The Atlantic League is the preeminent Independent baseball league in North America.
It can lay claim to having over 600 players sign with Major League clubs over the course of its 15-year history.
According to the Atlantic League website, over 40 percent of their players have "Major League Service time". With over 30 million fans that have witnessed their product, there is no doubt the future is very bright for the game and the league.
In late April, the Atlantic League decided to change things up and attempt to make the game more enjoyable for its fans, and bring in new ones at the same time. The die-hard baseball fan is never bothered with the pace of the game and all the minor intricacies that go with it. On the other hand, the casual fan wants the game to speed up in a timely fashion.
By simply deciding to enforce existing Official Rules of Baseball that are often overlooked the results were immediate; Games were quicker and the strikeouts amongst teams increased due in large part to the following changes;
- Calling the Rule Book strike zone as it is written
- Encouraging hitters not to leave the batters box and limiting duration of personalized music for each hitter from the press box
- 90 seconds between innings and only 12 seconds between pitches
With all the changes occurring, and the list of former MLB'ers getting back in the show, what better person to speak to then the man responsible for all of it.
I had the privilege of speaking with Peter Kirk, President of the Atlantic League to expand on the changes and talk about the future of the game;
Devon Teeple: When I first read about this, I really thought it was a good idea. I remember a couple years back when he SEC had the same idea. What was the deciding factor that eventually led to this decision?
Peter Kirk: It's nothing really new. Back in the 1970's the average time for a MLB game was 2.5 hours. Over the years it has crept up to the point where, I dare say, all professional leagues are at 3 plus hours give or take a few minutes. It's been discussed and studied for 20 years at least. The times have changed and the fan base really would like to see two things in baseball;
1. Shorter games, going from 3 hours to something along the lines of what it used to be.
2. Regardless of what the duration of the game is, the pace needs to be picked up a little bit. If you look at other sports and other things people are doing with their leisure time, it's faster paced. Baseball, which is a leisurely slow game, and those of us who love baseball are not offended by that, but the more casual fans really would like to see the pace picked up.
We spent some time over the last couple of years looking at, what we believe, are the items that are driving the longer duration and the slower pace. We decided that this year we would do an experiment-a controlled experiment-where we are going to enforce the rules that are already in the Major League rule book, and at the same time create a database that we can cross-reference, analyze what we are doing and make adjustments.
You're a pitcher; you know that baseball is all about making adjustments. Because there are so many variables, it's not just enforcing the rules i.e. hitter's are not supposed to step out of the box, and pitchers, with no men on base, are supposed to deliver the pitch within 12 seconds. The top of the strike zone is the mid-point between the top of the pants and the shoulders, where in reality, most umpires will call a pitch above the belt a ball.
What we want to do is enforce these rules gently. We're not looking to change the game, and we're not looking to have big arguments on the field that will take more time away from the game.
The reason we are taking the database approach is because we are dealing with the human element. Not every umpire is going to mechanically call all of this exactly the same. We want to correct for things like the different ballparks. Some ballparks have a lot of foul territory, so those foul pop-ups toward the dugout are an out, in others they're not.
The database approach will truly analyze what's going on, make the corrections, and then be able to, in an intelligent way, make adjustments to move forward. Then we can make suggestions to the Atlantic League-our primary purpose-but also if others leagues or Major League Baseball want to build on what we do is great.
DT: What is your time frame in analyzing data? One years, two years...
PK: We're doing it for this season and see where we are. Personally I think we're going to have quite a bit of information. There are some obvious things that will be revealed. By simply enforcing the rules that are there and watching the time between innings. For example, promotions are in just about every minor league game, hitters have their own walk-up music. There is not one item, but a combination of many.
It appears from the preliminary data, by enforcing these obvious rules that are on the books, can probably shave 10 or 15 minutes off the average game.
There have been a few interesting things that have come out of the data so far-a small sample size. The number of runs scored does not seem to be as big a driver of the length of the game, which is a big counter intuitive. Again, small sample size, so be careful with it. There a many high scoring games that move quickly. On the other hand, there are quite a number of low scoring games that drag on and are very deliberate. If you had to pick one item that seems to be the driver, it seems to be the percentage of pitches that are strikes.
You think of Major League down to Little League, if you throw strikes the game moves along. If you have a low strike percentage, the hitters go deeper into the count, you get more walks, the hitter becomes more selective and it feeds on itself. It results in increased pitching changes, which is big time slot; Catcher goes out to the mound, then the pitching coach comes out, followed by the manager who summons the relief pitcher who gets eight warm-up pitches and so on.
Another rule that is on the books is a pitcher gets eight warm-up pitches or one minute, which ever comes first. It's been in the rule book forever, but largely ignored.
If it's true that our data shows that this strike percentage is really a driver, then you can start thinking about, perhaps, more radical things. I'm not sure where I come down in this, but it definitely appears calling the strike zone the proper way is beneficial.
Perhaps the mound should be raised back up a few inches...maybe. People have suggested adding a couple inches to the width of home plate might be worth looking at?
We're not ready to say we have the answer, but we feel it's time for a scientific approach. At the same time we are doing this, we are surveying fans and interestingly enough we are seeing is that a large number of fans are very appreciative that we are trying and subjectively, they are saying they feel like the games are moving faster. Whether they are or not, it's a good thing.
We are doing this for the fans. Any of these factors are beneficial.
DT: Has there been any player reactions to the changes?
PK: Our players, managers, and umpires have been really great. There's been a real buy-in to this experiment. The pitchers have said they like the idea of moving the game along and fielders love it as you know! What we hear more than anything else from the hitters is that if the umpires are consistent they can adjust to almost anything.
Before we considered doing this, Bud Harrelson who is one of the owners in the league, was saying that when he played, a ball at the armpits was a strike. He had no problem at all with that. He didn't like the umpires who called the strike six inches off the plate, however one of the reasons he said the game moved along so much faster back when he played was because it was pretty much self-policed by the players.
I use this example! If he were hitting against Bob Gibson, and in between pitches he stepped out of the box and adjusted his batting gloves, you knew exactly where the next pitch was gonna go.
We met with the umpires in the Atlantic League before the season and let them know what we were thinking. If everyone is on the same page we were fine and the umpires have been very cooperative.
DT: Even though the changes are so slight, have you found that the pitchers have been thrown off.
PK: Really good question. In the Atlantic League players are more experienced, and about a third of the roster has had some service time in the big leagues. After all of their years of experience they are pretty set in their ways and it is difficult to ask people who have six, seven or eight years of experience to change and make that adjustment.
However, If by collecting the data we get a good idea that these changes are beneficial, you start working them in. It may throw some people off, though I haven't heard much, but then you start working these changes in starting in the college ranks and the lower minor leagues. I'd like to say you could flip the light switch and make the change over night, but you can't. That's why it's important to know where we're headed and how these things work. Let it evolve into a better game.
DT: With all the Independent Leagues in existence, do you think that at any time we would see one independent champion determined at the end of the season?
PK: With the different length of seasons it would make it difficult, although I wouldn't rule out some inter-league play during the season.
DT: Is there any way to put an umbrella over the Independent League's and create a feeder system to the affiliated clubs?
PK: That umbrella is something that has been talked about for quite some time. As good as the affiliated minor leagues are at developing young players, there are pieces that they cannot do by their nature.
The Atlantic League was originally created so players, who have already been developed, could play everyday. These players don't need the development like a Double A player does. They are looking to play everyday, stay sharp, put up good numbers, and hopefully get the call.
Triple A is trying to do two things. It's trying to be the top development level at the same time as a holding pen if you will, for developed players who are needed in case of injury or somebody not performing. If those players who are fully developed filled roster spots in the Atlantic League, it would free up Triple A to concentrate on being the highest developmental level.
The Frontier League and the American Association are short-seasons. The Atlantic is a full season (140 games), so they are less expensive to operate and can go into smaller markets that want their own minor league team that would match up well with their demographics. With MLB having cut back the amateur draft so drastically, and down to 40-rounds, the money is highly structured. If you are not drafted in the first 20 rounds it's hardly worth signing.
By the nature of the system, there are going to be a whole bunch of really good players that are missed in that shrunken draft system. Leagues like the Frontier League and others, who have really good facilities, good coaches, managers, and baseball people running each club, are going to be able to sign those players who are missed and give them a chance. The ones that rise to the top are going to have a career in Major League Baseball.
It would be very beneficial for Major League Baseball to follow those players, who have one-to-two years under their belts in Independent Baseball, and hold a draft. Instead of drafting players who have never played professionally, let them draft from players who have some experience.
DT: With the success of he Sugar Land Skeeters, what is your opinion on expansion and is there any chance of a team making it north of the border?
PK: Yes, the league is expanding. We are definitely looking to add additional teams. The ways we've expanded is by getting the word out about what the Atlantic League offers, and encourage cities that are curious to come and learn more about it. We haven't rushed out and targeted a city, more of having the information available and see if there's a good match.
So far we haven't heard from any Canadian communities, but I wouldn't rule it out. I used to be an officer in the Eastern League when we had the team in London, and there is certainly great baseball in Canada.
For more information on the Atlantic League please visit their website and follow them on Twitter.
Devon is the Founder and Executive Director of The GM's Perspective. He is a former professional baseball player with the River City Rascals & Gateway Grizzlies. Currently, Devon is a Manager at a financial institution in Northern Ontario Canada, and can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow The GM's Perspective on Twitter and Facebook. His full bio can be seen here.