Major League Baseball has been edging toward automating the strike zone (the so-called “robot umpires”) for several years.
Now, according to Buster Olney of ESPN, an ABS (automated ball/strike system) is coming to Triple-A ballparks this season:
The Automatic Balls and Strikes system, commonly referred to as ABS, will be deployed in two different ways. Half of the Class AAA games will be played with all of the calls determined by an electronic strike zone, and the other half will be played with an ABS challenge system similar to that used in professional tennis.
Each team will be allowed three challenges per game, with teams retaining challenges in cases when they are proved correct. MLB’s intention is to use the data and feedback from both systems, over the full slate of games, to inform future choices.
I’ve written about the challenge system here previously, most recently in November, while testing of that system was happening in the Arizona Fall League.
The key to the challenge system is as noted above — you retain your challenge if you’re right. There were some games in the minor leagues in 2022, where this system was used, where there were as many as 15 challenges.
Don’t worry about such things unduly delaying games. First, there’s no delay while challenging — it must be done immediately by the pitcher, catcher or hitter. No stalling while the manager calls the video room. Second, it’s shown immediately on the video boards at the ballparks and it’s a simple yes or no whether the challenge is correct. Nearly all of them took 10 seconds or less.
This is all a good thing, I think, but as Olney points out, it will definitely change the job of “catcher”:
If MLB were to commit to electronic strike zone calls for all pitches, it would dramatically change the position of catcher, which for generations has been inhabited by players who have mastered defensive nuances — receiving the ball effectively, pitch presentation and conversational advocacy with the umpires — that would become all but obsolete under an ABS. With a full ABS, catchers would really be required only to block balls in the dirt and throw.
“Pitch presentation and conversational advocacy” — sounds like something you’d be doing in a job interview.
Anyway: Yes, that might and probably would happen. In the interim, the challenge system would be a useful way of fixing the most egregious of bad calls, for example, a key called third strike that ends an inning with runners in scoring position. We’ve seen many of those in recent years, I believe. There’s really no reason MLB couldn’t institute the challenge system this year — Commissioner Rob Manfred has the authority to unilaterally institute rule changes with 45 days’ notice to the MLBPA — but given the significant rule changes coming to MLB already this year, including the pitch clock, = shift restrictions and larger bases, perhaps it’s better to wait a year.
I look forward to having balls and strikes called as close to 100 percent correctly as possibly. After all, if you really want “the human element” in baseball, shouldn’t that be what the players actually do on the field, rather than what one guy wearing a mask behind the plate thinks they did?
In closing, let us celebrate umpire Pat Hoberg, who had an umpire’s version of a perfect game in Game 2 of the 2022 World Series, where he called 100 percent of pitches correctly:
For calling balls and strikes in MLB games, I would prefer...
This poll is closed
... a fully automated system ("robot umpires")
... a challenge system as described in the article
... a combination of the ABS and challenge system as will be used in Triple-A this year
... calls made by human umpires only
Something else (leave in comments)