Electronic strike zone coming to Minor League Baseball in 2020, report says

Sporting News

Minor League Baseball will implement an automated strike zone in some stadiums for the 2020 season, the latest evolution on the path to so-called robot umps, according to a report from The Athletic.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told MLB Network recently that the technology for a computerized strike zone has improved and would be rolled out in the minors next season, the report says.

“Here’s our thinking on the automated strike zone: The technology exists. We have the technology,” Manfred said on MLB Network. “We’re actually going through a big upgrade of that piece of our technology during this offseason. I think we need to be ready to use an automated strike zone when the time is right. That’s why we experimented in the Atlantic League. It’s why we went to the Arizona Fall League. It’s why we’re using it in Minor League Baseball next year, in some ballparks at least.

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“I think it’s incumbent upon us to see if we can get the system to the point we’re comfortable it can work. I only would go to an automated strike zone when we were sure that it was absolutely the best it can be. Getting out there too early with it and not having it work well, that’d be a big mistake.”

FAGAN: Missed calls in World Series highlight need for robot umps

Details on the rollout are still scarce, but The Athletic cited a source that said it's possible that the automated zone could be used in most of the Florida State League, which uses parks that also house MLB teams in spring training.

The Atlantic League began using an automated strike zone during its 2019 All-Star Game and then continued using the ABS technology during the second half of the season.

ABS technology "utilizes radar technology to provide a reliable, precise, 'rule-book' strike zone for pitchers and hitters," according to a news release last summer. Strike and ball calls are quickly relayed to the home plate umpire through an ear piece. The use of technology in the Atlantic League was part of a three-year partnership between the league and MLB, in which the Atlantic League will test the ABS to determine whether it's something that work in the majors.

“We thought the Atlantic League was a really positive experience,” Manfred said, according to The Athletic. “Positive in the sense that it worked well a very, very large percentage of the time. When it didn’t work, they were identifiable problems with the system, things that we can work on. I think a major kind of breakthrough with the Atlantic League deployment was the idea that you put an earpiece in the umpires and you don’t change the appearance of the game from the fan’s perspective. He’s getting the call in that earpiece, but it looks the same from the fan perspective. I think that’s important. And it does give you that human backup.

“You know, technology — no matter how good it is, every once in a while, right, you’re going to have a problem. We’re positive on the experiment and we’re going to keep working on it.”

Calls for an automated strike zone in the big leagues have increased in recent years, as broadcast technology and other means have made it easy to tell when ball and strike calls are missed. The call for robot umps got louder during the World Series this year, particularly during Game 5, when home plate ump Lance Barksdale missed several calls that angered players on both the Nationals and Astros.

But the move to use an electronic zone in the minors doesn't necessarily mean robot umps will arrive in MLB anytime soon. That would require approval of the Players Association, whose collective bargaining agreement with MLB runs through 2021.

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