After a season full of home runs and umpiring controversies, Major League Baseball is using its Arizona Fall League as a testing ground for a major change: an electronic strike zone.
The AFL is used for teams to get extra playing time for their top prospects. It will use the robot umpires in all games at the Salt River Fields, home to two AFL teams.
To be clear, the “robots” are actually a pitch-tracking system that triangulates the location of each pitch as it crosses the home-plate area. The device hangs high above home plate in the grandstand.
Then, it transmits the call of ball or strike to the home-plate umpire, who is still responsible for check-swing calls, plays at the plate, balks, catcher interference and other rules.
Here, #dbacks prospect Geraldo Perdomo has words for the home plate umpire before directing his ire toward … a robot.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) September 21, 2019
Moving up the ladder
The robot umpire change first came to the independent Atlantic League this season. There was little controversy, and even some umpires seemed to appreciate how the device had simplified their jobs.
The Arizona Fall League generally is considered a higher level of play, so this is moving up the ladder. How the players, coaches and umpires react to it will determine whether it will be used in higher level of the minors. The change could one day come to Major League Baseball, though that would take Players Association approval.
“We are continuing to test the automated ball-strike system in the Arizona Fall League, which will be a valuable opportunity to solicit feedback from umpires, players and coaches,” said senior vice president of league economics and operations Morgan Sword, according to MLB.com.
Spent a couple of days watching Atlantic League games to bring together a package of stories.
The Atlantic League’s experiments with robot umpires show its imperfections but also its promise.https://t.co/BEyRheXwbx
— JJ Cooper (@jjcoop36) August 21, 2019
The change comes as players, coaches and umpires have an increasingly difficult relationship. The presence of pitch-tracking software has allowed players to tell immediately whether a call was good or bad.
Philadelphia Phillies star Bryce Harper told an umpire last week that he had blown a call. The umpire ejected him.
Help might be on the way, if things go smoothly in the AFL this year.
“It’s fair for both sides; it’s very consistent,” Rockies prospect Ashton Goudeau said. “… It’s definitely been consistent. That’s what everyone’s been talking about.”