Jan 20, 2022 - Sports

Robot umpires inch closer to calling MLB games

Illustration of a robot wearing an umpire's outfit.

The Automated Ball-Strike system (ABS), the tech powering what's colloquially known as robo-umps, is inching ever closer to the big leagues.

Driving the news: The independent Atlantic League — which has partnered with MLB since 2019 — last week announced it was doing away with robo-umps after testing them for the past season-and-a-half.

Yes, but: That wasn't because the experiment failed; on the contrary, the league explained that its own assessment of ABS was complete and that an MLB affiliate league would continue testing it.

  • Simple sleuthing all but confirms that ABS is coming to Triple-A in 2022: this job posting is recruiting ABS techs in 11 Triple-A markets.

How it works: Though the informal term calls to mind a dystopian future ruled by robot overlords, ABS still requires a human umpire to stand behind the plate all game.

  • Technology from Danish golf startup TrackMan determines if each pitch is a ball or strike. ABS then feeds its call to the ump via an earpiece, and he relays the call to the players.
  • The ump still makes calls like check swings, interference and plays at the plate. ABS simply eliminates guesswork from the strike zone.
An umpire wears an earpiece to hear balls and strikes called.
An umpire wears an earpiece to hear balls and strikes called. Photo: John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Between the lines: At any level — be it the Atlantic League, Triple-A or the (likely) eventual adoption in MLB — players face a steep learning curve to undo the decades of nuance born of human error.

  • Light-hitting catchers who stay in the league thanks to elite pitch framing could be out of a job when their lightning-quick glove snaps fail to fool the computer.
  • Pitchers who make a living stealing strikes just off the edge of the plate may start reaching full counts more regularly when those borderline pitches are called for the balls that they are.

The big picture: Robo-umps were one of many MLB-driven experiments last season, with the others mostly aimed at either speeding up games or increasing action. Three notable examples, and how they fared:

  • Increased mound distance: The Atlantic League moved the mound back by a foot to help hitters, but results were inconclusive (and reviews were not good). The league scrapped this last week.
  • 15-second pitch clock: Nine-inning MLB games lasted longer than ever last season. But in Low-A West, where a 15-second pitch clock was used, games decreased by 20 minutes.
  • Limited pickoffs: Across Low-A, pitchers could attempt only two pickoffs per at-bat. Runners absolutely feasted to the tune of 30% more stolen-base attempts and a 13% increase in success rate.

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