Major League Baseball has put themselves into an unprecedented situation that could drastically alter the look of a baseball game forever. As MLB continues to experiment with the Automated ball-strike system (ABS) in the minor leagues, the question will continue to be a critical topic of conversation: when will we see the ABS in the majors?
Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the system will not be implemented to MLB in 2024. Despite experimenting in Triple-A, Manfred said there are some issues that need to be resolved within the system before it is used in the majors.
ABS is being used in half of Triple-A games and the other half are decided by umpires calling balls and strikes. The system has continued to grow into more important games, being used in the independent Atlantic League’s All-Star Game and Arizona Fall League in 2019.
As the system is improved, it could make an impact at the major league level in the coming years, taking pressure off the umpires to make the correct calls in real time. Analytics have become a major factor in all aspects of the game, now developing metrics and statistics for the overall grade in games for umpires.
In the 2023 MLB season, umpires that have registered at least one game behind the plate have a 94.1% accuracy rating calling balls and strikes. While it is not possible for umpires to make the right call on every pitch, the distance off the plate for pitches that have been called strikes have reached levels that have made people question if ABS is ready to implement into the majors.
The criticism that umpires receive while calling games has gone to a magnitude never seen before, creating a situation for the league that could see the start of a new era of baseball.
If the strike zone is consistent between every player, games could potentially no longer end up favoring one team after a pitch in a high-leverage situation. In late inning affairs, the significance of every pitch is magnified, but if the system is effective immediately, no bias will swing the momentum in the favor of either team.
MLB has considered two methods of use for ABS. One method tells the umpire what to call for every pitch, and the other is a challenge system where a team is allowed three challenges per game of an umpire’s call.
If ABS is used for every pitch, the value of a catcher’s ability to frame pitches and steal strikes will plummet. Defense is a premium behind the plate, and if the automated zone is implemented for every pitch, the value of good defensive catchers will reach an all-time low.
“The theory of instant replay was: fix the big miss,” Manfred said. The challenge system could have the same effect as instant replay, giving scorekeepers and play-by-play analysts another chance to look over a pitch to come up with the right call.
Manfred has mentioned that using ABS for every pitch is less realistic and too intrusive on the game.
“In the minor leagues, we have tested the umpire using (ABS) for every pitch in the game,” Manfred said. “Players know these things because they’re players — it does cause a problem with these corner pitches … because nobody has ever been trained to treat those as strikes, or hit them.”
If they are still given the opportunity to call games, umpires would be the biggest beneficiaries of ABS, no longer having to face any criticism for making a bad call in a pivotal moment of a game. Acting as a possible middleman between the game and the automated strike zone, the negative attention fans give umpires during and after games will turn into an afterthought.
Since the system interprets the strike zone differently than umpires do, there will never be a perfect zone. There are too many factors that would go into having an objective strike zone, and depending on the situation, it could end up altering the course of a game.
Despite great improvement in the last 15 seasons, umpires are still getting overly criticized for missing clear ball and strike calls. With velocity reaching record highs across the league, the job of an umpire has gotten more difficult to be consistent, a major contributor in the development of ABS. The obvious missed calls have been a glowing concern for the league, but with so many factors going into every pitch, including the velocity and movement of the pitch, as well as the location and magnitude of the situation can influence the umpire’s call.
Umpires will be faced with less pressure in either application of the automated zone, likely bringing an end to the traditional form of baseball where a game can be decided without having the chance to look at a replay and review the pitch.
In a period of change for MLB, the automated strike zone could possibly make one of the biggest impacts of any of the new rules. The debut date of ABS is unknown, but if the league continues to see umpires make incorrect ball and strike calls in key moments, it could be as early as the 2025 season.