Editor's note: Matt Buschmann is currently pitching in the minor leagues at Triple-A Norfolk, an affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles.
Umpires? Where the game is headed, there won't be a need for umpires.
The movie "Back to the Future" turns 30 this year and is still considered one of the best starts to one of the greatest trilogies of all time, where the lead character is wearing an orange vest. In honor of those great events that started in 1985 and spanned 130 years on the space-time continuum and, also, the Cubs beating Miami in the World Series in 2015, I came up with a great idea to help me write this post.
I'm going to get a time machine and travel 30 years into the future to see what the game of baseball looks like in the year 2045!
What's that you say? We can't time travel yet? Oh, well. What if I put on a Huey Lewis and the News song, put on an orange vest and come up with some ideas on where this game might be headed? It's like the same thing as time traveling, right? Buster Olney has assured me that it is and as a Vanderbilt graduate, I completely trust his intelligent judgment. First, let's discuss where we are at the present.
Time, in regards to baseball (and in general), is relative. It moves more slowly inside the foul lines when compared to society at large. Technology in the real world changes and progresses at an insane, exponential rate. In just about 60 years, we've gone from inputting code on sheets of paper to a new groundbreaking phone every 12 months, after having nothing of the sort for thousands of years before. In comparison, baseball still uses a sanitary sock full of rosin behind the mound, introduced in 1926, to help pitchers with grip. Humanity has a rover on Mars and just took close-up pictures of Pluto, yet pitchers are still stuck with only one substance to help hold on to the baseball. (If you're wondering, yes, I am a pitcher.)
Needless to say, baseball doesn't change much. There is a purity factor fans and players like to cling to to justify keeping this game the same as the one they grew up with. It has become a virtual family heirloom to millions of families over the years and, like a treasured heirloom, it is each generation's task to safeguard it so the next generation can enjoy, and experience, the fondly remembered past. But even the history museum that is the game of baseball can't fight off progress forever. Since I started playing professionally nine years ago, there have been a lot of changes to the game and they seem to be coming at a quicker pace than ever before (nine years in baseball is equivalent to about one day in real life).
So let's look into the crystal ball and play the what-if game with regard to on- and off-the-field areas of baseball that look ripe for progress.
Value and player evaluation
The future of player evaluation and player development will become very scientific. With the advent of Trackman and Pitch F/X, baseball is able to measure everything that can happen to a baseball during a game. Spin rates, movement, release angles, spin axis, launch angles and exit velocity (off the bat) to name just a few. The question in the future won't be how hard a pitcher throws but rather "what kind" of hard does he throw. Not what's the hitter's batting average but what's the hitter's exit velocity. Radar guns will be relics of the past, giving only pitch speed with no context around the useless number that pops up. Spin rates, release angles and vertical/horizontal movement will be the metrics of the day for pitchers. A pitcher who throws 92 with a high spin rate (equates to the "rise" or "invisi-ball" hitters talk about) and long extension (sneaky fast) will be more valued than the 95 mph pitcher with below-average movement who releases the ball with short extension (a soft 95?). The need for a scout to rate a hitter's swing or a certain pitch on the very subjective 20/80 scale will dwindle when a Trackman printout can give a very objective look at each and then compare the data to the big league average.
This is happening now, as a handful of teams are buying in, but in 30 years it will be the norm. Baseball players will adjust accordingly. Whereas presently, young pitchers try to light up the radar gun, in the future they will worry more about lighting up the Trackman (hey bro, my four-seamer was 2,600 rpms!). Hitters will generate swings with less focus on merely putting the ball in play and more on generating specific launch angles and high exit velocities (leg kicks for everyone!). Speaking of measurements ...
What if heart rate monitoring became a prominent aspect of baseball and not just for health purposes, but for managerial decisions and fan experience as well? In the future, every player will have a built-in heart rate monitor that relays heart rate and other vital signs to the dugout and through the television to fans watching at home (Yo, you see Jeetah's kid last night when he got that game winnin' hit? He has the lowest heart rate I've ever seen! Ice in his veins!).
It will be another variable for a manager to consider when deciding whether to leave a pitcher in, take him out or simply make a mound visit. If the bases are loaded and the manager looks over and sees his pitcher's heart rate is pumping 195 bpm, he might consider getting someone hot in the pen. Plus, how cool would it be, for a fan, to see a closer's heart rate in Game 7 of the World Series with two outs in the ninth inning? Speaking of vital signs ...
The most talked about injuries in baseball over the past several years have been arm injuries to pitchers. More specifically, elbow injuries involving the ulnar collateral ligament that requires Tommy John surgery to fix it. Sure, we've gotten to a point where it's a big part of the conversation and everyone agrees that it's a problem that needs addressing, but in 30 years will we have found a way to stem the flow of young pitchers going under the knife? Absolutely! Technology will have progressed to a point where health monitoring will be instantaneous.
Fitness trackers won't just count steps, but rather give a snap shot of hormone and nutrient levels in the blood, as well as inform an athlete when they have dipped below optimum levels. All of this will happen without having to give blood (dude, your micro-nutrient levels are low, mix in a vegetable). MRIs will be so simple and efficient that pitchers will get one after every outing to help catch early warning signs of injury. Body scans will search weaknesses in the skeletal and muscular structure, identifying when the body is out of alignment and could possibly be at risk for damage. Add all that with the aforementioned heart rate monitoring and teams will have a complete picture of the actual stress a pitcher or player goes through after each game. Barring any "freak" injuries that seem to come out of baseball more than other sports (a back injury from aggressive sneezing?), injuries from playing every day should become a rare occurrence. Now let's look at some on-field/game play what-ifs ...
Other than the the distance of the outfield fences, the dimensions of a baseball field have remained steadfast since forever. Ninety feet between the bases, 60 feet, 6 inches from the pitching rubber to home plate. At first glance it's hard to imagine any of those changing in the future, but baseball does have a precedent for doing so. After the aptly named "Year of the Pitcher" in 1968, led by Bob Gibson's insane 1.12 ERA, baseball mandated the height of the mound be lowered from a loosely enforced 15 inches to the now standard 10 inches. This was done to inject more offense (read "excitement") into the game. We seem to be heading in that direction again. Offensive production has been in a downward spiral over the past few years with homers going down and strikeouts on the rise. Combine this with the fact that the average fastball has gone from just under 90 mph a little over a decade ago, to a robust 92 this year (Don't think 2 mph makes a difference? Just ask a hitter.) and a "supposedly" enlarging strike zone (I heartily, but respectfully, disagree), this trend doesn't look to be reversing itself any time soon. I recently was talking to a physicist in a baseball dugout (yes, you read that correctly) and he kindly informed me that every 10 inches of distance closer or further from the plate a pitch is released equates to 1 mph more/less in effective velocity from the perspective of a hitter.
In English, that means a pitch released at, say, 54 feet that looks 90 mph to the hitter would look 89 if the same pitch were released from 54 feet, 10 inches. Class dismissed, and with that in mind, it is just a matter of time before the pitcher's mound is moved back 10 inches to 61 feet, 4 inches, taking essentially 1 mph away from every pitcher in the league. The fans, and therefore baseball as a whole, respond to offense. It creates more excitement and pairs nicely with a beer and a hot dog, so this will be an easy fix to balance the competitive edge. Speaking of bad decisions ...
The umpire. Everyone's favorite punching bag and scapegoat. The deck has always been stacked against umpires and, to be fair, it is built into the very nature of the game of baseball. For example, if an umpire happens to find favor with, say, hitters, it is an absolute matter of fact, based on principle, that pitchers must thoroughly be against said umpire and basically question every decision he has ever made. But no more I say!
For better or worse, the role of the umpire is slowly diminishing. The advancement of technology almost demands that, because we can, we should get every single call on the field correct. And that includes balls and strikes. With Pitch F/X in every park now, it's not only evaluating players but it's also evaluating the boys in blue. We've reached a point where every single pitch called behind the plate can instantly be determined to be right or wrong. This is relatively new, it's scary, and it's also unfair. After all, umpires are human and to expect them to call a game perfectly every time is ludicrous. They are now being held to an impossible standard by players and fans alike and something has to give. Baseball will not be able to withstand the outside pressure of people demanding a perfectly officiated game and will eventually go to an automated strike zone. Each player will be measured before the season to determine their personal strike zone and off we will go.
The interesting question for me will be how long we keep the umpires on the field to continue making calls they have no say in. Knowing baseball, they will be there for a long time to come to keep the aesthetic of the game alive. Fans will still want to see emphatic called "strike threes" and stone-cold "ball fours" called, even though they won't be able to argue with them.
Those are some of the more prominent areas I can see changing, but there are so many more that are likely to, and should, change. For those we have the lightning round. Here are some rapid-fire what-ifs, shoulds and long shots we could see in the next three decades.
Nets, nets, nets: How there aren't nets over the dugouts to protect fans from foul balls yet is beyond my comprehension. Most baseball players wouldn't want to sit over the dugout for fear of injury and they are trained in the art of catching a baseball. This should be fixed, and soon.
First female minor leaguer: Believe it. When? Whenever Mo'ne Davis is draft eligible.
Worldwide draft/draft overhaul: The sooner the better. The draft system is deplorable and needs to be fixed or else there will be an exodus of young Americans to Cuba looking for the insane contracts coming out of that country.
Minor league overhaul: It seems to me the number of minor league levels and teams has gotten absurd. It should be scaled back to perhaps only three levels (Class A, Double-A and Triple-A), cut the total number of players in the system and spend more money per player on development and nutrition. The excess players will filter to independent baseball, bringing more legitimacy to those leagues and creating more opportunities for players to sign into affiliated baseball once they've proved themselves.
The rosin bag: A different colored sanitary sock for the rosin? Baseball will probably just stick to rosin only. After all, it has a stubborn reputation to keep.
Wearable cameras: It might be a long shot. But as wearable cameras get smaller, each player could be outfitted with one and it would be active only when in between the foul lines. Fans could tune into their favorite player to see what they see at any given moment.
Bat material: We are already seeing new types of wood being used for bats (birch, bamboo). I find it hard to believe, with the overall push to going "green," that technology doesn't allow us to develop some kind of composite material that mimics an actual wooden bat without having to use actual wood. That will probably be a fight, though.
A major league team in a new country: If baseball revenue keeps growing, I don't see why not. Any time baseball can create a new fan base, it will do so. Mexico seems to be the front-runner at the moment.
DH in both leagues: They better not, knowing the intricacies of a double switch should always be part of the game. Plus, pitchers are athletes too. We even bat flip now, just ask Zack Greinke.
A new pitch: The cutter has been the pitch of the present era. Rather than a new pitch taking over, I think we will see a resurgence of an old and familiar one, the curve. With the high strike going away for a while, the game adjusted to sinkers and sliders, taking advantage of wide margins. As the high strike creeps back into the game, the fastball up/curveball down sequence will be making a reunion tour.
Shifts: With the addition of shifts to the game, the landscape of defense probably will change and never look back (No, defense won't be outlawed). Each hitter will eventually have his own specific shift and it will be a back and forth of hitters adjusting and defenses adjusting back. Eventually I can see specific field positions becoming obsolete and players merely labeled as "infielder" or "outfielder."
I'm sure there will be many changes to the game in the next 30 years, even some we don't see coming. With several collective bargaining agreements to be had from now until then, you never know what the powers that be will deem important enough to add or subtract from this wonderful pastime we all share.
Baseball has always been slow to progress, but I think it comes from a good place. It comes from a hesitancy, the keepers of the game most surely feel, to mess with this American family heirloom that has been handed down for generations. It will always be a tough task to progress this game in a way that keeps it healthy and entertaining for fans of the future, but still maintains the look and feel of the game of the past that so many hold dear. I, for one, get excited for progress and any time we can make things better, we should. I look forward to the future of baseball and witnessing just how good players will become.
As for Cubs fans, they all better put on an orange vest and hope, somehow, Marty McFly's future mirrors their own. We already have the shoes and the hover board.