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Robo umps will help bring baseball into the 21st century — in more ways than one

Atlantic League umpire Brian deBrauwere is shown wearing an electronic strike zone earpiece in July. (Julio Cortez/AP)

A computerized strike zone could be on the way to Major League Baseball. The umpires’ union struck a deal with MLB officials over the weekend to cooperate and assist with the implementation of a digitally governed strike zone as part of a larger contract, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.

Players, coaches and fans have clamored for such reform after a heavily scrutinized postseason of officiating that saw umpires’ decisions on balls and strikes often called into question.

With game telecasts now routinely including a strike zone projected on the screen, fans can decide for themselves after each pitch whether an umpire was correct, with questionable rulings casting a shadow over a game that is already grappling with other structural issues, including pace of play and rising strikeout and home run numbers.

The five-year agreement between umpires and MLB, part of a new labor deal first reported by the Associated Press, provides umpires significant increases in compensation and retirement benefits designed to let older umpires retire sooner. In exchange, the umpires will advise Commissioner Rob Manfred on the development and implementation of ABS, the league’s proprietary automated ball-strike system developed by sports data firm TrackMan.

The independent Atlantic League, an eight-team minor league, piloted ABS in 2019 and judged the experiment a great success. MLB deployed the system in the Arizona Fall League in September and October, and it will test it again this spring and summer in the Class A Advanced Florida State League.

A person with knowledge of the system’s rollout said Manfred is eyeing activating the digital strike zone in the big leagues in as soon as three seasons.

I tried to be a robo ump. I left with more questions than answers.

The agreement with umpires, if all goes according to plan, will help push baseball’s officiating into the 21st century. Whereas every other aspect of baseball has been quantified down to a science — there are bioengineering labs designed to calibrate a pitcher’s form and a batter’s swing — the strike zone, the game’s very foundation, always has been subject to human bias.

Umpiring a professional baseball game is staggeringly difficult, and major league and minor league umpires are the best in the world at their jobs. But they still get a great number of ball and strike calls wrong. A 2019 study from Boston University that examined 11 years’ worth of major league ball and strike calls found umpires get approximately one in every five calls wrong. That sounds like a lot, and it is, but remember that umpires don’t make a call on every pitch. There are foul balls, balls put in play, check swings, and so on, leaving far fewer ball and strike calls than total pitches.

Simply put, ABS — and get used to saying that — won’t miss those calls. But it will reconfigure the modern conception of the strike zone. For one, its zone is larger than the one imagined by most players and fans. The strike zone projected on television is one-dimensional. It looks like a narrow window through which a pitcher must fit the ball. But the real strike zone is three-dimensional. All a pitch must do is skim a piece of that zone to be called a strike. ABS doesn’t have blind spots.

That means the high fastball or looping curveball that most umpires considered out of the zone may very well be called strikes by ABS. Advantage, pitcher.

However, the fastball that tries to paint the inside corner of the plate or the slider that tries to sweep outside and misses by half an inch won’t be strikes in an ABS zone no matter how well a catcher presents the offering. Advantage, hitter.

Beyond the technological improvements, paying umpires more and allowing them to retire earlier should improve the standard of the officiating workforce.

The BU study found the best umpires on balls and strikes are younger and average fewer years of big league experience. Of the top 10 umpires between 2008 and 2018, all of them were younger than 40. The most experienced had only been in the major leagues for five years. The worst umpires were all 50 or older and had spent an average of 20.6 years in the majors.

Baseball’s robot umpires are here. And you might not even notice the difference.

Opponents of the digital strike zone need not worry too much: This is not the end of umpiring as we know it. ABS still requires a home plate umpire to administer the game. The software is not nearly advanced enough to make complex safe or out calls on the bases. MLB won’t be cutting any umpiring jobs.

When ABS is implemented, the home plate umpire wears an earpiece connected to a cellphone in his pocket. That connects via WiFi to TrackMan radar systems installed in the ballpark. The software announces “Ball” or “Strike” to the umpire, who announces the call to the players and crowd. It feels and looks like a normal baseball game.

But this would be arguably technology’s largest integration into the officiating of major American sports, which have lagged behind the rest of the world in that category. European soccer employs goal-line technology to determine indisputably whether a shot is a goal. Tennis has the “Hawk-Eye” instant-replay system, which tracks whether balls are in or out. Cricket uses Hawk-Eye for a complex and controversial call, “leg before wicket,” which is considerably more advanced than a digital strike zone.

The successful rollout of ABS could lead American sports fans and executives to consider the merit of even more officiating technology. Perhaps technology could help determine whether a batted ball was fair or foul, a home run or in play? In basketball, whether a ball was out of bounds? In football, whether a runner achieved a first down or a touchdown?

For Major League Baseball, ABS is a far less intrusive technology than opponents of robo umps once feared. But it still would reshape the game and its officiating.

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