News came recently that balls and strikes will be called by machines in half of Triple-A games next season. In the other half, the machines will be used for challenges to ball and strike calls. This is big news, given that many of the changes that are being enacted on the MLB level this year, such as pitch clocks and larger bases, were tried at Triple-A last year.
This news, according to sources, is without a doubt good for the game. Anyone who has watched tennis over the past few years has probably noticed that the number of arguments over whether shots were in or out have drastically decreased. That’s because everyone in the stadium can look at the scoreboard and instantly know what the right call was. It isn’t difficult to imagine that, in a few years, every MLB stadium will show a virtual strike zone on the scoreboard in center field, with enough detail that there will be no doubt in real time about whether the ball passed through the strike zone.
Getting from here to there won’t be a totally smooth process. For one thing, do you know where the strike zone is? What we see on TV every day is a rectangle, but the area over home plate is three-dimensional. Is a pitch a strike if it passes anywhere through that three-dimensional space … or does it just have to pass through the square at the front of the plate? Another question: The square that we see on TV is the same size for Jose Altuve as it is for Aaron Judge (even though Judge should have a strike zone that is several inches larger) so will a robot ump be able to adjust for that?
The other issue that will get sticky is what happens to the current umps. Implementing this plan in the minors is relatively simple because minor league umps don’t have the leverage that MLB umps do. The point of being a Triple-A ump is to get to the majors, and raising a fuss about new technology will just get in the way of that. Major League umps have a moderately effective union and a CBA that expires after the 2024 season. If they aren’t thrilled with how the Automatic Balls and Strikes (ABS) system is rolled out or how it makes them look in comparison, those negotiations might get sticky. Even the hint of such conflict might be enough to slow down the rollout.
Finally, what else can the robot umps do? Any choice that is fully binary should be capable of being done more accurately by a robot that by a human being. Fair/foul calls should be about as simple technologically as in/out calls in tennis. If there is a clear rule on check swings (which shouldn’t be a judgment call), it shouldn’t be too difficult to have sensors tell us whether the bat went beyond a particular point.