Robot umps, shift ban coming to Atlantic League

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."

MLB has chafed at using technology to replace ball-and-strike-calling duties for umpires, fearful that it's not yet consistent enough to warrant implementation. While MLB has used a 60-foot-6 mound distance since 1893, the strikeout spike and lack of balls in play led league officials to wonder what effect a longer distance would have. Commissioner Rob Manfred has suggested banning infield shifts, and with the TrackMan system installed at Atlantic League stadiums, MLB will have a trove of data to analyze and see the effect of doing so.

Entering its 21st season, the Atlantic League has eight teams: the High Point Rockers in High Point, North Carolina; Long Island Ducks in Central Islip, New York; New Britain Bees in New Britain, Connecticut; Somerset Patriots in Bridgewater, New Jersey; Lancaster Barnstormers in Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in Waldorf, Maryland; Sugar Land Skeeters in Sugar Land, Texas; and York Revolution in York, Pennsylvania.