- ESPN MLB insider
Author of “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports”
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The pitch looked perfect. Thigh-high, 95 mph, right on the outside corner. Liam Hendriks was ready to celebrate a strikeout, and Roberto Alvarez was prepared to head back to the dugout, and then each was greeted with silence instead of a strike three call. Amid the quiet, one fan let his feelings be known. “Come on, blue, that’s a strike,” he yelled at home-plate umpire Cody Clark. And it was an eminently reasonable complaint, if not for one important fact.
It was a Thursday.
In Triple-A games this season, the day of the week matters. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, the strike zone is fully automatic, adjudicated by Major League Baseball’s automated ball-strike system (ABS), which tracks pitches using a dozen ultra-high-speed cameras and spits out the result into an earpiece worn by the home-plate umpire in less than half a second. Even though Hendriks’ fastball appeared to clip the edge of the zone on the digital rendering of the pitch seen in MLB’s app and on its website, ABS deemed it a ball — and the system, which the league says is accurate to less than 1/10th of an inch, is judge and jury.
The next day, as the Charlotte Knights again hosted the Durham Bulls, another borderline call. Charlotte catcher Evan Skoug snatched a low 1-1 pitch and froze his glove in the strike zone. Paul Clemons, the home-plate umpire, didn’t bite and called it a ball. Immediately, Skoug tapped his head — a motion that only mattered on Fridays through Sundays. Over the weekend, balls and strikes are judged by the umpires’ eyes, but players are allowed to challenge a call three times per game and retain their challenges if correct. During Skoug’s challenge, which from start to finish took less than 10 seconds, the scoreboard displayed a graphic of the pitch’s trail toward home plate, shown from the catcher’s perspective. As the pitch neared, the screen pivoted 180 degrees, to the pitcher’s perspective, to render the definitive judgment. The call stood. It was a ball, and it wasn’t particularly close.
Two varieties of the future of balls and strikes are playing out in Triple-A this season, and whether either wins out in the eyes of MLB will offer a fascinating insight into the league’s priorities going forward. The league’s faith in the ABS system’s fidelity and accuracy is clear. After nearly 20 years of tinkering, upgrading, testing, failing and repeating the process, the current incarnation of ABS is a technological marvel, its pieces and parts big league-ready. But installation at the major league level breeds a bevy of philosophical hesitations, all perfectly practical, each a sub-issue of the overarching question that continues to puzzle league officials and owners who aren’t quite sure of the answer.
Would robot umps really make baseball better?
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