Friday, March 8, 2019

MLB Posts Atlantic League Rules, Including Robot Ump

Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League announced a finalized list of experimental rules changes MLB will test in the AL, including the computer-assisted home plate umpire strike zone feature discussed earlier. Pitcher mound visits will go to zero, bases will get wider, and infielder-based defensive shifts will be banned in some of the other rule changes.

It's official: Computers are coming to ALPB.
In February, we first learned of MLB's partnership with the independent ALPB when the pair of professional baseball leagues published a joint press release.

At the time, I wrote that the move benefits MLB because it allows the highest level of baseball to test realistic and off-the-wall rules changes alike in an environment that features professional players, but is not subject to the confines of affiliated ball or the MLB Players Association.

For the Atlantic League, the move gives the league exposure, access to MLB's computer tracking software with a direct link to MLB scouts, and could potentially attract more talent to the ALPB, as the indy league hopes to open a pipeline to the MiLB draft and then-some. In short, MLB gets its sandbox while ALPB gets to sell itself as a partner of Major League Baseball.
Related PostMLB Taps Atlantic League for Reported Robot Ump Test (2/27/19).

Say goodbye to mound visits while you're at it.
Last time out, we wrote that MLB is looking to change—expansion, electronic zones, etc.—and that this partnership is an offer that ALPB can hardly afford to pass on, especially knowing that if it doesn't partner with affiliated ball, some other indy league will.

The top billed change—the electronic strike zone—will take the form of "assistance," as in the plate umpire will be "assisted" by the radar-based TrackMan PitchCast in calling balls and strikes. Naturally, and probably intentionally, the press release remains vague about what MLB/ALPB means by "assisted." Will players still be able to blame umpires since they're still in command or is this language just meant to placate egos?

As we said before, this will probably result in a lot more strikes on edge pitches—the "funny" ones.

The full list of rules changes MLB will test in the Atlantic League include:
  1. TrackMan will assist the home plate umpire in calling balls and strikes;
  2. No mound visits will be permitted other than in an actual pitching change or medical purpose;
  3. Pitchers must face at least three batters or end an inning before being replaced;
  4. 1B, 2B, and 3B will be increased in size from 15-inches square to 18-inches square;
  5. Institutes requirement that two infielders stand on each side of second base at time-of-pitch;
  6. Reduce time between innings and pitching changes from 2:05 to 1:45, a 20-second decrease;
  7. For 2nd half of season, extend distance between home plate and pitching rubber by 24 inches.
Gil's Call, Quick Takes:
  1. How many times do we have to say that circa-2019 electronic strike zones are flawed?
  2. MLB has already limited mound visits, so this move will test game impact by their elimination.
  3. This was a 2019 MLB rule change proposal that went nowhere...so it'll be tested in the ALPB.
  4. Lessens the likelihood of collision between runner and fielder (unless Manny Machado plays).
  5. There has been talk of MLB looking to eliminate defensive shifts and this rule is a test of that.
  6. Without directly saying "what happens if we get rid of one commercial break," this is that.
  7. This will give pitchers more chance to spin the ball while giving batters a split second to react.
According to MLB Senior Vice President of League Economics and Operations, MLB hopes to see the rule changes create more balls in play, defensive action, baserunning, and improved player safety."

This is the first of a three-season MLB and ALPB partnership.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

MLB Welcomes Betting by Tweaking Ump Release Info

In the wake of legalized nation-wide sports gambling subject to state adoption, MLB will change the way umpire and team lineup information is released. Instead of allowing clubs to release starting lineups in an unregulated manner, the clubs will now submit all information to the Commissioner's Office, which will reportedly hold the "confidential information" for 15 minutes before making it public by releasing it on an official feed, which it will share with sports data partner Sportradar and betting partner MGM Resorts.

MLB also announced plans to release umpire information in a similar manner. The idea is to "reduce the risk of confidential information being 'tipped.'"

Realistically, that means the coveted "first game of the series" umpiring lineup will go through MLB's central office/system, rather than simply being released via the stats stringer's MLBAM publishing to Gameday (website) or At Bat (app) for those outside the stadium, or via the team's press box lineup monitor for those inside the venue.

Major League Baseball wrote that the changes are meant to reduce "integrity risks" related to sports betting in the wake of a 2018 Supreme Court decision that led Joe West to conclude, "It scares me to death."
Related PostGambling Ban Reversal Has Joe West Scared "to Death" (5/17/18).

A 2018 lawsuit accuses LA owners of fraud.
Don't think sports and money is a big deal? Consider a 2018 class action lawsuit filed against Dodgers ownership group Guggenheim Partners alleging that it defrauded annuity investors by, amongst other things, "siphoning cash for purposes including [Mark] Walter's purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team."

Albert Ogles and a group of investors sued the Dodgers ownership group for breach of contract, federal RICO violations, and unjust enrichment.

The suit, named Ogles v. Security Benefit Life Insurance Company et al (Guggenheim owns Security Benefit), charges that Guggenheim, Walter, then-Guggenheim president Todd Boehly, and Robert Patton Jr—all of whom appear on the Dodgers website as executives—used their insurers and customers as a "cash machine" to fund their record-setting $2.15 billion purchase of the Dodgers in 2012.

No wonder they could afford to buy out Frank McCourt! Allegedly.

Reuters noted, "the complaint...has drawn little media attention."

In November 2018, Walter, Magic Johnson, and several other associates pledged $20 billion of their personal wealth to prop up insurers associated with Guggenheim's purchase of the Dodgers. A CNBC report omitted to mention the 2018 lawsuit, but did mention that two annuity holders sued Guggenheim in 2014 over the Dodgers purchase, and similarly mentioned a regulatory investigation into Guggenheim's conduct.

Joe West expressed his disproval at the law.
Gil's Call: Sports betting's expansion in the United States has prompted states and federal entities alike to write and rewrite policies, procedures, and regulations akin to another event in US history—the expansion of the stock market.

In February 2019, The Daily Dose ran the headline, "Insider Trading Laws Are Coming ... To Sports Betting," in which several states with legalized sports gambling, as well as pending US Senate legislation, set to criminalize the use of "material nonpublic information" in sports betting, similar to the way the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 established the Securities & Exchange Commission, instructing the SEC to crack down on insider trading.

Yet at a time when sports betting is set to turn into a financial powerhouse like the stock exchange, independent bettors—including those who aren't partners with MLB like MGM and Sportradar—are crying foul, claiming MLB's new process ensures that only those entities handpicked by the league, such as MGM, will get lineup information before everyone else, which would lead to an unfair betting advantage.

Will MLB and related entities find themselves having to go through the government, similar to how the NYSE is overseen by the SEC?

In April 2018, Sportradar Head of Esports James Watson separated from the company after an internal investigation into Watson breaking company policy by placing bets on esports contests. While the company claimed there was no evidence of privileged information misuse or manipulation, several outsiders charged Watson with doing just that.

Baseball is becoming bigger business.
On February 24, 2019, Forbes posited that sports bettors leaked the Academy Award's winner for Best Director with widespread discussion that someone had inside information regarding the category. As a result, betting firms largely closed the Best Director option to new bets, but not before a handful of accounts already wagered on longshot and rumored winner Yorgos Lanthimos. Lanthimos ultimately lost to Alfonso CuarĂ³n, leading to speculation as to potential manipulation, similar to price manipulation built on manufactured rumors in the stock market.

Watson, for instance, was found by Sportradar to have placed a series of low-value wagers, which doesn't sound like much, until the angle of manipulation comes into play.

To borrow from the SEC's case book, stock manipulation can be based on inside information, or with no actual information whatsoever (instead, the simple illusion of information can be enough to manipulate the market or even cause a panic [what is a fear-driven rush to sell?]). When it comes to low-price stocks, penny stock fraud commonly takes the form of "pump-and-dump" schemes wherein manipulators buy shares of penny stocks so as to create a public drive-to-buy. As soon as the manipulated penny stock/microcap reaches a certain price point, the fraudsters dump the shares, earning massive profits while leading duped consumers holding the bag with a largely worthless stock.

The ballpark formerly known as Enron Field.
This brand of manipulation sounds very similar to what occurred with the 2019 Academy Awards, and considering its ties to sports betting, there is a great risk it may try to make an appearance in a professional sports league, in some form.

And last but not least, it should come as no surprise that alleged manipulation plays a prominent role in Ogles' lawsuit against Dodgers ownership.

Sidebar Trivia: Just like 2017 World Series foe Los Angeles, the Houston Astros are forever connected to insider trading, as that club still plays at a stadium once known as Enron Field, named for the Texas company taken down by a massive fraud, money laundering, insider trading, and conspiracy scandal (though Enron never owned the Astros).

In other words, the 2017 World Series featured two clubs—the Dodgers and the Astros—with connections to fraud, though only the Dodgers' connection concerns a current lawsuit, and the club's actual ownership.

The Good: MLB's desire to control the release of this information is not an overreaction, just as Joe West's line—"it scares me to death"—is not an overreaction. Sports has become big business and betting has the potential to rival the stock market, one day in the distant future (remember, securities have a massive head start), and it behooves leagues to get smart about the way their game-day information is being used.

It's a good thing that MLB will address betting.
The Bad: Cries from non-MLB partners are valid as well. We have yet to see how MLB's new release-of-information system will function, but if Sportradar and MGM are favored over other entities with info-release, that itself could be deemed a manipulative act that places non-preferred gamblers at a disadvantage, which at some point down the road, depending on future state and federal legislative action, could be illegal and lead to lawsuits.

Sidebar: That means ejection statistics will now be sports betting fodder. Sports betting may be legal, but the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League remains free.

Conclusion: As West and MLBPA representatives alike said back in May 2018, the gambling ban reversal is not good for athlete and umpire safety. While it may prove financially beneficial for the league in the short run, it could provoke Tim Donaghy-level controversy and tarnish the league's reputation if a system safeguard were to fail, whether or not a bad actor exists inside or outside the league office.

That said, no private sports league is above the law, so MLB must do its best to adapt to it. That's largely what has happened here, with MLB seeking to create a central repository and controlled-release system for lineup information. The only issue is whether the league has gotten too greedy with its preferred partners in Sportradar and MGM, who I'm sure would pay top dollar for even a two-second advantage, or whether it will level the playing field by making an official feed available to everyone, at the same time.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Pace of Play in Hernandez-MLB Lawsuit Slows to Crawl

As Spring Training kicks into high gear and we prepare for a third MLB season touched by the pending lawsuit of an umpire alleging racially-motivated discrimination, we catch up with the offseason docket activity for Angel's Hernandez v. The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball et al suit.

Quick Recap: In the fall of 2018, we discussed the merits of Hernandez's July 2017 case against the league from a statistical point of view: we found that Hernandez's Replay Review performance as measured by strict quantity of overturned calls outpaced that of at least five other crew chiefs in 2015, 2016, and 2017, and was better than two other chiefs in 2014. As for 2018, Hernandez's regular season Replay performance placed him better than three other crew chiefs, but add in the postseason, even with the three overturns-in-a-game, and one other crew chief still experienced more overturns.
Related LabelUEFL History for MLB Umpire "Angel Hernandez"

Former MLB VP Bob Watson also spoke out.
In fact, Hernandez has never led the crew chief list in overturned calls since replay expanded, and has always performed better than at least one crew chief promoted in his place. Hernandez's original complaint indicated that his ball/strike numbers were better than league average.

Given former MLB VP of Rules and On-Field Operations Bob Watson's prior complaint about MLB's purported lack of diversity in leadership roles (and Crew Chief is a leadership role), we previously concluded that we need more data in order to seek explanation for MLB's decision not to promote Hernandez, and that Hernandez's amended complaint requesting more information from the League would help in accomplishing this analysis. In other words, Hernandez's charges aren't entirely out of left field and they merit investigation.

As we said in July 2017, whether Hernandez is a "good" or "bad umpire," or otherwise is a red herring. As evidence to support charges of unlawful discrimination, Hernandez produced data alleging that MLB has a habitual pattern of not hiring minorities. When it comes to the regular Crew Chief role, Hernandez's complaint indicated that MLB virtually shut out any and all people of color since Rich Garcia chiefed in the 1990s. The gravity of such a charge goes far beyond Hernandez and can't be dismissed by the very tired, "he's just a bad umpire" argument.
Related PostAngel Hernandez, MLB, and Discrimination (Part 1) (7/12/17).
Related PostAngel Hernandez, MLB, and Discrimination (Part 2) (7/13/17).

When faced with an impending request to open its secret files, MLB filed and was granted a request for confidentiality, and at last we spoke, we awaited the two parties to continue discovery and figure out exactly what documents would be shared.
Related PostHernandez's Lawsuit Seeks Replay - A Review of Our Stats (12/4/18).

Where We are Now: Since December 2018, MLB filed more motions to dismiss the suit, answered the amended complaint, Hernandez's team opposed MLB's motion to dismiss, etc.—rather boiler plate legal mumbo jumbo.

January looked like a scene from Boston Legal.
There was a rather amusing sequence in January 2019 when a plaintiff's attorney tried getting himself approved to appear in New York, the court replied that his motion was deficient, and this back-and-forth continued on for about two weeks with more attempts before an amended motion was ultimately granted.

But after this comic relief, the parties got down to business.

In February, Judge J. Paul Oetken referred elements of the case to Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein, and the magistrate subsequently denied without prejudice Hernandez's motion for discovery.

In other words, on January 28, Hernandez's team requested certain documents from MLB. MLB responded on January 30, and the court subsequently denied Hernandez's motion for discovery on February 5.

In the month since this denial (2/5/19 to 3/5/19), there was no activity in this case, which tends to follow the speed of this trial ever since it was first filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Ohio on July 3, 2017, though transferring it to New York at the conclusion of the regular season in 2018 spurred some activity, albeit temporarily.

Conclusion: Here we are—Hernandez wants sensitive documents and MLB doesn't want to give them to him (why would an employer want to share confidential documents anyway?). That means we have a stalemate and, more to the point, an increasing possibility bearing mention that this case won't make much meaningful progress before Hernandez's Crew Chief and World Series windows—from a statistical/performance standpoint—are slammed shut by Father Time.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor at a Yankees game.
The Judge's Chambers at Yankee Stadium could render a quicker verdict...but it probably wouldn't be all that fair.

Most likely, the money matter is not MLB's most pressing issue, compared to the optics of having Hernandez serve as an on-field Crew Chief or World Series umpire in contravention of the Chief Baseball Officer's desires. If the league is planning to pay the plaintiff, it'd likely prefer to do so in a way that would limit Hernandez's on-field exposure as -cc or -ws.

Succinctly, this lawsuit has encountered a rain delay, and Hernandez might get called in early by curfew before much significance comes of it.

To be clear, we don't know at present whether MLB has violated any laws or otherwise civilly harmed Hernandez because the very trial designed to answer that question is stuck in a holding pattern. Hernandez accused MLB of wrongdoing, and we're somewhere in the middle of trying to figure that out in a stalled process slower than an extra-inning at-bat featuring Javier Baez, David Ortiz, and Don Mattingly as a coach.

Thus, in a sport that has recently placed such a strong emphasis on pace of play, it would appear that in this situation, we might just be observing an attempt to run out the clock.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Of Bullpen Cups & Balls - A Baseball Magic Trick

What is the rule when a batted baseball lodges in a paper cup sitting in a foul-territory bullpen? Is the ball dead for a two-base award or do we play on when the fielder tries to throw it back in? Such a play occurred in Spring Training's Grapefruit League as Cardinals batter Jeremy Martinez's hit to Marlins right fielder Magneuris Sierra took a detour into St. Louis' first-base dugout.

What is the ruling for a ball entering a cup?
The Play: With two on (R1, R2) and two out, batter Martinez hit a fair ground ball down the right field line, whereupon it entered the on-field bullpen in foul territory down the right-field line. Outfielder Sierra ran to play the ball, throwing it toward second base as it became apparent that the "ball" was actually wedged in a discarded paper cup, the force of the projectile bouncing on the infield dirt enough to dislodge the ball as R1 and R2 scored, with batter-runner Martinez jogging into third base.

The Call: Martinez wound up at second base while both runners were permitted to score. Read on for the proper ruling.

The Rule: Generally, a ball remains in play until an umpire calls "Time." All that we need to know here is whether the ball fell out of play by going into the bullpen or lodging in the cup. Official Baseball Rule 5.06(b)(4)(F) discusses base awards for balls falling out of play, with the relevant provisions of this rule as follows:
Two bases, if a fair ball bounces or is deflected into the stands outside the first or third base foul lines; or if it goes through or under a field fence, or through or under a scoreboard, or through or under shrubbery or vines on the fence; or if it sticks in such fence, scoreboard, shrubbery or vines.
The batted ball appeared to enter, but not immediately exit via rebound, an on-field bullpen. The Universal Ground Rules do not address on-field bullpens, but individual stadiums with such features generally discuss the on-field bullpen in their ballpark-specific ground rules. For example, the following San Francisco's bullpen rule:
A ball is deemed to be lodged if, in the umpire’s judgment, it has become unplayable by going behind equipment, the seating area or otherwise.
Ball enters the bullpen seating area and rebounds out of the seating area back onto the playing field: In Play. 
The language is identical for Oakland and Tampa Bay. Chicago's Wrigley Field had a similar rule before the Cubs relocated the on-field bullpen to below the right-field stands.

Did (and if so, when) the ball fall out of play?
Analysis: There are two separate issues regarding this play, the second of which relies on the outcome of the first.

First, we must determine whether the ball has become stuck in a bullpen. There's a strong chance that Roger Dean Chevrolet Stadium doesn't cover the issue as San Francisco/Oakland/Tampa does, which sets us up for an umpiring elastic clause decision.

In general, however, the SF/OAK/TB provision about a ball becoming unplayable should apply here; we see our 1B Umpire signaling "safe," as if to say, that ball is still playable and thus live.

With our umpire having ruled the ball live, we turn to issue #2, which is the ball-in-cup problem.

The ball and cup break apart after bouncing.
We know that the MLB Umpire Manual interpretation concerning a ball that enters a player's uniform states that "Time" should be called and the umpire should then use common sense and fair play to place the runners in a "nullify the act" standard. We also know this interpretation doesn't apply to a ball lodging in a player's glove, which instead should be treated as a live ball.

But what of a cup?

The MLBUM interpretation for 5.06(b)(4)(F) holds that a ball should be deemed lodged if it "sticks in a fence, scoreboard, shrubbery or vines located on the playing field...[or if it] goes behind a field tarp or wall padding without leaving the playing field."

Johnny Damon drew a cup lodge 2B in 2001.
Precedent: In 2001, Athletics batter Johnny Damon hit a ball that rolled into and became stuck in a plastic cup at the Oakland Coliseum. While Boston outfielder Trot Nixon tried to throw the ball/cup contraption, Damon circled the bases for an apparent inside-the-park home run until umpires ordered Damon back to second base, ruling the play dead under the auspices of this very same lodged-ball rule.

Conclusion: The proper call here is a dead-ball two-base award for a lodged ball. If the umpire deems the ball playable in the bullpen—and that's a judgment call that hinges on your interpretation of "playable" (I'm personally not looking to have an outfielder fish out a ball from behind a steel bench...I can't even guarantee that's the same ball)—we play on, but if the umpire deems it unplayable because it rolled behind the bullpen bench/equipment, we treat it as a lodged ball as in 5.06(b)(4)(F). Assuming that the ball was deemed playable, we have a ball-in-a-cup being thrown toward the infield. By rule and interpretation, for both possibilities (bullpen lodge or cup lodge), this is a lodged ball and is treated in the same fashion: two-bases pursuant to 5.06(b)(4)(F). Score R2, place R1 at third base, and put the batter at second.

Wrap: Miami Marlins vs. St. Louis Cardinals (Spring Training), 3/2/19 | Video as follows: