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Astros scandal leaves union, MLB trying to figure out future of technology in baseball

Astros scandal leaves union, MLB trying to figure out future of technology in baseball

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Replay rooms have become ground zero for what’s next for technology in Major League Baseball.

The ongoing Houston Astros scandal has brought the use of television monitors anywhere from the dugout on back into question. Monitors are now in place, a delay on the feed is also demanded and general access to the rooms is in question. That’s the current status. The players’ union and MLB are trying to figure out what’s next. Full removal of access to the replay room seems unlikely. More stringent rules about what occurs in there are being considered by the union. Both sides know public relations management is at stake as much as functionality.

Max Scherzer, who is among the players on the MLBPA executive board, is one of the leading voices in deciding what’s next.

“This is where the situation’s fluid,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “That, as players, this is how we see it: there’s a benefit to us in the game to be able to watch our at-bats, watch our pitches, where the pitch locations are and see what just happened, make adjustments on the fly. And, if we’re able to do that, it makes the game better. We can compete at a higher level. Everybody. So, I don’t necessarily believe we need to take replay away given where we were last year with it. There are rules and things we’re very cognizant of [when] trying to eliminate catcher’s signs on those replays so we can’t steal that.”

Replay rooms have replaced real-time discussion on the bench. In the past, players had no choice but to turn to hitting or pitching coaches, or teammates, for information when returning to the bench. Questions about hips leaking or swing path or tipping pitches were covered in conversation. Those still take place. But, the replay room has become an in-game magnet for both hitters and pitchers.

“For a hitter, if you’re looking at your swing, it’s more like positioning that you know is good or bad with your swing,” Ryan Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “It’s not like you’re going in there and looking at the sequence of the signs. It’s more mechanics and things like that. Same thing a pitcher would look at with their windup.”

Another thing being checked by hitters? Decisions against them from a prior inning. Irritation from a blown strike call can end up back in the batter’s box.

Scherzer also uses the replay room immediately after his start ends and his shoulder care is under way. He ices, does his maintenance routine, then pops into the room to review specific pitches from big moments. He’s trying to understand if the process or execution were correct. And, he wants to do so when everything remains in the fore of his mind.

“You’re so emotionally connected to these pitches, you want to be able to see what happened,” Scherzer said. “What just happened? What do these replays look like while everything’s still fresh? I don’t look at every pitch, but I go look at some of the big pitches, so what happened in this situation? For me, I’m self-correcting my instincts, was this a good pitch or was this a bad pitch and kind of getting that instantaneous feedback, so when you go home and sleep at night, you know what you’re sleeping on. You know what you’re thinking about as you kind of process what just happened.

“I get it, obviously those replays could be available after the game. If I’m not using replay to undermine the game, I’m using replay to benefit myself, I don’t think we have a problem. We need to be careful about how much regulation we put into the game. At the end of the day, replay for individual players is not a problem.”

What is?

“Using it to be able to convey signs in real time.”

The Nationals’ replay room requires a player to leave the dugout, head up the steps then take a left into the clubhouse and a right into the hallway adjacent to the clubhouse. It’s a few feet from Davey Martinez’s office. Inside, Jonathan Tosches, manager, advance scouting, watches the lone live feed and fields calls to determine if the team should challenge. The rest of the monitors are on an eight-second delay. A human monitor, installed by MLB and called a “chaperone” by the players, is also in the room. Another is wandering to denote if a player was on their cell phone during the game. Even more monitors were present during the 2019 playoffs.

So, the line becomes about coexistence. The players are considering a longer delay on feeds in the room -- perhaps up to 20 seconds. They hope, at a baseline, one (well, two) bad apples have not spoiled the situation for the bunch. They are also operating from a fundamental understanding of human nature: the issue with temptation is it exists no matter what.

“I wonder if all of the camera angles and the cameras that we have around, I wonder is it tempting for teams to try to do what the Astros did and bend the rules to cheat and try to gain an unfair advantage? I honestly don’t know,” Doolittle said. “Was that the natural progression all along, when you have this many cameras in the stadium looking at so many different things? I don’t know.”

“You want to reduce temptation by altering what’s available during the game,” Scherzer said.

“No matter what you do, there’s always going to be somebody who tries to cheat,” Zimmerman said.

Which leads to one more, non-technical element. Players want the league to take complaints more seriously. The conundrum for the commissioner’s office is wading through what’s sour grapes and what may be an actual grievance.

“One thing we keep coming back to, the players, that stuff with technology seems almost secondary,” Doolittle said. “One of the big changes that we would like to implement, that we would like to see, is some sort of system where a club or a player can file a complaint or tip. If a club could say to MLB we think something is going on here knowing that it would be taken seriously and investigated.

“Because after this scandal with the Astros, we now know MLB had had several reports from teams asking for investigations or asking them to check it out and they didn’t do anything and nothing changed, nothing came to light until there was a whistleblower. A guy put his career on the line to talk about this publicly on the record. It shouldn’t have to come to that. They had some knowledge of this and it didn’t look like it was taken seriously. If we had a system where we knew some reports would be taken seriously, and acted upon in a timely manner, I think that would help a lot, too.”

The one unified thought is the current system is not working. The 2017 World Series champion was shown to cheat. The 2018 champions are under investigation. The 2019 World Series champions are a secondary story in their own complex. Something needs to change.

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Reports: MLB owners approve deal on coronavirus-induced measures for 2020 season

Reports: MLB owners approve deal on coronavirus-induced measures for 2020 season

Major League Baseball’s team owners have reportedly voted to approve a labor agreement between the league and its players union that implements a series of measures designed to help baseball weather the coronavirus outbreak.

Several changes were reported Thursday evening before the owners ratified the agreement.

Among them were a transaction freeze, the assurance that players’ service time clocks would be unaffected by any suspension or cancellation of the season, a reduction in the number of rounds in the next two amateur drafts, a potential delay to the international signing period and the adjustment of arbitration rules to avoid penalizing players for lower counting stats during a shortened season.

More details emerged Friday as reporters collected information surrounding the deal.

- According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the 2020 season will not begin until three major thresholds are met: 1) The bans on mass gatherings in states with MLB clubs are lifted, unless MLB decides to host games at neutral sites or without fans instead. 2) There are no travel restrictions. 3) Health experts deem it safe for both teams and fans to attend games.

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reports that signing bonuses for players drafted over the next two years will not increase as was originally outlined in the current collective bargaining agreement. It’s a decision that agent Scott Boras has called “unconscionable.”

- Passan also added that MLB would consider running a combine for amateur players ahead of the next two drafts and that drug-related suspensions will be still served in 2020—but if the season is cancelled, then those suspensions would be waived.

- While not clear if part of the agreement itself, The Athletic’s Evan Drellich reported that the commissioner’s office has “an understanding with all 30 teams” that their non-player employees would be paid through April 30. A decision has not been made as to what will happen after that.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated that it’s unlikely MLB will be able to play a full 162-game season, but that both the league and its players hope to play as many games as possible—with ideas like scheduled double-headers and fewer off days on the table.

No firm date was given as to when MLB hopes to begin its season.

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Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña are earning comparisons to MLB greats. What can we expect in Year Three?

Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña are earning comparisons to MLB greats. What can we expect in Year Three?

Juan Soto ventured into enemy territory last summer when his friend and contemporary Ronald Acuña emerged from the visitor’s dugout at Nationals Park and began to chirp at him.

The pair hit it off when together for the MLB All-Stars in Japan during the 2018 offseason. When they exist as rivals -- at least by the standard of being in the same division -- they still joke, hug and admire. Any comparison of the two will not be centered on vitriol. They’re having too much fun hammering baseballs in their early 20s.

Should the season restart, Soto and Acuña will start their third year in the National League East. It won’t be a full season. We already know that because of the current hiatus, but it may be enough to have another reputable look at next steps for each. And where they already are is comparable with any young duo in the history of the game.

Here are the totals from their first two years in the league:

Acuña: 67 home runs, 130 OPS-plus, 9.9 WAR.

Soto: 56 home runs, 140 OPS-plus, 7.4 WAR.

Acuña is 22 years old. He has a Rookie of the Year Award and fifth-place MVP finish on his ledger.

Soto is 21 years old. He finished second to Acuña in Rookie of the Year voting in 2018. He finished ninth in MVP voting last year.

Their mutual beginnings are so potent, a recent pairing to compare them to is Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.

Sounds ambitious. If not flatly hyperbolic. And, when it comes to Trout, it is.

He compiled 19.4 bWAR in his first two full seasons at age 20 and 21. That’s more than Acuña and Soto combined. Trout was intertwined in a who-is-the-best debate with Harper at that point. That discussion is long over.

Harper’s 8.9 bWAR the first two seasons (age 19 and 20, respectively) falls right in line with Acuña and Soto. He was essentially the average of the pair.

Let’s dial back to other young stars.

Mickey Mantle finished with 12.2 bWar across 1952 and 1953, when he was 20 and 21 years old, respectively. Willie Mays pulled together 14.4 bWar in 1951 and 1954 combined. Mays was 20 years old in his first full season. His 21-year-old season was abbreviated, and 22-year-old season non-existent because of military service. Hank Aaron compiled 7.6 bWAR in his first two years when playing in his age-20 and age-21 seasons for the Milwaukee Braves. And, just as a head-shaking aside, it’s always fun to point out Mays was a 24-time All-Star and Aaron a 25-time All-Star. Decent efforts on their part.

So, what came in Year 3 for everyone listed above?

Trout was named MVP after a 7.7 WAR season at age 22. Harper was hurt, then put together his best year, his MVP season in 2015 when 22 years old.

Mantle had a strong 6.9-WAR season when he was 22 years old.

Mays, then 24, went crazy his third full season in the majors: 51 homers, 13 triples, a 1.059 OPS, .659 slugging percentage, 79 walks and 60 strikeouts. Put it another way: Mays had more combined homers and triples than strikeouts in 1955 when he was 24 years old. And yet, he finished fourth -- fourth! -- in 1955 MVP balloting behind Roy Campanella, Duke Snider and Ernie Banks.

Aaron finished with a .923 OPS and 7.2 WAR in year three.

Soto and Acuña will be hard-pressed to reach similar WAR totals in a shortened season. However, they still have another decade for future comparisons and to keep chasing the ghosts of the greats.

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