Robot umps are being tested in the minor leagues with Triple-A recently adopting an automated ball-strike system. While the experiment has been largely successful, there is an alternative for those who may not be comfortable taking the human element out of umpiring.
The Single-A (formerly classified as “Low-A”) Florida State League has instituted a new rule this year allowing teams to challenge ball-strike calls up to three times per game (teams retain their challenge if the call on the field is overturned). Commissioner Rob Manfred attended an FSL game recently to see for himself and came away impressed, suggesting MLB could soon adopt a similar system with managers allotted a set number of challenges for balls and strikes.
“The idea of using two different formats is a big change this year,” Manfred told Evan Drellich of The Athletic. “There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field.”
It’s important to get calls right and that requires a certain level of accountability from MLB, being proactive in testing new methods with improved technology. The argument against would be that expanding the challenge system beyond its current scope would slow games to a crawl (already a problem for a sport the millennial demographic has all but abandoned), though Manfred insists that hasn’t been an issue in the Florida State League, with most calls resolved within seconds.
“I have to say, I saw three challenges in the minor league game, the first one was so darn fast, I missed it,” Manfred said during Thursday’s press conference. “It was like four seconds, literally. I mean, four seconds is a pretty good replay change.”
Since 2014, MLB has allowed teams one challenge per game (two in the postseason), though balls and strikes are still the exclusive domain of home-plate umpires. With Angel Hernandez and others missing calls at an alarming rate, it’s only a matter of time until MLB either moves to an automated strike zone or, as a compromise, decides to make all plays reviewable.