An experiential partnership between Major League Baseball and the independent Atlantic League is drawing a prominent critic, as High Point Rockers pitching coach Frank Viola is expressing his frustration with the results.
Prior to the 2019 season, MLB and the Atlantic League announced a three-year agreement that calls for the independent circuit to effectively serve as a testing ground for various rule and equipment changes being explored by MLB. A number of ideas are being tested in the Atlantic League as a result of that agreement, with the recent implementation of Trackman automated ball-strike (ABS) technology being the element that has caught the most attention thus far.
Other, less prominent, rule changes have also been put into play as a result of the agreement. It is some of those measures that Viola–a former World Series MVP and Cy Young Award winner who has coached at both the affiliated minor-league and independent levels since his retirement–is taking issue with, believing that they are unlikely to ever be implemented in MLB and that Atlantic League players are unfairly being required to play within these rules. He is also expressing dissatisfaction with the initial roll out of ABS. More from Newsday:
But in the second half, more experimental rules were set in motion, including requiring a pitcher to step off the rubber when attempting a pickoff and allowing batters to attempt a steal of first base on any pitch not caught in flight….
“It’s horrendous,” he said of the agreement. “It’s just a shame that these kids have to be the guinea pigs for something that will never, ever exist on the major league level . . . You know that the players’ union is the strongest union around. You tell them that a lefty can’t a pickoff move to first base and they’re going to laugh at you and say, ‘That’s not a game anymore, you’re inventing stuff.’ ”
Last week, the Atlantic League rolled out the long-awaited Automated Ball-Strike system, powered by the Trackman advanced analytics system. Balls and strikes now are called using radar and relayed to the plate umpire through an earpiece. Although Viola believes this theoretically is a good idea, he said the system was not close to 100 percent correct in the first week of official operation.
“It’s making a mockery of everything,” said Viola, who pitched for the Mets from 1989-91 and won the Cy Young Award in 1988, when he was 24-7 with a 2.64 ERA for the Twins. “We played a game night in High Point that at least a dozen pitches were missed, and this is the second week into Trackman. It’s not just my team, it’s the other team as well . . . Until they get it right, it’s just potluck guessing.”
While some in the Atlantic League have reacted more positively to the initial results of ABS, a few ideas floated as part of a partnership have proven controversial–including a plan to increase the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate by 24 inches that was supposed to be implemented during the second half of this season, but was ultimately pushed to the second half of the 2020 season. The full implications of these ideas, and whether any are ultimately implemented in MLB, remains to be seen, but Viola’s comments show that not everyone is on board with the results thus far.
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