January 28, 2020

Electronic Strike Zone Will Be Tested During Spring Training, But Will Not Actually Be Used In Games

Commissioner Rob Manfred was "completely inaccurate" when he said MLB would be using an electronic strike zone in exhibition games this spring, according to the Major League Baseball Umpires Association.

The umpires' union clarified that automated balls-and-strikes software (or an electronic strike zone) would be used behind the scenes during nine spring training games. The on-field umpires will make all rulings during the games as usual.

Manfred had announced:
We're going to be using it during spring training and in some of our minor leagues this year. The way it works is the camera calls the ball or strike [and] communicates to an earpiece that the umpire has in his ear. And from the fan's perspective, it looks exactly like it looks today. We believe, over the long haul, it's going to be more accurate. It will reduce controversy in the game and be good for the game. We think it's more accurate than a human being standing there.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association followed that news with its own statement:
Reports that MLB will use 'robo-umps' to call balls and strikes in spring training games this year are completely inaccurate. ... Our understanding is that a camera-based tracking system will be running in the background during some spring training games for technology development and training purposes. But any game in which a Major League Baseball umpire is working will have a human calling balls and strikes. ...

[The umpires' union] has never opposed the use of technology to improve the accuracy of calls, including on balls and strikes, if it can be done while protecting the integrity of the game. We do not claim to be perfect and we work constantly to improve our performance. But no automated system will be perfect either, and we have concerns about potential fundamental changes to pitch-calling that will need to be accepted by both the players and the fans.

To achieve this new contract with the owners, however, we agreed that MLB can use [the electronic strike zone], if important conditions are met, and after a process through which umpires will have direct input into when and how the technology enters Major League games, including spring training games. We believe our involvement will be crucial to preserving fair play if the owners are determined to introduce this fundamental change. We bargained hard for these protections, and the process we negotiated has not even started. Use of ... technology in spring training games this year would be premature and would violate our new agreement. We have received absolutely no word from the Office of the Commissioner that MLB intends to do that.
MLB tested an electronic strike zone last season in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League.

According to Jacob Bogage of The Washington Post, a source "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".

Bogage reported that "tensions remain high" between umpires and team owners, with the umpires believing Manfred is moving too fast to introduce technology into the officiating of baseball.

MLB and the umpires' union are also discussing the possibility of having some umpires wear microphones at some point this season for announcing the verdicts on reviewed calls and/or explaining rules.

Four members of the House of Representatives (two Democrats and two Republicans) introduced a resolution last week urging MLB not to eliminate 42 minor league teams. MLB made its proposal last year to eliminate short-season leagues and reduce the number of farm teams with which each club is affiliated.

One of the teams that could get the axe is the Lowell Spinners, the Red Sox's Short-Season A-ball team in the New York-Penn League. (The (Burlington) Vermont Lake Monsters, the Athletics' affiliate in the same league, is also on the list.)

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