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MLB umpires’ union clarifies use of electronics at spring training sites

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Hours after baseball commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that an electronic strike zone would be used in spring training games, the executive committee of the umpires’ union clarified that news, indicating that the electronics would not be used in place of a plate ump’s judgment.

Rather, as umpires go through their regular spring work, MLB will be operating an electronic zone for nine games in Florida as it continues to refine its system that is expected to be implemented in the years ahead.

The umpires’ committee released a statement to ESPN on Wednesday evening that read: “Reports that MLB will use ‘robo-umps’ to call balls and strikes in spring training games this year are completely inaccurate. … Our understanding is that a camera-based tracking system will be running in the background during some spring training games for technology development and training purposes. But any game in which a Major League Baseball umpire is working will have a human calling balls and strikes.”

A Major League Baseball official confirmed this.

The umpires’ statement also addressed their stance on the electronic strike zone.

The union, according to the statement, “has never opposed the use of technology to improve the accuracy of calls, including on balls and strikes, if it can be done while protecting the integrity of the game. We do not claim to be perfect and we work constantly to improve our performance.

“But no automated system will be perfect either, and we have concerns about potential fundamental changes to pitch-calling that will need to be accepted by both the players and the fans.

“To achieve this new contract with the owners, however, we agreed that MLB can use [the electronic strike zone], if important conditions are met, and after a process through which umpires will have direct input into when and how the technology enters Major League games, including spring training games. We believe our involvement will be crucial to preserving fair play if the owners are determined to introduce this fundamental change.

“We bargained hard for these protections, and the process we negotiated has not even started. Use of … technology in spring training games this year would be premature and would violate our new agreement. We have received absolutely no word from the Office of the Commissioner that MLB intends to do that.”

MLB began experimenting with a computerized strike zone last year in the independent Atlantic League. Plate umpires, crouched in their normal position behind the catcher, wore earpieces connected to a phone that relayed ball or strike calls from a camera system.

Baseball also used the system in the Arizona Fall League last season.

Manfred cautioned Wednesday during an interview with Fox Business Network that referring to the system as robots “may be an overstatement” and emphasized that “from the fans’ perspective, it looks exactly like it looks today.”

“The current strike zone design is actually three-dimensional,” Manfred said, “and a camera is better at calling a three-dimensional strike zone than the human eye.”

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Rangers SS Elvis Andrus takes aging distinctions into 12th season

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — Elvis Andrus has a few aging distinctions going into his 12th major league season.

The only player left in the Texas Rangers clubhouse to wear that uniform in a World Series, the 31-year-old shortstop is the club’s longest-tenured player by five years and expected to be the oldest regular starting shortstop in the majors.

“I still believe I’m a rookie,” Andrus said Monday, when the Rangers had their first full-squad workout. “I never want to feel comfortable. I always want to feel that somebody is going to take my job, and that’s the mentality and that’s the reality of the game.”

Andrus hit .275 last season — matching his career average through 1,623 regular-season games. He was hitting .361 through the season’s first month and was at .309 by the end of June, then batted .240 over the final 74 games of the season while Texas skidded to its third straight losing season since AL West titles in 2015 and 2016.

Second-year manager Chris Woodward said the Rangers “were pretty honest” with Andrus after his struggles in the second half.

“I know there’s more to him on an everyday basis, and that was the challenge, and he worked his butt off this offseason,” Woodward said. “It was intense. … He wants to prove to the world, it’s kind of like a running back after 30, it’s like a shortstop after 30. There’s not too many of them. So he feels like he’s got a lot to prove in that way, and he put in the work this offseason to be ready this year.”

Miami shortstop Miguel Rojas turns 31 next week, seven months before Andrus marks his 32nd birthday. Only four other likely starting shortstops will be 30 on opening day.

Andrus was 20 when he made his big league debut in the 2009 season opener for the Rangers, who then went to their only two World Series in 2010 and 2011. That means Andrus will be playing in his third different decade this season.

“Man, I think that time is flying,” Andrus said. “Still a lot in the tank, and bring in what I promised when I signed my long deal here, which is a World Series.. … I’m not getting any younger. So, you know, there’s a lot of stuff that I still believe I can do in this game. And you know, when you put those goals, those challenges, that’s what makes everything a lot more fun.”

The two-time All-Star shortstop is going into the sixth season of the $120 million, eight-year contract. The deal includes options that could become guaranteed based on performance and extend the agreement through 2023.

“Yeah, the old man now. It’s crazy,” All-Star slugger Joey Gallo said. “The reason I love, I respect Elvis a lot, is just he’s always himself. He always brings that certain charisma, and that energy and positivity to the field every day.”

While describing Andrus as a talented and heady player, Woodward also talked about how everyone loves the “amazing personality” of the shortstop.

Shin-Soo Choo, the leadoff-hitting 37-year-old designated hitter and outfielder, is going into his seventh season since the free agent deal he signed with the Rangers before the 2014 season. Catcher Robinson Chirinos actually started with Texas in 2013 but also is going into his seventh season with the team after spending last year with the Houston Astros.

Boston first baseman Mitch Moreland and Minnesota designated hitter Nelson Cruz are the only other position players from either of the two AL pennant-winning teams in Texas still playing in the majors.

“Everybody’s gone. They all bailed on me. A bunch of them just retired, too,” Andrus said. “That’s the way it goes, and I’m really blessed. I’m still here, pushing, pushing harder every single day. … I mean I’ve been blessed to play more than 10 years in the league. And, like I said it’s a lot more years ahead.”

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Sportsbooks expect Astros hitters to be targeted often this season

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Oddsmakers think Houston Astros batters could be sore this season.

On Monday, sportsbook William Hill set the over/under on number of Astros batters to get plunked this season at 83.5.

In the past five seasons, only nine teams have been hit by pitches over 83.5 times, but, with the anger over the sign-stealing scandal involving Houston, there is plenty of reason to believe the Astros will be targeted frequently.

Enough opposing players and managers have expressed their displeasure with the Astros that new Houston manager Dusty Baker has publicly urged MLB to protect Astros hitters from intentionally being beaned.

“I’m depending on the league to try to put a stop to this seemingly premeditated retaliation that I’m hearing about,” Baker told reporters Saturday. “And in most instances in life, you get kind of reprimanded when you have premeditated anything. I’m just hoping that the league puts a stop to this before somebody gets hurt.”

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said Sunday that, independent of the Houston situation, he has been planning to increase the disciplinary ramifications for intentionally throwing at batters and will meet with managers this week to address the issue.

“[It’s] simply not appropriate to express frustration you have growing out of the Astros’ situation by putting someone physically at risk by throwing at them,” Manfred told ESPN. “It’s simply not acceptable.”

Last season, teams were hit by an average of 66.1 pitches, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Astros were hit 66 times last season.

Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill U.S. sportsbooks, said he and his staff looked at how many times Astros batters were hit by a pitch over the past three seasons and the league high from last year.

“The trading team and I debated how this could play out and chose a number in the middle,” Bogdanovich told ESPN.

In 2008, Cleveland Indians batters were hit 103 times, the most in the modern era. William Hill has the odds of the Astros getting hit 101-110 times at 9-2. The Astros getting hit more than 150 times this season is 200-1.

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Yankees SS Gleyber Torres believes Astros cheated the past three years

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TAMPA, Fla. — Did the Houston Astros‘ sign-stealing practices continue past the 2017 postseason? New York Yankees shortstop Gleyber Torres has no doubt that it did.

“For sure. If you cheated in 2017 and you won, why don’t [you] do [it] the next year, and the next year, too!” Torres said. “I’ll use an example: If I play video games with you and we face the TV and I see your controller and I know what is coming and I hit really well and I win, if you tell me we play again, I’ll do the same thing because I win. So [the Astros] did in ’17 for sure, they did in ’18 and they do ’19. It’s really easy.”

Torres was referring to playing the video game “MLB: The Show” against Yankees pitcher Luis Severino, where he admitted to peeking at his teammate’s controller to see what pitch was coming.

“When I face like Severino, I saw the controller and I did really well and he didn’t know, and the next one I did the same thing and I win!” Torres added.

An investigation by MLB proved the Astros had cheated by using a camera-based, sign-stealing system during their 2017 World Series-winning regular season and playoffs, and during part of the 2018 regular season. The investigation specified that sign stealing did not take place in 2019, which Torres finds hard to believe.

“I heard many people say, ‘Hey, Houston has something on the field,'” he said. “But I can’t believe it because how would you know they have something like media, cameras, everything. But now, I saw the news. It’s not fair.”

In terms of whether sign stealing could have been a factor during the 2019 playoffs, where the Yankees lost in the American League Championship Series to Houston in six games, Torres fell short of blaming it on cheating by the Astros.

“I don’t want to say they cheated and we didn’t go to the World Series, because we lost because we missed too many opportunities, when we played at home, when we played in Houston too,” Torres said. “But during the regular season and postseason they took advantage of the cameras and everything so for sure, I’m [upset] about that.”

New Yankees ace Gerrit Cole was with the Astros in 2018 and ’19. He said last week that he “had no idea any of it was going on and I didn’t see any of it.”

Manager Aaron Boone has repeatedly said that he wants to move forward from having to face questions about the Astros’ cheating scandal, but said Torres, as well as many Yankees, will continue to feel the need to have a say in the matter.

“I’m not surprised,” Boone said when told of Torres’ comments. “My experience of it, my level of emotions that I’ve gone through personally, and not even having a total grasp of it all and not having even reconciled it all in my head, and I know some of the conversations that I’ve had with staff and coaches and people around the league, but our players as well, from their raw emotions when the news broke. And as the days unfold, I’m not surprised by what we’ve seen. Over the next couple of days, as our position players are here now, I think it’s important for them to say whatever they need to say on the matter. If they want to talk about it or not, I’m respectful of that and encourage that. But there will be a time also as a club when it’ll be time to stop talking about it, and lock in on the important business we have in front of us in 2020.”

When asked whether he agrees with Dodgers’ All-Star outfielder Cody Bellinger, who claimed Jose Altuve “stole” the MVP award from Aaron Judge in 2017, Torres told ESPN that there is no way to know that now. Torres is a friend of fellow Venezuelan Altuve, and is close to him, though they have not spoken since the MLB investigation.

“In Venezuela, Altuve is a hero. I don’t want to say that during the [2017] regular season he didn’t put up his numbers or what he did is not real. I really believe that everything he has done is legal,” Torres told ESPN. “But in some situations, I think about what the team did, and the use of a camera and everything, and it doesn’t really feel very good.”

“In 2017, I was injured; I wasn’t in the big leagues. I can’t say many things about that year. But Altuve had a tremendous season. He had tremendous numbers in the playoffs, but if you look at Judge’s numbers, he also did very well. He had a tremendous season as well. But, of course, those are the things that get out of hand. But the personal relationship I have with Altuve will not change. Altuve is my friend, and he is a good person, a humble person. But when things like this happen, they affect baseball. This is what happens when you don’t follow the rules.”

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