult to parse.

So it’s a process, and I’m no training expert by any means, but anyone with a decent understanding of the scientific method can deduce some of these things. Well, then there’s Rob Manfred. Manfred has his own pet project, in the form of the Atlantic League. Manfred has urged—and I couldn’t even say by what mechanism considering they are independent—the Atlantic League to institute a number of rule changes to see how they could translate into the big leagues. Those include:

  • A TrackMan home plate umpire (the “robot ump”)
  • A moratorium on mound visits
  • A three-batter minimum for all pitchers
  • A reduced time between innings
  • A longer distance from the mound to the plate
  • A three-inch increase in base size

This is all... quite a bit confusing, right? Some of these things are likely coming to MLB already, including the mound visits (which are already being reduced) and the three-batter minimum.

That in of itself would be fine as a “test” of those future changes in another setting, but in the same way as training a dog, all of these together don’t actually lead you in the right direction, mostly because so many intersect and could counter-act that it would be impossible to know what the effect of each individual action would be.

Hell, the “shift,” which was a team-wide and not league-wide change, actually caused more walks to replace the lost singles, so what would happen if that was forcefully reversed? We don’t really know of the unintended consequences of these actions which is why, and this is the real point... I don’t think this is all about improving the game.

Ask a baseball historian in a century from now what the defining issue of the day would be, it would largely be two things. One would be the labor aspect in conjunction with technology and analytics, and how that reined in the (in owners’ views) excesses of the free agency era to mediate between then and the reserve clause era.

The other will also be a business aspect, and that is the viewership and revenue stream of the sport. Fandom is largely in the age-45-and-up space, yet revenue has doubled over the decade. This has been due to the revenue from lucrative TV deals, which may or may not be a bubble, and streaming money, which capitalizes on a more hyper-specific media market.

Both of them have largely been deflected and exacerbated by the league and the Commissioner’s office, largely by supporting the owners’ efforts and by further investing in those revenue streams like gambling and MLBAM, while simultaneously eschewing the larger, structural issues around both the age problem and the instability of the TV market.

So in its stead has become the false narrative, parroted by broadcasters and pundits on a screen near you, that, in fact, the game itself is broken. This tweak or that tweak will move the needle, I’m sure, as if that genuinely makes any sense, and this experiment only reveals that point. There’s no scientific method, or teasing out what change fixes what issue without causing more side effects, it’s tossing ham-and-mustard on the wall to see if it slides off or not.

Remember, the introduction of the lowered mound in 1969 was seen as a severe intervention, and the year(s) of the pitcher was building for a while before 1968. Yet they still waited another four years to introduce the designated hitter, and only in one league! I’m not saying there should be cautiousness for cautiousness’ sake, but there’s a sense of recklessness that doesn’t necessarily show they’ve been thought through.

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks, nor an old league. While a Kennesaw Mountain Landis program saw a staunch anti-gambling agenda to boost gate sales and trust, a Manfred program of rule changes, online media, and ironically pro-gambling is entirely, logically consistent considering the theme of the league is chasing the preferred revenue stream of the day, even if the rule changes are just a justification for the latter.