In reflecting on the 2019 season, on-field personnel in the independent Atlantic League collectively has mixed feelings on the effectiveness of automated ball-strike technology and the potential for its use in MLB.
Automated ball-strike (ABS) technology–referred to popularly as robo-umps–has been making headway in professional baseball, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Atlantic League. As part of a three-year partnership between the two circuits that began last season, the Atlantic League is effectively serving as a testing ground for various rule and equipment changes being explored by MLB. One of the biggest elements that came out of this partnership in 2019 was the full implementation of ABS technology around the Atlantic League, which took place in July after testing earlier in the season.
Given the parameters of its use in the Atlantic League, the circuit’s players, coaches and umpires had an extensive period to play under ABS technology and assess its impact on the game. With the 2019 season in the books and the system likely to return in some form in 2020, there is a mixed reaction among on-field personnel about the quality of ABS technology and whether it will be a viable option for the majors in the future.
Daniel Fields–a member of the Long Island Ducks last season who appeared in the majors as a Detroit Tiger in 2015–felt that ABS produced an inconsistent strike zone across the board because of how it was calibrated in individual ballparks, and does not see it as a viable option for major-league play. Some umpires, however, had a different reaction to ABS. Buzz Albert, who has umped in the Atlantic League since 2008, believed that it improved over the course of the season and might be ready for MLB soon, even if only on a limited basis. More from the York Daily Record:
“When we would travel to different ballparks the calibrations of the machine was different and sometimes the strike zone was different,” said Fields, who has experience playing in the minor leagues and even made it to the big leagues with the Detroit Tigers.
Having experience in both the minor and major leagues, Fields does not believe that the radar system will be beneficial in the MLB.
“Every once in a while, umpires will mess up,” he said. “I don’t think the TrackMan will would really help in the majors because I believe there will be even more strikeouts.”…
As the season went on, Albert saw improvements with the radar system and he believes it will make its way to the majors soon.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see it sometime this year in the big leagues, even if it might just be at the all-star game or something,” he said.
ABS technology will be a major subject of discussion around the baseball industry again in 2020. MLB is planning to test it on a limited basis during spring training, but it will not be used to make any actual game calls. In what should prove to be a better gauge on the state of ABS, it is slated to be used on a limited basis during the 2020 MiLB season in the High-A Florida State League (specifically, in some of the FSL ballparks controlled by MLB teams).
Thus far, it has been clear that ABS is in need for further refinement before it could come close to being considered for implementation in the majors. The consensus in the developmental Arizona Fall League, where it was deployed at Salt River Fields, was that the technology played fair but missed out on late-breaking pitches and other nuances of the game. Furthermore, it isn’t yet set up to track check swings. Having it used on a more widespread basis across professional baseball this coming season should yield some answers about whether the technology is improving and can be further refined, with the Atlantic League likely to be watched closely as the debate over its effectiveness continues.
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