Arizona Fall League: Showcasing the future of Major League Baseball

Catcher Stephen McGee a member of the Mesa Solar Sox team from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs from second to third base but gets caught in a run down between two members of the Glendale Desert Dogs during a home game on Oct. 14. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newspapers)

Catcher Stephen McGee a member of the Mesa Solar Sox team from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim runs from second to third base but gets caught in a rundown between two members of the Glendale Desert Dogs during a home game on Oct. 14. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newspapers)

The baseball culture prides itself on tradition.

Whether it be placing a high priority on unwritten rules (rules that generally favor players with long service time over ones just getting their shot at the highest level), a reluctance to implement technology, or disdain towards new-era statistics, popular thought in the baseball community will always allow veteran players to take precedence over younger ones and will always err on the side of maintaining the status quo.

Arizona Fall League

But the Arizona Fall League has found success on a concept that is seemingly the exact opposite.

Operating out of Mesa, Scottsdale, Surprise, Peoria and Glendale, the AFL is an offseason baseball league that attracts the top prospects of all 30 Major League organizations. Six teams participate in an autumn schedule that spans from early-October to mid-November.
Its mission and emphasis are clear—to serve as a showcase for the future of Major League Baseball.

“It’s a graduate school for elite prospects,” said Paul Jensen, a communications and public relations representative.

“It’s a cog in the player development process in Major League Baseball where the major leaguers of tomorrow can all be evaluated and assessed at one time by the personnel in the industry. All the general managers and coaches and scouts can come out here for six weeks and watch these elite young players against each other.”

The idea is clearly worthy, but the grassroots foundation is where the complexities lay. AFL Executive Vice President Steve Cobb detailed what the governing body undertakes each season.

“We have different areas of responsibility for a relatively small staff,” Mr. Cobb said.

“We have two individuals that head up baseball operations. We have essentially a business manager. We have three people in media relations. We have a special projects person, and we have a receptionist that handles a lot of our season pass sales.”

Special initiatives are undertaken by the board to ensure players — pitchers in particular — are given the proper coaching and training in order to expedite their process to the big leagues.

“With the baseball operations we’re going through a series of conference calls with the farm directors where we have five farm directors on a conference call, along with their minor league pitching coordinators,” Mr. Cobb said.

J.T. Riddle fields a ball during a game against the Glendale Desert Dogs. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newspapers)

J.T. Riddle fields a ball during a game against the Glendale Desert Dogs. (Arianna Grainey/Independent Newspapers)

“We’re trying to facilitate and share information with the field manager and the pitching coach, sharing cell phone numbers, contact numbers, as well as really looking at each pitcher’s repertoire—what their strong points are. Why are they being sent to the fall league? What do they want them to work on here? What kind of offseason throwing program are they on? Are they a September call-up?”

Yet even with this tall task of ensuring proper player development takes place—development that contributes to these players being dubbed the “future of Major League Baseball”—the AFL undertakes another mission, too.

And because of this second priority, the AFL showcasing the “future of Major League Baseball” is a double entendre.

“I think that the Arizona Fall League, while it’s a showcase for our top prospects in the game, it’s also established itself as a laboratory,” Mr. Cobb said.

“It’s kind of a research and development part of a corporation. You will continue to see the Fall League used for instant replay, pace-of-game—looking at certain rules and implementing them on a trial basis. You’re going to see more experimentation done in the Fall League setting because it’s tailor-made for it. This is where we can try some things that you normally couldn’t.”

The pace-of-play initiative, specifically, was a futuristic idea that predictably received criticism from staunch baseball traditionalists. While it has yet to make headways in the majors, using the AFL as a testing ground for the implementation of clocks and regulations to speed up play was a logical compromise.

“One year they tested higher foul poles here, and they tested foul poles of a different color,” Mr. Jensen said. “And then of course we had a lot of the pace-of-game stuff last year. Whatever we’re asked to do, we’re happy to do it. Whether it’s some new electronic idea or the foul poles or anything, we’ll be happy to implement it and see how it goes.”

Dan Acheson, a play-by-play broadcaster and media communications coordinator for the AFL, recalled the awe of being involved with a groundbreaking initiative that could eventually be implemented in the MLB.

“It’s really cool to be a part of that,” Mr. Acheson said. “It’s cool to say, ‘I saw that when.’ I was fortunate enough to be right in the middle of this pace-of-play initiative. I was one of the first broadcasters to ever call a game under pace-of-play.”

So what is next on the docket for the trendy and forward-thinking AFL?

Neither Mr. Cobb nor Mr. Jensen had been illuminated to any pressing issue in the baseball stratosphere that needed to be tested, so accordingly, the next initiatives are centered on expanding in-house.

“The Arizona Fall League, within baseball circles, is pretty well-known,” Mr. Cobb said. “On a national basis, all 30 of our chair holders know about us, but candidly, we’re less-known here in the Valley. One of the big challenges for us is trying to be more visible in a very crowded sports market here in Phoenix.”

Yet Mr. Acheson said he doesn’t foresee that as an insurmountable hurdle, as emphasizing the on-the-field product is what attracts the audience.

“It’s a player-driven league, and we’re very proud of that,” Mr. Acheson said.

“If you look at it, 50 percent of the players in the Fall League have reached the Major Leagues. Baseball is gaining popularity again… These players all come from somewhere. This Fall League, the players are so accessible, from autographs to interviews, you get a feel of who these guys are.”

Editor’s note: Jacob Garcia is a journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

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