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The Robo-Ump Revolution Will Be Less Than Expected



For years, when we’ve talked to scouts and front office officials about draft-eligible catchers, there’s been an addendum tacked onto many of those evaluations. If a catcher was a great pitch framer or a terrible pitch framer, we’d often hear the same comment:

“When robo-umps come to the majors, it will change what we’re looking for in catchers.”

For years, the arrival of an automated ball-strike system in the majors (or robo-umps) has been viewed as more a matter of when than if.

The idea is that the day balls and strikes are called by computers, pitch framing would disappear as a skill.

Anyone thinking that catching is going to change dramatically in the next few years should probably reassess those expectations.

This year, MLB began experimenting with a challenge system in the minors. If you’ve seen it in action, it becomes quickly clear that this is much more likely to come to the majors than a full-bore computerized strike zone. It’s a much more modest change that still meets the goal of improving ball/strike calls. There’s no reason to take a sledgehammer to a problem (missed ball-strike calls) when a ball-peen hammer will do.

If MLB ever went to a fully automated ball-strike system, it would eliminate a skill MLB umpires have spent years (decades in some cases) perfecting. And the first month of the transition would assuredly be rocky, with plenty of discussion of how the strike zone has changed, highlights of the strangest ball and strike calls and plenty of disruption.

Adopting universal robo-umps would lead to potentially massive changes in what teams look for in their catchers. Overnight, some players (top-notch framers) could see their value plummet, while other catchers could see their weaknesses suddenly turned into irrelevancies.

Under the challenge system, the home plate umpire would still call balls and strikes, just as they always have. But the Hawkeye system will also be watching every pitch. If a batter, catcher, pitcher or manager believes the umpire blew the call, they can challenge the call. Immediately, the Hawkeye call for the pitch (ball or strike) is relayed and the call is either confirmed or overturned.

In the minors, each team has had three challenges per game. It’s a modest tweak to the current game, one that would allow teams to reverse the most egregious calls. During most innings, the change would be unnoticeable to fans.

But the challenge system is going to mean that catching will largely remain as is. If the challenge system comes to the major leagues, roughly 2% of pitches would be called by the automated system. Otherwise, the catcher’s ability to receive borderline pitches in ways to help convince umpires to call them strikes would remain important.

For years many in baseball have been convinced that a massive change is coming to catching. Most likely, instead we’re going to get a tiny tweak.

Malcom Nunez (Mike Janes Four Seam Images)

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