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Ball-and-strike challenges could be coming to MLB in 2023

There’s more testing going on in the Arizona Fall League.

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David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Back in September, I wrote this article here about a ball-and-strike challenge system that was being tested in some minor leagues.

Now, MLB is continuing testing this system in the Arizona Fall League. Per this article by Zach Buchanan in The Athletic, and to refresh your memory from my September article, it works this way:

Each team enters the game with three challenges, keeping the ones it wins for repeated use. Challenges must be issued immediately, and only by the catcher, pitcher or hitter. Unlike in the replay review system currently in use for non-ball-and-strike calls in the majors, a manager cannot challenge a pitch. Umpires do not huddle or retreat to a headset, but instead watch along with the rest of the stadium as the correct call is displayed on the scoreboard.

The immediate call means the challenges don’t last very long — per Buchanan’s article, only 15 seconds or so. And I like the idea of retaining the challenge if you’re right. In one game that I cited in my September article, there were 13 (!) challenges because guys kept getting them right:

And here’s an example of how it worked in a recent AFL game:

From the article in The Athletic, here’s the way it’s seen by players, and what the effects on a game can be:

With so much power in their hands, players must weigh the stakes against their confidence in their own perception. “You get a borderline pitch early in the first inning. Is it really worth it to challenge?” asked Red Sox infielder Nick Yorke. Others have taken stock of their strike-zone awareness. Malloy knows he sees the high and outside pitch better than anything in, so don’t expect him to challenge many inside strikes. Braves right-hander William Woods chooses to trust his catcher instead of his own eyes, attached as they are to a head in constant movement at the end of his delivery. Others reserve challenges for obvious missed calls. “One of those easy spits,” Yorke said.

Here again, the league is trying to split the difference between speed and entertainment. Inspired once more by tennis, the pitch is animated in the same style as the Gameday tracker, leaving everyone on pins and needles. The players appear to like the anticipation. “It’s like a weird excitement that you get,” said Braves shortstop Cal Conley. Yorke describes it in a way that evokes being called to the principal’s office in middle school. “Everyone’s like, ‘Ooooooh!’” he said. If you’ve watched a 55-foot putt approach the pin, you know the feeling.

Buchanan’s article indicates that teams and players are also trying to figure out when the best time to use such challenges are, and they don’t always get them right:

At least once, Loux said, an umpire mistook a pitcher’s hat adjustment for a challenge signal, causing confusion. “We had to have a meeting,” he said. “It took two minutes!” The three-challenge limit also hasn’t fully eliminated all frivolous reviews. Winn admits to challenging one on a goof in a lopsided game. “It was a slider directly down the middle,” he said with a laugh. “In those nine boxes, it hit the middle box.”

And how has it worked in the AFL so far?

So far, the umpire has been right more often than not. Through Oct. 24, challenges in the fall league had been successful only 33 percent of the time, according to statistics kept by MLB. That’s a worse rate than in Low A and Triple A, which saw success rates of 44 and 48 percent, respectively. Perhaps relatedly, there have been only 4.4 challenges per game in the AFL, compared to 5.8 and 5.7 per game in Low A and Triple A. Batters have been more successful than pitchers and catchers in the AFL, which may be why they challenge more often than their defensive counterparts. The opposite is true in the other two leagues, where pitchers and catchers challenge more often than hitters, and are more often successful.

So it would seem that this system still needs more tweaks, though it should be pointed out that only Salt River Fields is equipped for the challenge system. That means only one-sixth of the games can have challenges, which is a fairly small sample size. The headline to Buchanan’s article is kind of a tease, saying “Ball-and-strike challenges, possibly coming to an MLB game near you,” while the article itself says “nothing so far suggests that strike zone challenges are coming to the majors in 2023.”

Which is too bad, if true. Ball-and-strike challenges weren’t part of the rule changes adopted by MLB’s Competition Committee in September (the pitch clock, restrictions on shifts and bigger bases, among others), and so Commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners could institute this unilaterally. All they’d have to do is give the players 45 days notice.

Given the still-rough relationship between owners and players they might not want to do this, and yet this is one way that accountability could be given to umpires on an immediate basis. In MLB games, only the most egregiously bad calls would likely be challenged, and as we have seen repeatedly, there are a fair number of them.

I want to pause here, though, to congratulate Pat Hoberg, who was behind the plate for Game 2 of the World Series. Per the Ump Scorecards Twitter account, he called every single callable pitch correctly, a “Perfect Game” for an umpire:

That’s what all umpires should strive for, and I’m sure they all want to make the right calls. A challenge system would help them do that. At the very least, I’d like to see testing continue during Spring Training.

For those of you who don’t like this sort of thing, I’ll simply say: The results of plays on the baseball field should reflect what the players actually do, not what one guy behind the plate or on the bases thinks the players did. The replay review system is working pretty well for plays. Let’s add balls and strikes to that, at least until the automated system is perfected (or as perfect as such a system can be).


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