Changes forthcoming as MLB takes logical step towards automated strike zones

Stephen Brunt joined Sportsnet Central to discuss the MLB's decision to end the Tampa Bay Rays' split-city plan with Montreal.

Far from being a repudiation, the decision by the independent Atlantic League to drop the Automated Ball/Strike system is viewed by Major League Baseball as a logical step in the evolution of the electronic strike zone.

An industry source familiar with the thinking of MLB’s operations department says the process needs to be thought of as a funnel: an idea gets tried at one level, refined, and flows on to another, except in this case it flows upwards.

A week after the Atlantic League said it was doing away with ABS, ESPN reported MLB was hiring to fill technical positions at some triple-A ballparks with an eye toward rolling out ABS at that level this season.

The Atlantic League ABS experiment, which was conducted as part of a three-year agreement that allows MLB to use the league as a testing ground for rules changes, provided what the source described as “mixed” results, both technologically and in terms of the ‘feel’ of the game. Most importantly, however, it added to a growing feeling at the game's highest levels that the issue with the strike zone might well be the zone itself. One baseball executive told me last year that “nobody much likes how it (the strike zone) is defined in the rulebook,” which jibes with an interview given in March by MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer Chris Marinak, in which he opened the door to tailoring the strike zone to available technology, as opposed to the other way around.

As it stands, the “official” strike zone is the “area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants – when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball – and a point just below the kneecap. In order to get a strike call, part of the ball must cross over part of home plate while in the aforementioned area.”

But Marinak said evidence suggests the zone as it is called today is almost oval-shaped. Hmm … so that’s what Angel Hernandez thinks he’s seeing …

Commissioner Rob Manfred has used a carrot and stick approach in addressing pace of play issues and the more delicate matter of increasing the amount of action in a game that has come to be defined by three true outcomes: strikeouts, walks and home runs. Manfred has a degree of unilateral power, but also realizes that he needs agreement from the Major League Baseball Players Association to make it all come together. But rules changes have not yet been a factor in this round of labour talks, as spring training approaches without a deal in place.

The Atlantic League’s deal with MLB runs out at the end of the 2022 season, and it isn’t the only experiment the league has shelved. It also had deep-sixed a scheme that saw the pitcher's mound moved a foot farther from home plate. This season, the mound will be at its usual distance of 60-feet, six inches from home plate, after the Atlantic League saw strikeout rates actually increase following the move, in defiance of models that predicted the longer distance would give hitters more time to see the ball and thereby increase contact.

“There’s a belief that we may have out-grown the dimensions of the game,” MLB’s executive vice-president of baseball operations Morgan Sword told me in an interview on Sportsnet 590/The Fan last season, as he explained that experiment. “Nobody was throwing 99 miles per hour when that distance was originally set.”

Change is coming. The game will, eventually, have an electronic strike zone and probably an umpire located in an area behind home plate – say, at pressbox level - for real-time consultation on plays on the bases. I enjoy the whole back and forth when it comes to the strike zone, because I’m comfortable living in gray areas. But that doesn’t jibe with the marketing and gaming and demographic realities facing baseball. So … uncle.

I don’t lose sleep over the shift or pitching changes or openers, but trips to the mound should be eliminated. My goodness, if quarterbacks and coaches can communicate by audio in front of crowds of 80,000, I’m reasonably certain pitchers and catchers can do so pitch to pitch. Heck, I even love the idea of the ghost-runner in extra innings because it presents an opportunity for more strategy in both dugouts. If people aren’t comfortable with the notion of it being used in the post-season … then don’t use it in the post-season. Just as the NHL’s overtime rules differ from the regular season to playoffs …

Where did it go wrong with the Tampa Bay-Montreal 'Sister City' plan?

Parents will understand how the Tampa Bay Rays sister cities concept collapsed on top of itself this week: you buy your smartest kid a new laptop, tell him to bugger off upstairs and the next thing you know, he’s shut down the power grid.

That kid is Stuart Sternberg, the managing general partner of the Rays.

Thursday was a bit of day for baseball – a sad day for those of us who went all-in on the dream of baseball returning to Montreal (for which I won’t apologize, knowing the financial clout and political support behind the project) and not much better for baseball in the Tampa Bay area.

This much is clear from conversations with people on every side: at some point, baseball's powerful eight-man executive council pulled the rug out from under Sternberg and commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t stop it. And know what? I’m not certain the overall story is that opaque.

I wouldn’t get all wrapped up in the idea it’s related to the lockout and on-going CBA talks, since it was never going to be on the table: neither players or owners felt strongly enough about it happening to view it as a bargaining chip (rightly, as it turned out) and if it did come to pass it was a matter that would be dealt with simply by opening up the CBA.

That’s what owners and players did in 2004 and 2005 when they strengthened drug testing under pressure from Congress in the middle of an existing CBA.

I believe both Sternberg and Stephen Bronfman, who was the point man for the group of Montreal partners behind the concept that would have seen the Rays split their home schedule between Tampa and Montreal, were honest and accurate when they said that at the end of the day MLB simply didn’t want to be the first in the pool when it came to the notion of one-team, two cities. There were signs that things had shifted post-pandemic: first when Sternberg pulled back on having signage during the playoffs at Tropicana Field touting the sister cities concept, then when MLB owners punted discussing it at their last meeting.

Funny. One of the things Sternberg said during his Thursday news conference was that he believed professional sports – especially baseball – will need to embrace the notion of sister cities at some point. He then essentially said that as a franchise that has mastered analytics and finding hidden value and such – yes, he mentioned the opener – “we’re used to thinking outside the box.” That’s a paraphrase, but you get the point: ‘We’re the Rays. We know what we’re doing and we’re five years ahead of you.”

I mean … yeah. Maybe. But it seems clear that for MLB, the belief all along was that Sternberg deserved a chance to do whatever he could to get a new ballpark in Tampa, and if he wanted to float this lunacy? Well, have it!

The idea of using leverage to get a new stadium is time-tested, and back when all this started, I had somebody familiar with the process tell me point-blank that the chances of the Rays playing full-time in Montreal were better than the chances of the team being split between two cities with 30,000-40,000 seat outdoor ballparks. “Just wait,” was the response every time I followed up.

Yet wouldn’t you know it: Sternberg took the damned thing and ran with it. Left to his own devices, he lined up wealthy Montreal partners with baseball pedigree and political savvy. He sold the Mayor of Tampa, Jane Castor, and area businessmen on the sister cities idea. Whether MLB and Manfred viewed this as Sternberg simply accumulating more and more leverage, they gave him broad approval at almost every step and Manfred even came out publicly in support of the idea in February, 2020.

That, of course, was a month or so before Rudy Gobert had the bright idea to lick a microphone and changed the world.

And then at some point this fall, likely when the Rays thought about putting up that signage for a national TV audience, somebody tapped Manfred or somebody on the executive council on the shoulder and said: “Um, you don’t think Stuart actually believes splitting the team will fly, do you?’


Time to check in on the kid.

And then the hard questions were asked. Never mind the players association … how exactly would having a team in two separate ballparks with two separate leases work out over 15, 20 … geezus, 30 years? How would regional TV fit into this thing? Tampa Bay is a big TV market with solid ratings and the Rays contract is a good one. It’s a growing demographic market in a business-friendly, low-tax state. And then, perhaps the oddest twist: it seemed as if the Montreal partners were ahead of the Tampa group in ballpark planning. Bronfman said publicly that he wanted to announce plans in the first quarter of this year; meanwhile, Sternberg hadn’t even finalized a site.

The reality of the matter was that signing off on the sister cities idea meant at least acknowledging the possibility that if the whole thing cratered in Tampa, MLB would be left with a full-time team in Montreal.

There were way too many pieces to the puzzle for MLB. As a civic hostage-taking to get a new ballpark, it was a flop because Sternberg didn’t intend it to be such. Now? He is no closer to getting out of Tropicana Field and that new $700 million park – if it ever sees ground broken – will now need a retractable roof for the summer games that won’t be played in Montreal. So, add another $350 million to the project, and be prepared for rumours about the team moving to Nashville or, if there’s re-alignment, Las Vegas.

I asked someone close to the Montreal group whether this meant a return of MLB to the city was dead. “Depends on whether or not you believe Elvis is dead,” was the response. In the meantime, there are still some broader things to wonder about or at least note. If Manfred really believed what he said in supporting the bid in 2020 (I am more predisposed than my contemporaries to like Manfred, or at least acknowledge the pressure points he faces,) what does it say about internal politics at the ownership level that Sternberg and Bronfman both publicly laid the blame at the feet of the executive council instead of the commissioner? What does that say about the environment around Manfred during the lockout? Maybe – hopefully – nothing, because if you think Manfred is a labour hawk … have you met Jerry Reinsdorf?

Second … only one owner voted against the last CBA, the Associated Press reported back in 2016. In an email to AP, while not formally acknowledging that he was the dissenting vote, the owner said in part: “twice a decade, the bargaining process provides an opportunity to address the extraordinary and widening competitive gap that exists on-field between higher and lower revenue clubs. I feel that opportunity was missed here.”

That owner was Stuart Sternberg.


Let’s light some candles this weekend as we await Monday’s face-to-face negotiations in New York City between players and owners. In the meantime, how about that contretemps between the Edmonton Oilers Leon Draisaitl and veteran journalist Jim Matheson, eh?

I’d just like to say well done to all concerned. Good for Matty for sticking up for himself; good for Draisaitl for responding the way he did. I mean, it beats the hell out of another Connor McDavid Agonistes moment? BORING! Truth is, this happens more than you realize when reporters and players interact in a clubhouse or locker room. Hell, it used to happen a lot. Tim Raines and I didn’t speak for years because he didn’t like the reporting I did on Floyd Youmans. I had a former Expos pitcher, Butch Henry, write a message on the team whiteboard questioning my sexuality, along with that of another Gazette reporter. I’ve had at least two Hall of Famers while they were still playing tell me to ‘F-off” – yes, I voted for them when they retired – and I had another Expos pitcher, Jim Bullinger, throw baseballs at me during batting practice. Aw, good old Bully: he walked by me one time, brushed against me and said: “Nice shirt.” My response? “Nice ERA.” A couple of years later, Bullinger was hanging on in spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Bored, I walked all Larry David-like to say hello. “Nope,” Bullinger yelled out. “Nope …” and then he walked away. Bill Plaschke of the Times came alongside me and said: “Damn, you know you’re having a horse-shit day when Jim Bullinger does that to you …” It’s all good, folks.

Jeff Blair hosts Blair & Barker The Podcast. When the CBA gets done, he and Barker will be live on Sportsnet 590/The Fan from 10-Noon ET and in the summer from 5-7 ET. They will also host Blue Jays Talk post-game.

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