To steal first or not to steal first, can you trust robo umps and more Atlantic League revelations

We headed to an Atlantic League game between the York Revolution and the Somerset Patriots to see baseball's experimental new rules in action. AP Photo/Julio Cortez

YORK, Pa. -- Jimmy Paredes didn't mean to steal first base. It just kind of happened.

It was Friday, July 12. The first day of the second half of the Atlantic League season. During the all-star break, a batch of wacky new rules had been introduced. The craziest one of all? Stealing first base.

With one out and a runner on first in the bottom of the third inning, and with his Somerset Patriots trailing 1-0 to the New Britain Bees, Paredes found himself in a 1-2 hole. He swung and missed on the next pitch, a breaking ball that bounced in the dirt and squirted away from the catcher, toward the first-base dugout.

Without even thinking, Paredes started running: Even though traditional baseball law dictates that the dropped-third-strike rule doesn't apply with a runner on first, players are trained to get moving whenever strike three isn't caught cleanly. When there's a runner on first, umpires are trained to stop them. But this time around, the men in blue let it unfold, and Paredes reached first without even drawing a throw.

Just like that, he became the Neil Armstrong of stealing first base.

Like pretty much everyone else in the Atlantic League, Jimmy Paredes is driven by a singular goal: Get out of the Atlantic League.

A 30-year-old utility man who spent parts of seven seasons in the major leagues, Paredes' most recent stint in the show came in 2016 with the Philadelphia Phillies. Since then, he's bounced around more than a piece of fabric softener. After the 2016 season, he played for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican winter league. He spent 2017 in Japan, with the Chiba Lotte Marines. The following year, he hooked up with the Doosan Bears in South Korea, but was released midseason, then landed with the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League. This past March, after another winter with Leones, he was traded to Somerset.

On the wrong slope of the aging curve now, he knows full well that if he's ever going to make it back to affiliated ball (that's how independent league players refer to the holy grail that is MLB clubs and their minor league outposts), stealing first base isn't what's going to get him noticed.

"I want to hit," says Paredes, whose best big league season came with the Baltimore Orioles in 2015, when he batted .275 with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs in 104 games. He knows full well that his historic steal against New Britain was the byproduct of a reflex, an unintentional outcome that left everyone who witnessed it (including the umpires and broadcasters) scratching their heads. In fact, it wasn't until days later that he was retroactively credited with the theft, thereby depriving Southern Maryland's Tony Thomas of the title of First Dude Ever to Legit Steal First Base.

Three weeks later, sitting in the third-base dugout before a road game in York, Pennsylvania, Paredes admits that it would have to be the perfect storm for him to even think about stealing first again.

"If it's an important game, if the team needs a run, I try to do it."

Otherwise, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound switch-hitter would prefer to do what he's unhandsomely paid to do. "I want to take my at-bat. I'm confident. I trust myself. I can hit homers and win the game."

As closed-minded as Paredes sounds, he's certainly not compared to some of his colleagues.

"One hundred percent of the time, I will not go to first base," says James Skelton, a 33-year-old catcher for the York Revolution. "It doesn't matter if it's a championship game or just a regular-season game, or down by two or one, I'm not going to first. I'm going to hit my way or walk my way to first base."

For the record, stealing first base doesn't count as a steal because, well, it's not really a steal. But it's steal-ish, and so that's what folks have been calling it ever since news of the bold rule first broke. Per the new wrinkle, hitters are allowed to try to reach first base on any pitch that the catcher fails to catch cleanly in the air. Doesn't matter what the count is. Doesn't matter if the batter swings. Doesn't matter whether the ball short-hops into the mitt or skips all the way to the backstop. If the hitter breaks for first and beats the catcher's throw, he's safe. That's the easy part. The hard part is how to score it.

Technically, stealing first base does count as a walk -- now. At first, when the new rule dropped last month as part of a midseason supplement to the existing handful of rules MLB started piloting at the beginning of the season, official scorers were instructed to classify stealing first as a fielder's choice. But in a sport where stats are everything (including the thing that gets you a deal with an affiliated team), it was a marketing nightmare.

"I'm not going to make you wear an 0-for-1 by going to first," Somerset manager Brett Jodie remembers telling his players when they asked how he wanted them to handle a potential steal-of-first scenario. A former big league pitcher who had cups of coffee with the New York Yankees and San Diego Padres, Jodie is well aware of what the end goal is for his guys. Even though it took the league less than a week to change course and start crediting a walk instead of a fielder's choice, Jodie still gets the big picture and isn't about to heavy-hand his hitters.

"I'm not gonna make them go. If there's a ball that's blocked partially and gets away, and you can pretty much walk to first, I would prefer them to take it. But I'm not going to make them."

That's not to say there isn't any policing going on when it comes to stealing first.

"Most guys feel that it's bush league," Skelton says. "It's like stealing a base when you're up 10, or bunting to break up a no-hitter. Some guys are OK with it, but I don't like it."

The Revolution backstop is so against the new wrinkle he could easily envision it starting brawls.

"Rules are rules. If somebody wants to go to first base and my pitcher happens to hit the next dude, that's a rule in the books. You're allowed to hit somebody. I'm not condoning that, but if he's going to be upset because he's the pitcher that gave up the walk and a possible earned run and he wants to hit the next dude for doing it, that's kind of policing it."

Beside preserving the integrity of the game, Skelton is intent on preserving his body. "Blocking an 0-0 curve is not going to get me out of the league," says the former Detroit Tigers 14th-round pick, who made it as far as Triple-A but has spent the past seven seasons grinding away in indy ball. "If they want to get to first base that way, that's on them. But I'm not going to change my ways. I'll block balls when I need to block balls, which is what's going to get me out of this league."

At this point, the odds of Skelton making it out of the Atlantic League and into the majors aren't good. But thanks to stealing first, those odds are better than they were. Or so goes the thinking of execs, who believe that the increased exposure the league is receiving as a result of its guinea pig partnership will translate to more success stories, which in turn will lead to an increased infusion of talented players in search of their own success stories.

In the meantime, the scouting report on stealing first says that it's not a very promising big league prospect. As for some of the other risqué rules that are being rolled out, that's a different story.

Of all the rules that MLB is piloting, there are a select few that seem more ready-for-prime-time than the others. The three-batter minimum for hurlers (meant to cut down on all those time-consuming pitching changes) is one of them. Larger bases (expanding from 15 to 18 inches wide promotes safety, while also encouraging stealing) is another. But the one that really sticks out is robot umpires.

OK, so technically they're not robots. But they're not totally human, either.

"It's been different," pitcher Mitch Atkins says of the Atlantic League's new system, which uses Trackman technology to assist umps and debuted at last month's all-star game. A 33-year-old righty who appeared in 10 big league contests with the Orioles and Chicago Cubs, Atkins was the starter for the Freedom Division. As such, he was the first person ever to throw a live pitch with more than just an umpire calling balls and strikes. It was such a groundbreaking moment, the ball he used on his initial offering (a four-seam fastball right down the middle) was immediately quarantined and is currently being considered for potential display at the Hall of Fame.

"I guess that's one way to get in there," Atkins says of the Cooperstown connection. "It's a story I can tell my kids and grandkids."

He's not the only one with a story to tell.

In one of his first games using the Trackman system, umpire Nate Caldwell was behind the plate for a two-strike slider that caught the batter looking as it just barely nicked the outside corner. At least it appeared to.

"The catcher was rolling with it for strike three and the batter started walking out of the box for strike three," says Caldwell, who, like all umpires in the Atlantic League, works in crews of three (four, if you count Trackman). These days, when he's behind the plate, he wears an earpiece that connects to an iPhone in his pocket. The iPhone communicates with a laptop in the press box that sends an automated ball/strike call as soon as the pitch crosses the dish.

"This thing says, 'Ball' as I'm just getting ready to pull my chain. I'm like, 'No, that's gotta be strike three.' So I called strike three. It might have been a millimeter off the plate. The human eye doesn't see that. Not even the best hitter in the world sees that."

Caldwell didn't see it, either. That, or he didn't care. Regardless, he was within his rights. As part of the Trackman system, the guys behind the plate have the right to overrule what they hear in their ear. It's a right that, so far, gets exercised a few times a game.

"We still need to identify the pitch and have it in our heart," Atlantic League ump Derek Moccia says. "If it wasn't caught properly or it hit the ground, we can't allow that to be called a strike. So there is some human element that's not disappearing. When has a pitch ever hit the dirt and been called a strike in baseball? The integrity of the game still has to be intact."

Both Caldwell and Moccia agree that in the three months since initial testing began, the Trackman system has made strides. Instead of a two- or three-second delay in receiving the automated call in their ear, it now takes less than a second. "It's giving you proper timing," Moccia says. "It's cool."

There are kinks that still need to be worked out. Early reports suggest that in contrast to its stinginess on the horizontal edges of the plate, Trackman's strike zone -- which varies depending upon the hitter's height -- is more vertically generous than before, especially at the top edge.

"The strike zone now is not what it used to be," Atkins says. "I don't think it's any easier or harder. It's just different."

In the meantime, despite robot umps and stealing first and all the other crazy innovations MLB is trying out, the Atlantic League action still feels largely the same.

"Baseball doesn't seem like it's changed," Skelton says. "It might look a little different, but for the most part, in the clubhouse, in the dugout, on the field, everything's been the same."

The mound is still 60 feet, 6 inches away from home plate. It's still three outs per team. And the team that scores more runs still wins.

For now, anyway.