Jim Sankey: Extra Innings: Auto Ball-Strike Zone in effect for Bucs 'Spring Breakout' game

Mar. 12—"Wait 'til next year."

For too long, that phrase has been the Pittsburgh Pirates' annual motto ... with many of them being accurate on Opening Day.

Those of us who can recall five decades ago will also smile fondly at the Pittsburgh-Baltimore World Series in 1971 and 1979. Both times the Orioles were favored to win the Fall Classic, but both times the Pirates rallied to take home the titles.

Since 1979 the O's have won the 1983 World Series and advanced to another series in four of their other six playoff years, while the Pirates advanced to another series just once in their most recent six playoff years.

While some rose-colored glasses allow fans to plan for another playoff run soon in Pittsburgh, clearer lenses are more accurate for the Orioles.

The Pirates and the O's meet at 3 p.m. Thursday for a Grapefruit League contest, but it's what follows that spring training game that has the baseball world focusing on Bradenton.

Major League Baseball, the same folks that gave you the nonsensical fiasco known as the World Baseball Classic (If you think is genius, go talk to Edwin Diaz and the 2023 Mets.), will inaugurate something tomorrow called "Spring Breakout."

This innovation will include all organizations in both Florida and Arizona.

Aimed at showcasing the game's top talent, this first sport-wide event will feature tomorrow's stars, with most of the games following the major league spring training games.

Pittsburgh and Baltimore are two of only five farm systems that include five or more prospects ranked among MLB Pipeline's Top 100, and seven of them could play tomorrow.

All eyes are on LECOM Park in Bradenton to watch two number one overall draft picks (Pittsburgh's Paul Skenes in 2023 and Baltimore's Jackson Holliday in 2022) face off.

Each Spring Breakout roster (23-27 players) was chosen using MLB Pipeline's Top 30 Prospects list. Players must be classified as rookies entering the 2024 season (fewer than 131 at-bats, 51 innings pitched, and 46 regular-seasons days on the active MLB roster).

The rosters of all 30 clubs include 72 of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 list, and almost two thirds of the Pipeline's Top 30 prospects.

Top Pirates prospects (their ranking in parentheses) include pitchers Skenes (1), Anthony Solometo (4), Bubba Chandler (5), Thomas Harrington (6), Braxton Ashcroft (7), Hunter Barco (14) and Patrick Reilly (23) and catcher Omar Alfonzo (29).

Infielders are Termarr Johnson (2), Mitch Jebb (8), Tsung-Che Cheng (9), Jack Brannigan (10)

Yordany De Los Santos (17), Garret Forrester(19), Jesus Castillo (25) and Jhonny Severino (26).

Outfielders are Lonnie White Jr (12), Shalin Polanco (16), Jase Bowen (21), Estuar Suero (27) and Tres Gonzalez (28).

Most games are on MLB Network, including tomorrow's Pittsburgh-Baltimore game. Although the Pirates' SportsNet Pittsburgh channel is slated to air the Penguins-San Jose Sharks game, the baseball game could be carried on the local network's Alternate Programming channel. And while the game is scheduled for 7 p.m., says that the game will be part of a traditional doubleheader at 3 p.m. and could start before 7 p.m.

Each "Spring Breakout" game will last seven innings, unless both teams agree before the game to go the full nine innings. Games will be recorded as ties if neither team is ahead after seven (or nine) innings.

There's another big draw for this game for those of us wearied by watching for years umpires' wrong ball-strike calls: The Automated Ball-Strike system will be used in the five Florida State League ballparks, which includes the Bradenton park. Under the system, each team can challenge at least three ball-strike calls. If overturned, the team gets another challenge and continues until the teach has had three unsuccessful challenges.

According to, the size of the strike zone will be determined by 53.5 percent of the batter's height at the top, 27 percent of the batter's height at the bottom and 17 inches wide as measured at the middle of the plate.

Baseball continues its slow crawl toward the inevitable "Robo Ump" system in the majors, as fans will get to see first-hand if the automated system is ready for The Show, especially if it calms us exasperated fans who continue to wonder why TV continues to show the strike zone box when nothing can be done to correct missed calls.

JIM SANKEY is the Pittsburgh Pirates columnist for Allied News. His work appears in the weekly addition throughout the baseball season.

JIM SANKEY is the Pittsburgh Pirates columnist for Allied News. His work appears in the weekly addition throughout the baseball season.