By: Evan Drellich (Photo: Julio Cortez / AP Photo)
It’s getting closer.
Tested already in the independent Atlantic League and the MLB-run Arizona Fall League, the automated strike zone is slated to arrive in Minor League Baseball in some capacity in 2020.
Commissioner Rob Manfred told MLB Network last week that the technology used for the automated strike zone was due for a large upgrade this winter, and that it would make its way into standard minor-league play next year.
“Here’s our thinking on the automated strike zone: The technology exists. We have the technology,” Manfred said on MLB Now with Brian Kenny. “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.
“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.”
Officials at the commissioner’s office declined to elaborate on the scope of the Minor League implementation or the technology changes because neither plan has been finalized. One person with knowledge of the situation said one possibility is putting the automated zone in use in most of the Florida State League, which is run out of facilities that also double as spring-training parks.
Unclear is whether Minor League umpires would use the automated ball-strike system, or ABS, as a guide for calls, or as the actual final arbiter.
Naturally, there was some skepticism about the Atlantic League implementation during the 2019 season.
“We thought the Atlantic League was a really positive experience,” Manfred said. “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.”
There’s still a long way to go before the Major League Baseball Players Association is in a position to give a thumbs up or thumbs down and the technology, in some form, arrives in the big leagues. Any ongoing conversations about changes that impact the major-league field of play, robo-ump or otherwise, fit into the larger picture of collective bargaining. The current CBA between the players and the league expires in 2021.
Manfred has shown a willingness to seek change in his tenure, even if the change isn’t always well received.
“There’s a lot of smart people out there thinking about the game and thinking about how it’s played — not just in my office, but at the club level — and they have a lot of ideas about how the game can be made better without altering the fundamentals,” Manfred said. “In this next round of bargaining with the MLBPA, we’re going to try to have a little longer term vision of changes and agreement on changes that can be phased in over time to deal with these issues. So that every year, we’re chipping away at it without having this deluge of change in the game.”