FEBRUARY 21, 2020, TAMPA, Fla. - As Cactus and Grapefruit league exhibition games get underway Friday and Saturday, Major League Baseball’s hidden hand will be tracking and analyzing every pitch and charting a course toward another significant disruption to the game.
An automated strike zone will be running in the background during exhibition games this season, the next step toward an expected implementation that in all likelihood remains years away.
It’s the next step in a rollout spearheaded by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that has touched several corners of the game. MLB partnered with the independent Atlantic League to use the “Trackman” system to call balls and strikes in the second half of last season and also rolled out the zone during the Arizona Fall League.
In 2020, MLB is switching to the ostensibly more accurate “Hawk-Eye” system to call balls and strikes. After the big leaguers head north, a two-dimensional automated strike zone will be tested in nine spring-training ballparks used in the Class A Florida State League.
And, for the next five weeks, it will call balls and strikes on top of the work done by real, live umpires during the exhibition season.
Manfred has said the automated zone won’t receive serious consideration until technology and accuracy improves significantly; the Hawk-Eye is expected to move that forward significantly, after Trackman was largely panned in the Arizona Fall League.
So, while major-leaguers will still hear real, live balls and strikes called on the Cactus and Grapefruit circuits, their automated future will be unfolding in the background.
It’s an admittedly dicey subject in a sport that’s changed at warp speed the past decade.
"I don’t think it will make the brand of baseball better," says catcher Chris Iannetta, 36, who is in camp with the New York Yankees. "We’re trying to put a great game on the field and that takes baseball players. It doesn’t take all the auxiliary things.
"I like the subjectivity of the umpire. I think it added character to the game. You don’t see any umpire-manager arguments anymore, and that was a very entertaining time. Sometimes, it provides a charge for your team. The more we get away from things like that, the more I think we’re watering down the product on the field."
The changes figure to be far more than aesthetic, and will require an adjustment period for pitchers and hitters alike. That goes for an evolving strike zone as well as the interaction element.
“It’s going to be a weird look, for sure,” veteran St. Louis Cardinals catcher Matt Wieters said of an automated zone. “I don’t think people realize how much it will change what pitches get called and what pitches don’t. There would be an adjustment period learning that.
“For me, part of baseball is relationships. As a catcher, relationships with an umpire – good or tough – can be what you remember most from playing days. It will be a little weird not having as much interaction.”
That a player speaks of an auto-zone as a fait accompli is perhaps indicative of Manfred’s desire, to borrow a Facebook mantra, “move fast and break things.” Manfred told Fox Business last month that an automated zone “over the long haul, it’s going to be more accurate. It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game.
“We think it’s more accurate than a human being standing there.”
Hawk-Eye will aim to achieve what Trackman could not. Atlantic League games were often marked by an aghast hitter getting several steps down the line on a presumed ball four before the umpire heard the automated call in an earpiece. In the Arizona Fall League, the game’s top prospects were similarly unmoved.
“Not a fan,” Angels outfielder Brandon Marsh told Baseball America. “Just because the ball can barely clip the zone—top, bottom, inside, outside—and the catcher can have his wrist break and drop the ball and it’s still a strike.”
Indeed, while fans get the impression the auto zone will end all grievances – for both hitters and pitchers – the endless angles and movement of pitches will almost certainly create consternation, even if there’s no human to rail against.
“When it comes to automated umpires, I don’t want that to happen,” says Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright, “and hitters, I don’t think, want to have that happen, either. They think they do, but if you look at some of those calls in the Arizona Fall League, there’s balls bouncing in the dirt.
“If they ever do come out with this automated strike zone, I’m coming out of retirement. Because that might be really good for a guy like me. Seems like the top of the zone will be a problem, too. If it actually is knee-to-letters and they call this (high strike), somebody’s going to have a freakout.”
The auto zone will eventually become another plank in the significant platform of issues over which MLB and the MLB Players’ Association will dicker; MLB and the umpires’ union reached agreement to run in the background this spring, and umps may eventually earn other concessions should they agree to the automated zone.
Consensus within the player population may be hard to reach, given the internal conflicts many of them feel.
“I honestly go back and forth on the idea of it,” says Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. “I think it would be advantage, pitcher, in most cases, consistently getting the high strike, and getting true curveballs or pitches that have depth that would maybe land in the dirt or close behind home plate and catch the bottom of the zone as they’re moving down. Fastballs you yank to the other side that don’t present so well – you don’t always get those calls.”
Yet, there are tradeoffs.
“In that aspect, it’s advantage, pitcher, but I also think so much of pitching is the human element, a catcher stealing a strike for you, a pitcher working his way out over the corner of the plate over the course of the game to steal some strikes and establish a bigger zone for himself – I think that’s a huge aspect of the game,” says Doolittle. The human element definitely adds chaos at times, but it’s still part of the game.
“Do we still want that unpredictability in the game? Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but that’s what makes it real, raw.”
Many rules in the service of safety or optimization have drained some of the game’s drama. While the so-called “Chase Utley” rule reduces injury risk for middle infielders, it also makes a ground ball up the middle an almost automatic double play, whereas there was at least tension over its completion when runners could slide hard into second base.
The auto zone may significantly curtail the art of catching.
“It rewards the lazy catcher, the bad receiver, and devalues the good receivers, and that’s a big part of the game,” Southern Maryland Blue Crabs catcher Mike Falsetti told USA TODAY Sports in 2019. Trackman will continue to be used in the Atlantic League in 2020.
Says Iannetta: “It doesn’t matter if the tech is 100% right or not. It’s not baseball. We’re not playing a video game; we’re playing an actual game, there’s men on the field playing, umpires, and that’s how it should be.”
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