Around the League

The Atlantic League, pioneer of the robo umps, will return to human umps in 2022

Washington Post

Andrew Golden

Since 2019, the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has experimented with how modern baseball is played as part of a partnership with Major League Baseball.

Among its test rules, the Atlantic League implemented robot umpires, or the Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) system, beginning in the second half of its 2019 season, and pushed the pitching rubber back by one foot to 61 feet 6 inches during the second half of its 2021 campaign.

 

But the league announced Thursday that those two high-profile experiments will no longer be implemented in 2022. The Atlantic League will return to human umpires calling balls and strikes and will bring the mound back to its traditional distance of 60 feet 6 inches, the league said in a news release. Other experimental rules, including the use of larger bases, an extra-inning tiebreaker and anti-shift rules, will remain in place.

The ABS system will still be a part of professional baseball — the system is moving to an MLB-affiliated minor league to be determined — and the Atlantic League and Major League Baseball are set to announce additional 2022 test rules later this spring.

“As we enter 2022, we reaffirm to players and fans that ball-strike calls, and the distance of the pitching rubber, will return to accepted norms,” Atlantic League President Rick White said in the release. “The test rules and equipment are transitional by definition: Some elements remain, others are tweaked, and still others are abandoned. That’s why MLB and the ALPB conduct the tests.”

The ABS system — in which balls and strikes are determined by tracking software and relayed to an earpiece-wearing umpire, who announces the call from behind home plate — proved successful. By December 2019, months after the system debuted in the Atlantic League, the MLB umpires’ union agreed to a deal with MLB officials to cooperate with the implementation of a digital strike zone in exchange for significant increases in compensation and retirement benefits.

The demand for a digital strike zone has become increasingly evident, especially with the prevalence of digital strike zones shown during game broadcasts that highlight missed calls.

In 2020, MLB implemented the ABS system during some spring training games, and The Washington Post reported that year that Commissioner Rob Manfred was hoping to implement the automated strike zone in the major leagues within the next three seasons. The Arizona Fall League and Class Low-A Southeast League both implemented the system in 2021.

This offseason, Major League Baseball posted jobs for ABS techs for operating equipment at select spring training venues as well as Class AAA West and Low-A Southeast sites, hinting at the continued use of the system moving forward.

 

“We believe, over the long haul, it’s going to be more accurate,” Manfred said in 2020. “It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game. We think — we think it’s more accurate than a human being standing there.”

The extended pitcher’s mound, on the other hand, didn’t necessarily provide the change that MLB was looking for. That change was made in an attempt to increase contact and action on the base paths, but the Atlantic League said in its announcement Thursday that the results of the extended pitcher’s mound were inconclusive, prompting the return back to the original length.

The Post interviewed Atlantic League pitchers, pitching coaches and managers about the change last year, and while pitchers said they didn’t notice the difference as they were pitching, they did acknowledge that the distance was creating a physical toll.

Adam Wainwright, a 16-year veteran for the St. Louis Cardinals, tweeted Thursday that the dimensions of baseball are “scary awesome” and that the move back to the traditional distance was a good move for pitchers. He added that the extended distance wouldn’t have benefited pitchers in the Atlantic League trying to reach the majors.

“‘Hey free agents... come play in our league even though the length you’ll be pitching isn’t the same as the MLB,’" Wainwright tweeted. “‘It’ll be fine... I’m sure you can adjust and still get signed.’ Yikes.”

“A baseball is meant to be pitched at 60′6″. And that’s just the way it is,” he added.

MLB has implemented other rules that the Atlantic League tested in recent years, including the three-batter-minimum rule for relief pitchers and the designated runner starting on second base in extra innings, both of which debuted in the majors in 2020.

 



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