MLB addressing its brand — with ‘robo umpire’ balls and strikes experiment
A little over a month ago, I heard a story I fell in love with.
So, on this Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d share it.
Reports say there will be an electronic strike zone used in all 30 Class AAA parks in 2023, which has to mean it’s getting closer to the Major League Baseball big show.
Which, cue the Cupid hearts and arrows, I love.
If we have technology to make our beloved games better, for goodness sake, let’s use it.
Have you watched a professional tennis match lately? Have you noticed how the participants can challenge line calls? Then the crowd claps until – voila! – everyone is shown if the ball was in or out. Very, very cool. It moves quickly. And, if you think about it, the system has the back of the umpire.
I’ve been waiting for years for the NFL to get rid of the chain gangs. Just put chips on the ends of footballs and quickly let us know if it’s a first down or not. If I must sit through a halftime of Rihanna at least speed up that part of the game.
Bringing us back to the implementation of baseball’s ABS, the Automatic Balls and Strikes system.
Reports say it will be used in two different ways. Half of the Class AAA games will be played with all the calls determined by an electronic strike zone, and the other half will be played with an ABS challenge system like that of tennis.
I did a little research because I was hoping we’d see a robot like that in “Lost in Space” behind the plate with flailing arms signaling strikes. (“Danger Will Robinson!”)
Apparently, though, it will work much as we see on televised games. Cameras will be mounted on top of bleachers that will determine strike zones based on a batter’s height. Then, once a ball or strike is determined, a robotic voice will be announced in the umpire’s AirPods.
It’s about accuracy. And I see no downside to the move. The umpire will still be needed to run the game so there are no jobs lost. I guess you lose some of the catchers’ art of framing pitches, but is that a big deal?
For the games that will only have challenges available, each team will have three per game and retain challenges when proven correct.
The move is to provide MLB data and feedback from both systems over the full schedule to inform future choices. ESPN senior writer Buster Olney said, as of now, MLB has no firm date to implement its Automatic Balls and Strikes system in the big leagues. But in recent seasons, the robotic umpire has been used more and more.
“In 2019, for instance, the independent Atlantic League used the electronic strike zone in an all-star game, and that same year, the Arizona Fall League was played with the ABS,” wrote Olney. “In 2021, the ABS was deployed in some Class A parks. Last season, the full ABS was used for some Class AAA games.”
Apparently, the feedback has been positive, except for one quote I found.
“Last summer, the Pacific Coast League began using the automated ball-strike system,” wrote R.J. Anderson of CBS Sports. “Colorado Rockies star outfielder Kris Bryant, a veteran who was on a rehab assignment and playing in the PCL at the time of the change, offered his feedback.
“’I wish there was more of, you have to have X percentage of the ball that crosses the zone for it to be a strike,’ Bryant told The Athletic. ‘Because the ones that just nick the corner, that’s the gray area. As a pitcher you’re like, ‘maybe it’s a strike?’ And as a hitter you’re like, ‘I don’t know either.'”
I’d imagine the next step will be an MLB challenge system before a full balls-and-strikes ABS takeover. There are already big changes ahead, with the implementation of a pitch clock, new regulations greatly limiting the use of defensive shifts, larger bases, and a restriction on the number of times a pitcher can attempt pickoff throws. All, of course, are to address pace of play.
And, yes, it’s to address MLB’s brand. It’s about marketing the game.
MLB has a long and rich tradition.
And if it wants to continue that with the younger generations, tweaks must be made.
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Mitch Vingle covered sports in West Virginia for 38 years. Follow Mitch on Twitter at @MitchVingle and be sure to check out the rest of Wheelhouse Creative’s website for your marketing and advertising needs. If interested, call us at 304-905-6005.