Report: Automated strike zone to be used in some form in minors next year

Craig Calcaterra

Evan Drellich of The Athletic reports that Major League Baseball plans to use the automated strike zone in some form in the minor leagues in 2020.

The details are rather vague, but Drellich spoke to one person who suggests that it could be used in the A-level Florida State League next year. The details of its deployment — whether it’d be as a test run and whether it’d actually be the final arbiter of balls and strikes — are likewise unclear.

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Major League Baseball began testing its TrackMan automated balls and strikes system in the independent Atlantic League this past summer. Rob Manfred characterized it as “a really positive experience,” but that was not a universal opinion. How much of the negative opinion was based on people in the Atlantic League simply being uncomfortable with it vs. the system simply not working well is not itself clear. A lot of people hate change.

A little more clear, however, is a report from over the weekend in Baseball America in which the reviews for TrackMan’s deployment in the Arizona Fall League were decidedly negative:

Hitters throughout the brief AFL season were getting rung up on pitches catchers were scooping out of the dirt as well as ones that crossed somewhere near the middle of a hitter’s chest.

By the end, two things were clear: Pitchers with arsenals geared toward working from the top to the bottom of the strike zone were at a stark advantage, and nobody—neither hitters nor pitchers—was happy with TrackMan.

That story — and the notion that TrackMan is calling very low pitches strikes — is worrisome. A huge problem already is that pitchers routinely get a much lower zone than they used to, leading to far less of a need to elevate pitches, leading to fewer balls in play. If TrackMan encourages an even LOWER zone, strikeouts and walks will increase eve more and balls in play will go even lower. Which is precisely the opposite of what baseball needs.

As the Baseball America story makes clear, what you’re getting with TrackMan is not inaccuracy as such. You’re getting pitches hitting corners of the rulebook strike zone that have never routinely been called strikes, which has the effect of revealing just how big the strike zone actually is even if, practically, it has never played that big. Which, practically speaking, expands the zone.

Once you expand the zone pitchers — who already have such a tremendous advantage these days that Major League Baseball is also considering experimenting with methods to reduce that advantage and, according to some, intentionally juicing the baseball to offset that advantage — are going to have an even greater advantage. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America just said in a tweet, “If you use a robo ump you need to redefine the strike zone.”

Not that Manfred doesn’t acknowledge that more work needs to be done. Indeed, he tells Drellich, repeatedly, that they wouldn’t use it if they didn’t think it would work well. Still, a lot of what Manfred says also seems to suggest a strong desire to move forward regardless of the complaints:

“Here’s our thinking on the automated strike zone: The technology exists. We have the technology. 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. That’s why we experimented in the Atlantic League. 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.”

That whole “we have the technology and we need to use it” thing is the sort of stuff inventors say when they seem far more interested in getting a given technology deployed first and hammering out the kinks later as opposed to taking a more cautious approach. Here’s hoping that in saying that Manfred just let some excitement get the better of him in the moment and that he’s not hellbent on implementation while they’re still doing “upgrades.”

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