COOPER: Challenge System Has Best Aspects of ABS Without the Downsides

As a Baseball America reader, you very well may already know this, because BA readers have probably made it out to a minor league game or two or 20 this year. And if you’re anywhere close to a Triple-A park, or if you watch Triple-A games online, you have seen what I’m about to tell you.

But for those who don’t follow the minor leagues as closely, or for those of you whose baseball focus is limited to the major leagues, I have a piece of insight for you to file away: the ABS challenge system seems pretty clearly to be the way of the future.

MLB used this system in select parks last year, but this year, it’s brought it to the entirety of Triple-A. During the first three games (Tuesday-Thursday) of each series, balls and strikes are called by the Automated Ball-Strike system (ABS). But then on Friday through Sunday, the balls and strikes are called by the umpire. 

Each team gets three unsuccessful challenges a game to challenge those ball-strike calls. I describe it as three unsuccessful challenges, because a team can challenge as many pitches as they want, as long as the challenges are successful. Anytime you miss on a challenge, you lose one of your three challenges.

So if an umpire is having a particularly bad day, a team could challenge six, eight or 10 pitches, correcting a slew of missed calls.

In reality, it rarely happens that way. Umpires are generally quite good at calling balls and strikes. So pretty frequently when a player challenges a call, the umpire is proven correct.

So why is the challenge system likely the way forward for baseball?

1. It’s a modest step instead of a drastic one.

If MLB adopted ABS as the arbiter of balls and strikes going forward, it would drastically change the game. Some of the game’s best receivers/pitch framers might find themselves out of jobs, as the robo-ump doesn’t care how a catcher receives a pitch. Similarly, umpires who have worked for decades to get to the point where they are nearly perfect at calling balls and strikes will find that skill is no longer useful. Skills that have been honed over years of amateur and pro baseball would effectively be discarded.

The ABS challenge system doesn’t do that. Catchers who are the best at pitch framing still have value, as 97% or more of all pitches in a game will still be called by a human umpire. Being able to call a good game still is a needed and valuable skill for umpires as well.

But when an umpire blows a call, with the challenge system there’s a way to rectify the error.

2. It’s quick.

If you haven’t seen the challenge system in action, you may envision the umpire going to put on a headset every time a pitch is challenged. Thankfully, it’s nothing like that. A challenge has to be registered quickly after the pitch, and can only be initiated by the pitcher, catcher or batter. Once a challenge has been made, the umpire taps his head, signaling the previous pitch has been challenged. 

Everyone’s attention turns to the video board, where almost immediately, a graphic shows the pitch from release to where it crossed the plate. It then shows if the ball touched the strike zone in any way for a strike.

It’s a 10-second process at most, and one that actually builds a little bit of drama as everyone waits to see if the pitch ticked the zone or not.

3. It reduces friction

As much as anything, the challenge system eliminates the complaining that often comes with calls on borderline pitches. Without any recourse, a batter or pitcher will often subtly or not-so subtly exhibit their displeasure when a call doesn’t go their way. If it gets bad enough, the manager then gets involved, often just to make sure that his pitcher or hitter isn’t ejected from the game.

Say goodbye to all of that. Now if you think the call was a bad one, you simply challenge it. If you aren’t willing to challenge it, it’s a pretty clear sign that you aren’t all that confident in your argument.

So far across Triple-A, MLB’s numbers show that we’ve seen less than 50% of challenges result in a reversal of the umpire’s call. If a batter or pitcher was upset about a call, but then they find the call was accurate, that’s often the end of the argument. And it’s a little reminder that the umpires are usually very good at their very difficult job.

4. It avoids problems

No matter how accurate and reliable a computer system is, there’s always a chance it will fail at the worst time possible. 

Imagine that MLB adopted a full ABS system for calling balls and strikes. And then imagine that in the ninth inning of a close game, the computer system crashed mid-pitch. Yes, you can have redundancies to try to prevent this, but this is a worst case scenario.

Asking an umpire who has been relaying ball-strike calls from the ABS system all night to make a call on a ball or strike because the computer system crashed mid-pitch is a tough ask. That task would get much tougher as the years went along and umpires lost the consistent repetition of calling balls and strikes.

On the other hand, if umpires are calling balls and strikes and the computer system is there for challenges only, a mid-pitch computer crash means that one pitch can’t be challenged.

Similarly, the challenge system allows young minor league umpires to develop their skill at calling the strike zone in a way they can’t in a fully ABS system. Once you adopt full ABS, it would be hard to ever go back. A challenge system keeps all options open.

MLB’s going to continue to experiment with this for the remainder of the year, but it’s not difficult to imagine this coming to the majors in the not too distant future.

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