Automated ball-strike calls coming to Isotopes games in 2022 - Albuquerque Journal

Automated ball-strike calls coming to Isotopes games in 2022

Isotopes’ catcher Tom Murphy makes the catch with umpire Sean Ryan calling the play in action from July 2017. Umpires won’t be calling balls and strikes to begin the 2022 season . (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Umpires that work home plate in the 2022 Triple-A West baseball season can probably expect quite a bit less heckling from fans and certainly fewer snippy comments from irate players about the veracity of their strike zones. If a batter takes issue with a ball or strike call next year, they’re going to have to take it up with a new piece of technology.

The league that is home to the Albuquerque Isotopes plans to utilize an automated strike zone next year, the Journal has learned.

“You go where the game takes you,” Isotopes manager Warren Schaeffer said, adding that he “loves” the human element of umpiring.

“Who knows if this is gonna work, but this is a big deal.”

The addition of this system in Triple-A West cities like Albuquerque puts the automated strike zone concept – which was designed to create a more consistent and accurate zone – closer to Major League Baseball than it has been to date.

The technical term for the system is Automated Ball-Strike, or ABS. In essence, a robot will be calling balls and strikes for plate umpires in Triple-A West.

“You know, I think with everything, there are good things about it and bad things about it,” said new Isotopes hitting coach Jordan Pacheco. “If it makes the game better for the players and fans, it’s a good thing. Time will tell.”

Pacheco experienced the ABS system firsthand this year, playing with the Lexington Legends of the independent Atlantic League. Late in the season, Pacheco, who played at La Cueva, the University of New Mexico and in the big leagues from 2011-16 with Colorado, Arizona and Cincinnati, announced his retirement from playing.

Pacheco had a negative experience with ABS in July. In an at-bat for Lexington, Pacheco took a fastball that clearly was low and outside. But after a one-second delay, the plate umpire rung Pacheco up on strike three, leaving Pacheco visibly exasperated as he leaned forward and put his hands on his knees.

“It’s going to have its faults,” Schaeffer said. “All you have to do is take a look at that video.”

As a former catcher, Pacheco expressed some concern about how the art of framing pitches is going to be removed from the equation.

“How accurate can it be? That’s the question,” Pacheco said. “It was learning, it’s an artificial intelligence system. It needs time to learn and it needs a bunch of reps, just like a human being.”

The Atlantic League was the country’s first to institute computerized balls/strikes, at its All-Star Game in July 2019.

MLB placed the ABS in a few ballparks in the Low-A Southeast League of Florida earlier this year.

Major League Baseball has not formally announced this marriage of ABS with Triple-A West, although the sport is currently not conducting any business with major league players locked out as part of a labor dispute.

It is unknown if Triple-A East, which has 20 affiliates, will be following suit and likewise serving as a guinea pig for ABS technology in 2022. Triple-A West has 10 teams.

“If it helps make the game better and it makes it more enjoyable for the fans, then OK, I think I can be on board with it,” Pacheco said, adding, “I know in the beginning, there were a lot of questions from the hitters, and a lot of questions from the pitchers, about whether the machine did it the way they said it was going to work. That was up for debate, I think, at times.”

An Associated Press story from March of this year reported that the Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed in its labor contract – which began in 2020 – to cooperate and assist if and when baseball commissioner Rob Manfred decides to make this system operational for big league games.

Any players who participate in games where ABS is used will have their measurements recorded. According to the AP story, the top of the strike zone would be 56% of their height, and also the bottom set at 28%.

It is expected that two additional people would need to be hired, and trained, to make ABS functional at Isotopes Park – one in the press box and one at field level.

Isotopes manager Warren Schaeffer chats with players during a July game. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The home plate umpire would be wearing an ear piece, and the results of each pitch will be quickly relayed to him before he vocalizes the call.

“We’ll know within the first couple of games what this thing is going to be,” Schaeffer said. “I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt at the beginning, because I’ve never really seen it. If they say it will call a strike more consistently, we’ll give it a go. It’s a giant experiment.”

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