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FSL's Switch To Robo-Umpires Could Cause Issues

In 2020, most Florida State League games will have automated balls and strikes calling (known by MLB as ABS). Technology will determine the strike zone, much like it did in the independent Atlantic League and in the Arizona Fall League in 2019.

The technology will be slightly different. In the Atlantic League last year, Trackman doppler radar was used to detect where the ball crossed the plate. The FSL will be using the HawkEye optically based system with multiple cameras used to determine where the ball crossed the plate.

The tech will be in 10 of the 12 Florida State League parks—the Braves’ North Port stadium and the Daytona Tortugas (Reds) park will not have the Hawkeye tech.

The arrival of ABS in the minors for the regular season is a strong sign that this technology is likely coming to MLB in the future. Major League umpires are trained in the minor leagues, with the top umps earning promotions to the majors. If ABS tech spreads more widely through the minors, it will lead to a point where prospective MLB umpires will not have the experience calling balls and strikes that is needed to be ready for the majors—unless the majors adopts a similar tech.

But for now, the system is being put in place in one league only. And for the umpires working in the FSL, it creates a potentially significant issue—it puts them at a competitive disadvantage.

Just like the players hoping to excel in high Class A in order to move up to Double-A on their path to the majors, umpires in high Class A are hoping to showcase their skills. The top umpires in each Class A league can climb the ladder, moving up to Double-A and beyond in what they hope will eventually lead to a call to the majors.

It’s a long, hard road—umpires have much longer careers than MLB players, so the odds of making the jump from minor league umpire to major league umpire are even smaller than the odds of making it to the majors. In 2019, only 21 of the 76 MLB umpires had less than 10 years of major league experience.

Even more so than it is for players, umpiring is a step-by-step process. Umpires usually start in the complex leagues, move up to short-season ball, then low Class A, then high Class A and on and on. The idea is that the years of work in the minors will help prepare the best umps for the scrutiny of an MLB job. By the time they reach the majors permanently, they have been exposed to a wide variety of game situations and have hundreds of pro games under their belt.

But for FSL umpires this year, they will get few chances to demonstrate their ability to accurately call balls and strikes since most of the time they will be simply relaying the calls they hear in their earpiece (if it follows the Atlantic League’s example, they will have the ability to override the call if the ball bounces and they will have to rule on whether a hitter swung). Their evaluations on ball-strike calls will have to be based entirely on their work in a few games at Daytona or North Port.

If the entire minors was switching to ABS, it would not create an issue—every umpire would be facing the same conditions. But since this is an experiment currently limited to the Florida State League, it creates a problem where FSL umpires will be at a disadvantage in moving up to Double-A when compared to their contemporaries in the California and Carolina leagues.

If FSL umpires do earn promotions to Double-A for the 2021 season, they will also enter Double-A with less experience working the plate compared to their contemporaries moving up from the Carolina or California leagues. When they are evaluated for 2021 based on their ability to accurately call balls and strikes, they will be doing so having significantly less experience actually calling pitches in games (although an umpire can use the robo-ump to compare its calls to what he or she thought the pitch was, so those hundreds of pitches do have some use for them).

The best solution to the problem might be to have high Class A umpires rotating through the FSL through the season—ensuring all high Class A umpires get plenty of time calling balls and strikes while also exposing everyone to the mechanics of working with the robo-umps.

But there are logistic and cost issues to that plan—umpires are usually hired to work a specific league, not a level. So far, any plans to rotate umpires around high Class A have not been floated.

Minor League Baseball declined to comment. Emails to contact the Association of Minor League Umpires Union have as of now not been returned.


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