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New Tentative MLB/Umpire Deal Paves Way for Robo-Umps

Major League BaseballA tentative five-year deal between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Umpires Association (MLBUA) potentially paves the way for robo-umps, as both sides could work to implement and improve the technology.

The agreement is subject to the ratification of the 30 Major League teams and the Major League Umpires, with the next steps in that process expected in January 2020. It was announced by Major League Baseball in a terse statement.

According to AP, the agreement also calls for the umpires association to assist MLB in the implementation of automated ball-strike (ABS) technology, which utilizes radar technology to assist umpires by providing what is billed as a precise, “rule-book” strike zone for pitchers and hitters. (This process is often described by the better-known term “Robo Umps.”) It was implemented during the 2019 Atlantic League season as part of a partnership between MLB and the independent circuit, and has more recently put it to the test in the Arizona Fall League. It could be unveiled in 2020 in the High-A Florida State League before being rolled out to Triple-A facilities down the line. No robo-ump is putting a human ump out of a job (and some judgement calls, such as check swings, are subject to human intervention), which explains the willingness of the umpires association to play ball. From AP:

Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

That the ABS technology needs refinement is no secret: while it handles upper-strike-zone calls well, it is less effective on low pitches and balls in the dirt, and aren’t set up to track check swings. Former MLB pitcher Frank Viola, who has spent recent years as an MiLB pitching coach before signing on in the same role for the Atlantic League’s High Point Rockers, was not enthusiastic about ABS use in the independent circuit in 2019, calling the results “potluck guessing” that penalized both teams. Implementing a new sports referee technology to eliminate the human factor is always tricky: In many situations, it’s been far from perfect.

RELATED STORIES: Manfred: Automated Strike Zone Coming to Some MiLB Ballparks in 2020Viola Criticizes Results of Atlantic League-MLB Partnership; Atlantic League Debuts Robo-Umps Across Circuit; Sky Does Not Fall; Atlantic League To Continue Robo-Ump Experiment for Rest of 2019 SeasonAtlantic League, MLB Unveil Second-Half Rule ChangesAutomated Ball-Strike System Used at Atlantic League All-Star Game; Atlantic League All-Star Game to Feature Automated Ball-Strike SystemAtlantic League Tests Trackman System

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