Rise of the robo-umps
SPORTS | Minor league baseball has spent the season testing an automated system to call balls and strikes
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At minor league baseball’s Triple-A level, an experiment took place this year that Major League Baseball apparently doesn’t want reporters writing about. The question is, why not?
MLB has tested an automated ball-strike (ABS) calling system—informally called “robo-umps”—this season at all 30 ballparks in Triple-A, minor league baseball’s highest level. In most weeks during the season, 15 of those ballparks hosted six-game series: In the first three games, the ABS system itself supposedly determined balls and strikes, with the home-plate umpire receiving the Hawk-Eye tracking system’s rulings via a tiny earpiece and relaying them to everyone in the stadium via traditional hand signals.
“The whole idea of ABS is a fan wouldn’t even notice it was being used,” Morgan Sword, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, told Baseball America in May.
In the second three games, the home-plate umpire made calls that were subject to challenge by the pitcher, catcher, or batter, and the ABS system either confirmed or refuted the calls’ correctness. In these games, each team started out with three challenges: If the ABS system overturned an umpire’s call, the challenging team retained all of its remaining challenges. If the system upheld a call, the disputing team lost a challenge, forcing teams to use their remaining challenges judiciously.
I reached out to the Tacoma Rainiers, the closest Triple-A team to my home near Salem, Ore., about obtaining press credentials so I could observe the ABS system in action. Initially, I sought to interview players and managers about this innovation.
Paul Braverman, the Rainiers’ media spokesman, responded via email: “Per MLB edict, we cannot arrange media on this topic for players or staff via team personnel. Apologies.”
Still, I twice made the 2½-hour drive to Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium and sprang for $18 tickets to observe MLB’s hush-hush experiment—once for a game that purportedly used ABS calls, once for a game involving the challenge system. Both games involved the Salt Lake Bees, the Los Angeles Angels’ top farm club. (The Rainiers are an affiliate of the nearby Seattle Mariners.)
In the game where the ABS system determined balls and strikes, it was hard to tell that the system was involved at all: As with other professional baseball games I’ve seen, I learned which calls were balls and which were strikes via the home-plate umpire’s hand signals and the electronic scoreboard’s operator, who kept instantaneous track of ball and strike counts for each batter.
As for the challenge game I saw, the Bees made four challenges, winning two. Each time, the Rainiers’ scoreboard showed a graphic featuring a grid on a mostly white background, with the area comprising the strike zone colored black, and a yellow dot representing the ball.
On the two challenges the Bees won, the scoreboard showed the ball to be just outside or under the strike zone, converting called strikes—including a strike three that would have ended an inning—into fourth balls and allowing the batter to walk to first base. On the challenges the Bees lost, the ABS system upheld third strikes, resulting in both outs and the loss of one challenge, much to the delight of the nearly 6,000 fans in attendance.
When I asked Braverman about the system, he stated what appears to be MLB’s party line: “The system works just fine,” he wrote. “Whether it’s every pitch called using ABS or the ‘challenge system,’ it simply arbitrates very close calls, same as a human being does, the difference being nobody’s eyes are truly perfect, as good as umpires at this level are.
“On occasion some players are surprised if a pitch is not exactly where they thought it was, but there’s no arguing with a machine,” he added. “If anything, future adjustments will be made on strike zone specifications which is a matter of opinion—haven’t heard any complaints that the system malfunctions.”
MLB typically experiments with innovations it plans to implement at the major league level in both its affiliated minor leagues and independent leagues with which it contracts. The goal of using the ABS system is to achieve consistency: Some umpires have wider strike zones than others. And if calls are consistent, according to MLB’s thinking, umpires will deal with fewer confrontations with players and managers when calls don’t go their way.
At least one major leaguer has expressed tepid support for the ABS system: “I’m not totally against it,” Colorado Rockies outfielder Kris Bryant told The Athletic following an injury rehabilitation stint with the Rockies’ Triple-A team, the Albuquerque Isotopes.
“Umpires want to get the calls right,” Bryant said. “They’re not out there trying to influence the game one way or the other. If they have a tool at their advantage to get every call right, that’s great.”
Other professional players are less than thrilled: Caleb Hamilton, a catcher for the Triple-A Worcester (Mass.) Red Sox, lamented to the Associated Press that he and his fellow backstops can no longer “frame” pitches—that is, make balls look like strikes. While some may consider that cheating, it’s long been an accepted part of the game.
Other problems: If a ball crosses over any part of the plate—even if it’s high and inside—the ABS system may call a strike. Aaron McGarity, a relief pitcher for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) RailRiders, the New York Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, benefited from such a call earlier this year.
“Didn’t look very good, but I ended up getting a strike call,” McGarity told the AP.
The new technology’s glitches may be why MLB reportedly has no plans to use the ABS system at major league games in 2024. In the meantime, though, why try to discourage sportswriters from reporting on those glitches and how the system affects games in the minor leagues? Perhaps allowing them to do so would help MLB perfect the system for the majors.
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