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Best of 2019, #6: Robo-Umps Debut Under MLB/Atlantic League Deal

Atlantic League 2018We end 2019 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #6: Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League enter an agreement for the indy circuit to test potential rule changes.

Prior to the 2019 season, MLB and the Atlantic League announced a three-year agreement that calls for the independent circuit to effectively serve as a testing ground for various rule and equipment changes being explored by MLB. A number of ideas were tested in the Atlantic League as a result of that agreement, while others were postponed to the 2020 season, and some might never see the light of day. Normally rule changes are tested out in the minors before being considered for MiLB adoption, but given how disruptive these changes are, it’s no surprise MLB decided not to use their own high-priced prospects as guinea pigs.

The major experiment—the use of Trackman automated ball-strike technology, the so-called “robo-umps”—debuted to mixed results, first in the Atlantic League and then the Arizona Fall League. The consensus in the AFL, where ABS technology was deployed at Salt River Fields, is that the technology played fair but missed out on late-breaking pitches and other nuances of the game. The robo-ump technology will continue to be tested in 2020 at MiLB ballparks controlled by MLB teams (most likely in the Florida State League), and then perhaps Triple-A in 2021 if improvements are made.

The bigger sample of ABS usage, however, came in the Atlantic League, where High Point Rockers pitching coach Frank Viola–a former World Series MVP and Cy Young Award winner who has coached at both the affiliated minor-league and independent levels since his retirement–decried the technology: “It’s making a mockery of everything,” Viola told Newsday. “We played a game night in High Point that at least a dozen pitches were missed, and this is the second week into Trackman. It’s not just my team, it’s the other team as well . . . Until they get it right, it’s just potluck guessing.” And although the newest agreement between MLB and the umpires association provides a path for ABS usage in the majors, it may never happen: MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre doesn’t think automated ball-strike technology will be ever be deployed on the Major League level, as stated on an interview with Dan Patrick: “I like the game staying human. Since we put in replay everyone expects to get everything perfect and I don’t think our game is that way. To me it’s an imperfect game. I would hate to see us try to be too perfect… I don’t see the robotic strike zone happening.”

Other proposed changes under the MLB/Atlantic League were postponed and deemed controversial, including a plan to increase the distance between the pitching rubber and home plate by 24 inches that was supposed to be implemented during the second half of 2019, but was ultimately pushed to the second half of the 2020 season. Here’s a full list of what was covered under the agreement.

Best of 2019, #7: New MiLB Ballparks Debut

Best of 2019, #8: A’s Continue Howard Terminal Ballpark Pitch

Best of 2019, #9: Planning for the Rocket City Trash Pandas

Best of 2019, #10: Cubs Wrap Up Wrigley Field Renovations

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