An automated strike zone could be inching closer to becoming a reality in Major League Baseball.
In a recent appearance on MLB Network, commissioner Rob Manfred stated that the technology used for the automated strike zone was due for a large upgrade this winter and that further testing and preparation will take place during the 2020 season.
The goal? Get everyone as comfortable with the system as possible so that the MLB can comfortably implement an automated system when the "time is right."
“Here’s our thinking on the automated strike zone: The technology exists. We have the technology,” Manfred said. “We’re actually going through a big upgrade of that piece of our technology during this offseason. I think we need to be ready to use an automated strike zone when the time is right.”
How the automated strike zone works
Automated strike zones were tested in the MLB-run Arizona Fall League and the independent Atlantic League during the 2019 season.
The pitch tracking software that was utilized determined if the pitch was a strike and then notified the home-plate umpire through an earpiece. Tweaks could be made along the way, but it sounds as though Manfred was pleased with most aspects from this version.
“We thought the Atlantic League was a really positive experience,” Manfred said. “Positive in the sense that it worked well a very, very large percentage of the time. When it didn’t work, they were identifiable problems with the system, things that we can work on. I think a major kind of breakthrough with the Atlantic League deployment was the idea that you put an earpiece in the umpires and you don’t change the appearance of the game from the fan’s perspective.”
The system was met with mixed reviews from fans and players. A Giants prospect was even ejected for arguing a call by the automated software during an AFL game.
Those against it don’t want to see the human element minimized even more in baseball. Those in favor are more interested in the calls being correct or at the very least consistent. Consistency is not something that’s afforded when a human is judging the zone.
Automated strike zone coming to 'some' minor league ballparks
The next logical step in the progression of the automated strike zone will be to implement it at the minor league level.
According to Manfred, that process is expected to begin in “some” minor league ballparks during the 2020 season.
“That’s why we experimented in the Atlantic League,” Manfred said. “It’s why we went to the Arizona Fall League. It’s why we’re using it in Minor League Baseball next year, in some ballparks at least.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to see if we can get the system to the point we’re comfortable it can work. I only would go to an automated strike zone when we were sure that it was absolutely the best it can be. Getting out there too early with it and not having it work well, that’d be a big mistake.”
When, where or how frequently the system would be utilized was not made clear in the commissioner’s comments. The expectation is that it will be brought in slowly, with the potential to expand once a certain level of comfort is established.
While progress is being made, it could still be several years before an automated strike zone is considered at the major-league level. But we’re obviously much closer to that moment than we thought was possible even six months ago.
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