Robo Umps Advance to AAA in 2022

1-23-22 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

We’ve known MLB was looking to experiment with automated strike zones in the minors, and the experiment started in earnest last season in selective Single A locations. On Thursday, news broke that this experiment would be moving to select AAA locations for the 2022 season.

It’s not a surprise that MLB is advancing this, but it is at least a little surprising to see it advance so quickly, especially since it wasn’t a completely clean experience for players and more importantly, it wasn’t as accurate as you’d like to believe it would be.

If you asked me about my feelings toward robo umps coming to the game a few years ago, without much thought I think I’d have just said yes, please. Give me time to think about it a bit and the unintended consequences start entering my mind.

I think about how unimportant catching would become. In fact, as silly as it sounds, I could argue unless the league accompanies this with specific rules to combat it, we could see teams feel there is no reason to have a catcher with nobody on base and less than two strikes. Do I see a bunch of teams doing it? No, but ten years ago I never thought I’d see a team put 5 outfielders in a game, so why would I think it’s insane to see someone use the catcher as an extra first baseman?

Pitch framing has become a prominent skill set for catchers to possess, and at the same time, it directly leads to “fooling” umpires into calling balls as strikes. Essentially we’re going to lose a skill set every baseball executive hunted and taught, yet the skill set itself made the change necessary to consider.

This all started back in 1997, that’s when the strike zone started showing up in mass on baseball broadcasts. This isn’t to say fans were too stupid to recognize that Greg Maddux was getting calls 3 inches off the plate, but now it was right in front of you for every pitch.

I like to equate this to a simple drive to work. Most of you drive to work and follow the rules, but if you had a computer or video review of your trip every day, can you say you come to a complete stop at every stop sign? Can you say you never exceed the speed limit? Never cut anyone off trying to merge on Crosstown Boulevard? Of course we were going to see bad calls right?

Umpires have now been exposed by the universal implementation of PitchfX systems in every ballpark. These systems track every pitch from release point to catcher’s glove and measure the velocity, break and location the entire way. Umpire inaccuracy has been as high as 15% miss rate over the past decade, and a game that has allowed video review of guys coming off second base for a fraction of a second by a fraction of an inch in the name of getting it right isn’t exactly in the position to let a number that high go unchecked.

Perhaps if they were to remove the worst of the worst baseball could have avoided this, but it’s hard to say there’s anything technology wouldn’t blow out of the water here. Last season in one game between the White Sox and Rangers, Umpire Chris Segal had a clear and visible different strike zone all game long for each team.

Image Courtesy of the Washington Post

There was no punishment, no suspension. Nothing more than a gee shucks them’s the breaks fellas.

No wonder we are barreling toward taking yet another human element out of the game. I mean even as I consider how much I don’t ultimately want to see this come to the game, how can I argue that things like that simply can’t happen? I mean this was a game in April, out of 162 baseball games each of these teams would play, but if it could happen then, it could happen in a one game Wild Card just as easily.

Maybe we should ask some players? I mean, MLB isn’t, but they still have opinions right?

I get both points here. Bligh is right, AAA is supposed to be a step before MLB, so train hitters to develop their eye for a perfect strike zone, then expect them to understand at the next level that pitch on the outside corner is too close to take.

Travis is right too, batters love having that discussion with an umpire. They like to know exactly how far that zone is going and adjust. I suspect asking them how much further the computer is going to go isn’t going to net much response.

I agree with both, players should be at least asked about the change. In fact since AAA will have some members of every team’s 40-man, therefore union members, I’m not sure how MLB can implement it without taking that step.

I don’t think this will slow down the game. I don’t think it’s going to destroy anything for fans either. Over time I suspect none of us would even think about it. There will still be an ump at least loosely standing back there. They still have check swings, foul tips, out calls, catcher interference and the like to call. It’s not like this is going to cost jobs, but man it sure will take away the importance of seniority I’d reckon.

Good hitters will get better at recognizing the zone, good pitchers will find ways to bend the ball into the very corner of the cube. Finely tuned skills will evolve into new ones, but baseball will move on.

Better isn’t good enough here though. If it isn’t perfect there is no reason to implement it in MLB, and right now, it simply isn’t perfect. First of all, the zone is established based on team provided heights of players, which themselves are as inaccurate as your driver’s license that hasn’t changed that figure likely since you were 16 years old. Additionally during the 2021 season the zone itself was changed wider, taller, then back again multiple times.

The best way to see this might very well be, why did we think this was ready to advance to a more prominent level of baseball?

Check out this image from TheRinger.com

Ouch.

To me, MLB has to prove this system is infallible before it becomes the law of the land, or it’s no better than the perfectly imperfect system they currently employ.

So, do I not want MLB to “get it right”? Of course I do, but until MLB can prove this system will, I’ll pass.

Keep your eyes peeled on this story as it develops in 2022, because baseball clearly wants to see this come to a ball park near you real quick. And that’s the point.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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