Robot umpires: MLB's trial run set to hit Minor League Baseball stadiums in 2020

Thomas Barrabi

Major League Baseball will move one step closer to robot umpires in 2020 with the implementation of automated strike zones at some minor league ballparks, marking an expansion of its efforts to incorporate technology into a practice that has remained largely unchanged for decades.

The program will build on trial runs MLB conducted in its offseason Arizona Fall League and the independent Atlantic League in 2019, where the league tested TrackMan radar tracking technology to call balls and strikes during in-game play. Commissioner Robert Manfred expressed optimism about advances in automated strike zone technology during an appearance on “MLB Network” last week.

“I think we need to be ready to use an automated strike zone when the time is right,” Manfred said, according to The Athletic. “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.”

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MLB officials have yet to unveil specific details about the program, such as how many minor league ballparks will implement the automated ball-strike system, which technology provider will be used or how long the test run will extend.

In the Arizona Fall League, the TrackMan system determined whether each pitch was a ball or a strike and signaled the call to the home plate umpire, who then made the on-field call. The Athletic reported last May that MLB was transitioning from TrackMan to Hawk-Eye technology to power its automated ball-tracking efforts starting in the 2020 season, but MLB has yet to verify that is the case.

The MLB Umpires Association, Minor League Baseball and TrackMan representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

An MLB spokesman said the league plans to unveil more details about its plans for the technology in Minor League Baseball later this offseason.

“The experimental program has been a positive learning exercise, which was the objective,” the MLB spokesman said in a statement. “This offseason, we plan to discuss the results of the Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League testing with our Clubs.”

So-called “robot umpire” technology represents a major departure from traditional baseball, where human error has been an active element in play since the sport was invented. At present, MLB grades its umpires based on their accuracy but does not make its findings public.

The technology drew a mixed reaction in the Arizona Fall League, where some players expressed discomfort with a system.

"It's definitely unique, it's different from everything we've learned throughout our baseball careers," Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Seth Beer. "It's just something new. Something that guys are just a little uncomfortable with so far."

The future of MLB umpires was a source of major debate during the 2019 playoffs, when a series of questionable calls by crews led to heightened calls for a technological intervention. A blown call during Game 5 of the World Series led one player to tell ESPN that a chance was necessary.

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"I was against it until now," the player said.

Any changes that would affect in-game play at the major league level would be subject to approval by both MLB officials and the MLB Players Association, according to the league’s collective-bargaining agreement.

Manfred said that MLB won’t seek a permanent switch at the pro level until the technology’s accuracy is irreproachable.

“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,” he added.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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