ALPB Rule Changes: The Cause Of The Exodus?


ALPB Rule Changes: The Cause Of The Exodus?

The Indy Ball Trial of the Century


By Nick Firestone & Will Thompson

March 2, 2020



UPDATE 2/29/2019- WE HAVE RECEIVED ADDITIONAL COMMENTS FROM TEAM OFFICIALS IN  THE ALPB AND INCORPORATED INTO THE APPROPRIATE SECTIONS. 


UPDATE 3/3/2020- THERE WAS A SMALL FACTUAL ERROR IN REGARDS TO THE MAX AMOUNT OF MONEY PER MONTH PLAYERS CAN MAKE IN THE FRONTIER LEAGUE AND THE NUMBER OF PLAYER WHO'S CONTRACT WAS PURCHASED FROM THAT LEAGUE AS WELL. BOTH DISCREPANCIES HAVE BEEN CORRECTED.


Exactly one year and two days ago today, Major League Baseball (MLB) made an announcement that would fundamentally shift Independent League baseball. It was announced that MLB would partner with the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (ALPB) on a series of experimental rules. The ALPB would act as testing grounds for these rules and in exchange MLB would allow the indy league to use the official MLB branding, install/cover the expense of implementing the rules, as well as providing advanced analytical data such as spin rate and launch angle. The agreement is set to last through the 2021 season and so far players, fans, coaches, and anyone remotely involved with the ALPB has an opinion on it. Some are fans of the deal and believe it to be huge plus to both MLB and ALPB. Others find the opposite to be true. They think that the changes made to the game are ridiculous and spit in the face of guys trying to get to bigs. 

So what were these rules that caused all this ruckus. Well there are a lot of little one that were implemented but for the sake of brevity here are a few of the major ones. The one that got the most press was by far the ABS or as you probably know it Trackman/Robo Ump. The cliff notes of this one is that the ALPB uses a Trackman system to electronically log where each pitch is thrown and using the measurables of players creates a strike zone. If the pitch clips or is in the zone then it’s a strike, if it’s outside then it’s a ball. I think it is pretty obvious to see how this one ruffled feathers. Players didn’t like things being called 100 percent by the book and had to adapt to the change on the fly. Other rule changes included removing mound visits, requiring 2 fielders on each side of 2nd base, forcing pitchers to step off the rubber before throwing over on a pickoff, allowing batters to ‘steal 1st’ on a wild pitch, allotting an extra strike to foul bunts, and adding a 3 batter minimum, which was adopted into MLB play for the 2020 season. And a little fun fact before we move on from these rules, one of the new rumored rules for 2020 is moving the mound back from the standard 60’6 ft.  to 62’6 ft. just something to think about. 


Regardless what you think of these rules one thing is clear; players are leaving the ALPB in volume. Big names like Mat Latos, Dallas Beeler, and David Washington have all left for greener ballparks. Dozens of other players like Telvin Nash, Rick Teasley, Liam O’Sullivan, and many others have also followed their lead as well. This brings us to our current dilemma, figuring out what is causing the exodus of players. Many people across the indy ball world have said that this trend is due in large part to the MLB partnership. So I figure we put that argument on trial. The trial of the century in independent baseball. However, in order to have a trial we’ll need to have an additional writer to represent the other side. For this, I turn to our good friend and ALPB expert, Will Thompson aka alpb_news on instagram. This trial will have the defense, that the rules aren’t the cause or have very little effect on the trend, represented by myself. Thus, the prosecution, the rules are the primary cause for the trend, will be represented by Will. After each case is made we’ll give our conclusions and leave you, the jury, to render a verdict.


So without further adieu, court is now in session. Mr. Prosecutor, the floor is yours.


Here is the reality of the situation; players are leaving the Atlantic League at an alarming rate for other independent leagues such as the American Association (AA)  and the Frontier League (FL). While both of those are certainly high caliber leagues, the Atlantic League since its founding in 1998 has been widely regarded as the best indy ball league in the United States. Independent leagues are judged not necessarily by the level of play on the field, but by how many players they can get back into MLB organizations. The ALPB, through last season, has been dominant in that category and just in 2019 alone, the ALPB sent 33 players to MLB organizations, compared to 23 players purchased from the American Association and 25 from the Frontier League. 

The Atlantic League and American Association each have a max salary of $3,000 per month, but the American Association gives out that salary more often, known as their “veteran” salary. The Frontier League lags behind in this regard, paying a maximum of just $2,500 per month. However, with merger between themselves and the Can-Am league going into affect this year some players can make up to $4,000 per month, those are few and far between though. Although the American Association pays slightly more, the travel is brutal due to the league spanning from Winnipeg, Manitoba (Canada) to Grand Prairie, Texas and in the past, that has seemingly pushed a lot of the bigger names toward the Atlantic League. 

Given these disparities, why on earth are elite players like 2019 league MVP Telvin Nash and arguably the best reliever, Mat Latos opting to play in other indy leagues. The answer it seems, lies right in the rulebook. 

Of course, I am not a professional baseball player. So how would I know what was scaring some of the best players away from the Atlantic League ahead of the 2020 season? So I asked some of the players who did opt to leave the ALPB for either the American Association or Frontier League and their answers seem to have a common thread. The ever-changing rules imposed by the MLB during the middle of the season rightfully angered players. After all, how is it fair to ask players, pitchers in particular, to totally change the way they play the game seemingly on the fly? 

“A lot of guys don’t want to find out week to week what the new rules are. I found out about the new pickoff rule 30 seconds before the national anthem. There were A LOT of angry guys last year that were too afraid to speak up,” said one former Atlantic League pitcher who made the move to the American Association this winter. 

When asked if his decision to leave was based on the uncertainty regarding the mound, he said that “I don’t think they’ll move the mound back, but I don’t want to find out what else they’ll come up with on the fly.” 

Nine year MLB veteran pitcher Mat Latos was arguably the Atlantic League’s biggest name last season. But, Latos isn’t just a regular former MLB guy we have grown accustomed to seeing in Indy ball. In fact, he finished 8th in NL Cy Young voting, alongside names such as the late hall of famer Roy Halladay, future hall of famer Adam Wainwright, and finishing ahead of prime Tim Lincecum. Not only did he have the name recognition aspect going for him though, he had the success in the Atlantic League to back it up. 

As the closer for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, the righty was dominant, posting a 1.06 ERA while racking up 25 saves. Given his performance in the Atlantic League, it was shocking when it was announced that Latos would join the New Jersey Jackals of the Frontier League, where he pitched as a starter during the 2018 season. When I asked him if the new rules played a role in his decision, he didn’t hold back. 

He said that his decision had “every bit to do with the rules. In that league, players are allowed to steal first base. The game became a joke.” 

Liam O’Sullivan was one of the best starting pitchers in the Atlantic League last season, posting a 2.96 ERA in 25 starts. Naturally it was a surprise once again when it was announced that O’Sullivan would move to the American Association to play for the Sioux City Explorers. 

“I’m not phased by much, but some of the rules make for a lot of uncertainty. But I play to win, no matter what the rules are,” O’Sullivan said. While he added that the rules were not a driving factor in his decision, he did acknowledge that “it definitely was a part of it, especially after playing winter ball with regular rules.” 

O’Sullivan brings up a very important point here that needs to be considered. It is very common for players to play in international winter leagues, most commonly in Mexico, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Australia. Is it possible that some players could have gotten the taste of regular baseball again and decided that they didn’t want to go back to a league where pitchers specifically need to completely change the way they play? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it certainly is a realistic possibility. 

It is very common for large numbers of players to move in between Indy leagues, that much is true. However, we have never seen so many talented players who have enjoyed tremendous success in the Atlantic League leave all at once. This trend is uncommon and alarming. It is not a coincidence that all this movement is happening after a year of playing under the MLB/ALPB agreement. Are the rules the reason for every player that was previously listed leaving? Of course not, but the strong feelings shown by the players regarding the rules they were forced to play under last season is telling. Given all this, there is no denying that the rules have had a negative impact on the Atlantic League this offseason. 

The prosecution rests its case. Mr. Defense Attorney, the floor is yours. 

 


Very well put and very convincing, but allow me to retort. It is true, there are a lot of ALPB players departing for other opportunities in other leagues. However, is the number really that much more staggering than in past years? We have grown accustomed to high roster turnover in indy ball. More often than not, that turnover is due to players just not being retained by their club, retiring from baseball, or wanting to pursue an opportunity in a different league. The point here is that it isn’t unusual to see good players leave the ALPB for other leagues seemingly out of the blue. Luke Westphal left to join the Chicago Dogs after spending 2017 and 2018 in York and Lancaster. He posted a 3.35 and 3.79 ERAs as a reliever in the ALPB. Then he became a starter for Chicago last year and posted a 2.82 ERA in 17 starts. Clearly he’s a talented pitcher that had a place in the ALPB. 

There is also an argument to be made about player individuality. Sure, a handful of guys are going to leave over the rules but that doesn’t mean they all share that concern. According to Skeeters GM Tyler Stamm “... the experimental rules implemented by Major League Baseball have not caused any direct player turnover in any capacity for the Skeeters.” Instead, he insists that “Player turnover in the Atlantic League from year to year is due to many factors (the opportunity to play affiliated/international ball or retirement from baseball in general are by far the two most common), but the experimental MLB rules have not been a deterrent for us thus far.” However, Stamm did say that he can only speak for his own club and not the other 6 permanent teams in the league. However, they were the only one's to comment on this. A front office member from another Atlantic League team said something very similar, "We haven’t had any real push back from players. They all still understand that the Atlantic League is the best independent league in the country and their greatest chance of being seen." In fact that particular staff member thinks the partnership is a major positive saying "I actually think this partnership helps if you have a coaching staff and front office who understand how to use these rules to the players advantage ..." He finished by saying that with MLB implementing some of the rules tested last year helps to strengthen the ALPB as that preeminent indy ball league. Long Island Ducks GM/President Michael Pfaff echoed the sentiments of both gentlemen above saying " Each year players make decisions on where to play based on a variety of factors that are unique to each individual player." He told me that the departure of players is equal to or lesser than previous years and that the opposite of our debate topic is true, asserting "So far this offseason I have experienced the same or higher outreach volume from interested players and agents."  Sugar Land, Long Island, and our mystery are all model organizations in the league, so it’s safe to say that their experience may be unique. But I don’t think so. Keep in mind teams deal with a lot of roster turnover throughout the year, sometimes seeing upwards of 60 different players taking an at bat or throwing a pitch for them. So is it unrealistic to believe that some of the players leaving may have interest from foreign leagues? Of course not, Stamm said as much in his statement. Interest from foreign leagues have been the reason behind trades in indy leagues before. A player plans on leaving half through the season for another team and the indy team decides to move him for something before losing them for nothing. Now, I'm certainly not going to say that’s what is happening with all of these players, but to say that none of them plan to do something like that is ridiculous. 

Another argument that needs to be made in defense of the ALPB is that the trends of the league just don’t fit some players. The Atlantic League was averaging nearly a half run less a game than the American Association in 2019 (4.92 R/G vs 4.59 R/G). Which might not seem huge to us fans and media types but is enormous to a guy that fields poorly and relies on his bat to get him back to affiliated ball. The team ERAs were also close enough last year (4.48 in AA vs 4.23 in ALPB) that it wouldn’t dissuade pitchers from jumping ship either. Of course the Frontier League plays into this as well. They are by far the most pitcher friendly league in all of major indy ball in 2019 with an average team ERA of 3.70 and a R/G average of 4.18. So to see a few older pitchers jump to the FL from the ALPB to rehab their stats wouldn’t be surprising.

I also feel obligated to address the crowd of people that will try to say the points made above are mute because players will want the advanced data that only the ALPB-MLB partnership can provide. To them I say this, most players that use a scouting service to get noticed by a team will have similar systems to Trackman and provide players with that data as well. Plus, people really underestimate how advanced some of the front offices are in the AA. Take the Winnipeg Goldeyes front office for example. Their play by play man Steve Schuster will often post advanced numbers on his twitter account (@growcasting for those interested) and their GM Andrew Collier does similar things as well. Other teams aren’t dissimilar from Winnipeg in their approach to analytics. So to those thinking that the ALPB is unique in regards to advanced numbers you are sadly mistaken. 

Also let’s not pretend like the ALPB is struggling to get players. They recently brought back Jimmy Parades and Brett Oberholtzer. Plus they added several other former big league guys too. If the rules really did have that big of an impact then these players would have also left.  

We could go around and around on this topic all day but I fail to see any convincing evidence that the MLB partnership with the ALPB is the major reason for these players leaving the league. There are too many factors ranging from players wanting to move on to a league that has a comparable skill level and offensive trends that benefit them to general indy ball roster turnover. I’ll concede the rules probably ran off a handful of guys and that’s all. At the end of the day, the Atlantic League is a high quality league however it isn’t the only game in town. There are dozens of other teams with just as high quality staffs and facilities to match. When all is said and done, there are too many variables at play to definitively say that this partnership is the root cause for this exodus.


The defense rests. 


We turn it over to you, the jury, to judge. Do you think there is enough evidence here to convict the MLB partnership as the main reason for players leaving the Atlantic League or do you think there are larger factors at play. You tell us. Be sure to share your take on the matter to either alpb_news on Instagram or indyballpod on Twitter (or indyballreport on Instagram). 


I’d like to thank Will for helping out with this article and co-authoring it with me. As always he’s a friend of the show and an invaluable asset to the indy ball community as well. If you enjoyed this article be sure to check out the rest of thecontent on indyballreport.com. And with that said and nothing left to add, until next time. Don’t forget to play ball!