Robot umpires are coming: ball and strike system to be tested, debuted in Tacoma in 2022

·3 min read
Tony Overman/toverman@theolympian.com

Buckle up, Tacoma: robot umpires are coming to Cheney Stadium.

Major League Baseball’s automated ball and strike experiment will expand to 11 Triple-A ballparks in 2022, including Tacoma, and was announced Thursday in a hiring notice for seasonal tracking operators..

The Automated Ball and Strike system (ABS) relieves home plate umpires of ball and strike calls. Instead, the ABS uses technology – more specifically, pitch arcs and predetermined strike zone dimensions – to generate immediate decisions and relay calls to the umpire.

Other determinations, such as checked swings and catcher interference, are still left vulnerable to human error at the discretion of plate umpires.

Aside from Triple-A Tacoma, MLB’s hiring notice included ABS technicians for Triple-A Albuquerque, Charlotte, El Paso, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Reno, Round Rock, Sacramento, Salt Lake, and Sugar Land.

“It’s an MLB and not a team initiative,” Rainiers Director of Media Relations and Baseball Information Paul Braverman told The News Tribune in an email. “The 10 teams in this league and Charlotte in the other league were selected to implement ABS for this season.

“It will be for the entire 2022 season. MLB is hiring the staff that will run the software involved and work with the umpires.”

ABS technicians will work at field level to physically support the plate umpire including his device, its functionality, and wiring, the job posting said. The ABS application “is a simple phone app operated on an MLB-supplied iPhone with a WiFi connection,” the notice added.

Spanning three seasons, the system made its way through the professional ranks, now completely absent only in MLB. The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, independent of MLB, first tested the ABS in 2019. Later that year, the Arizona Fall League followed suit. The Low-A Southeast league planned for the use of the ABS in 2020 until the pandemic canceled all minor league seasons, but was eventually used at eight of the league’s nine ballparks in 2021.

By late 2019, the Atlantic League used a wireless AirPod earbud to relay calls to plate umpires. An “overwhelming majority” of umpires expressed concern that wireless earbuds can easily fall out during games, which prompted MLB to revert back to a wired earpiece with fitted silicone sleeves, they said.

This won’t be the first MLB experiment in the minor leagues – in 2015, Double-A and Triple-A teams implemented a 20-second pitch clock in an attempt to improve pace of play and shorten game durations. In 2021, Triple-A teams increased base lengths from 15 inches to 18 to reduce injury risk and increase base-stealing success.

A Boston University study, which analyzed more than four million pitches spanning 11 major league seasons, concluded that umpires missed 34,294 ball and strike calls in 2018. That equates to roughly 14 missed calls per game, the study said, led by Boston University Master Lecturer Mark T. Williams.

And in 2018, 55 MLB games ended on an incorrect call.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how (the ABS) might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak said last March, who serves as MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer.

“The goal here is really to focus on demonstrating system reliability and to start to get more athlete feedback from more players, coaches and umpires. The technology is really in pretty good shape.”

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