Sports | January 21, 2022 11:35 am

Robot Umpires Getting Called Up to Triple-A for 2022 Baseball Season

The Automated Ball-Strike system (ABS) is getting closer to being promoted to the big leagues

Justin Upton reacts to the strikeout call from umpire Chris Guccione
Justin Upton reacts to the strikeout call from umpire Chris Guccione.
Harry How/Getty

When the independent Atlantic League announced last week it was doing away with robot umpires after testing them for the past season-and-a-half, it wasn’t because the Automated Ball-Strike system (ABS) was headed back to the bench.

Actually, the reason why the Atlantic League ended its experiment with using ABS was because the system was being promoted so that a higher MLB affiliate league could continue testing it. Thanks to a hiring notice on MLB’s website, we now know the higher MLB affiliate is the highest level of the minor leagues: Triple-A.

Starting next season, the ABS will not replace umpires at home plate at the Triple-A level, but it will take away their duty of calling balls and strikes. Officially, the ABS will “leverage optical tracking data to determine and communicate ball and strike calls to plate umpires.” Umpires are still needed to make rulings on checked swings, interference and plays at the plate.

While the promotion to Triple-A doesn’t mean the robo-umps will be behind home plates across the majors — which are still locked out — soon, it does make the odds of seeing ABS in MLB at some point in the future substantially better.

“It’s hard to handicap if, when or how it might be employed at the major league level, because it is a pretty substantial difference from the way the game is called today,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, said last March.

Approximately two years ago the MLB umpires’ union agreed to a deal to cooperate with the implementation of a robot-determined strike zone in exchange for significant increases in compensation and retirement benefits.

If the ABS, which uses technology from Danish golf startup TrackMan, does get called up to the big leagues, not everyone is going to be happy about it.

“There are some pitchers that will never be able to work (to an automated strike zone). I was never an up-and-down pitcher. I was in-and-out. If in the first three innings I established that down and away pitch, by the fourth inning I got a half-inch [off the plate]. TrackMan won’t give that to you,” Atlantic League pitching coach and former big leaguer Frank Viola told Baseball America. “Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Viola would not have had their careers because those pitches would have been called balls. We would have been walking everyone instead of getting called strikes that forced hitters to swing the bat. TrackMan is helping one type of pitcher. It’s a power pitcher who is throwing 95-plus. If he’s over the plate high he has a better chance than anyone else of getting that call. That’s who it is helping. We talk about TrackMan taking the umpire out of the game. It’s also taking the pitcher out of the game. You can be a thrower and still get away with it.”