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The robots are coming and MLBers prefer a challenge

Julian Catalfo / theScore

TORONTO - Tyler Glasnow loved his first experience with the automatic ball-strike system.

The Dodgers right-hander got a firsthand glimpse of the ABS challenge system currently being tested in the minor leagues during a rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham last season.

"I thought it was so cool," Glasnow told theScore. "I think it's just more like entertainment value. That was, like, the loudest the crowd got - when there was a challenge."

ABS, also known as "robot umps," uses the Hawk-Eye tracking system - similar to tennis - to accurately call balls and strikes. Umpires wear an earpiece and are instructed of the call in real time.

"I've seen a couple of the minor-league games with the challenge system," Yankees star Aaron Judge said. "It's pretty cool how they can do that.

"I've been to the US Open a couple times and have seen that system."

For those reluctant to embrace a fully automated zone, the challenge system is viewed as a compromise. An umpire still stands behind the plate making their own calls on balls and strikes. Players, however, have the ability to challenge a call in real time. Teams are issued three challenges per game, and they retain their challenge if they're proven correct. If a batter, pitcher, or catcher believes the umpire made an incorrect call, they'll signal they want to challenge. The challenge call must come right away, and only from players involved in the plate appearance. The ball-tracking technology flashes on the scoreboard almost immediately, giving a ruling.

"Everyone was locked in. It was so fast - five seconds," Glasnow said.

"I also think it would be more beneficial to the umpires than they would think. It could be the one time in the game where they can be like, 'I told you so.'"

Every six-game Triple-A series this season splits between full ABS and the challenge system.

Orioles ace Corbin Burnes sits on the competition committee and says there's been much talk in the Baltimore clubhouse about ABS' potential future implementation. He believes the challenge system is by far the preferred option among players.

"I don't think there's a place in our game for full ABS," Burnes told theScore. "A lot of guys like the human element of it. There's gamesmanship behind the plate with the catchers stealing strikes, and a lot of guys have a lot of value to a team with that type of skill set.

"The challenge system is probably something that I think we can benefit from. You don't need a robot ump for every pitch in the game. It's more about the big pitches that can change the course of the game, change an at-bat."

A perfect example of what the challenge system could prevent happened last week in San Diego. Padres infielder Jake Cronenworth was called out to end the game on a strike-three call that was off the plate. Had the challenge system been in place, Cronenworth could have used it to keep the plate appearance alive (provided he had a challenge to use).

Baseball Savant

Burnes doesn't believe ABS is close to coming to MLB, despite two years of testing. He references Rob Manfred's May comments, when the commissioner said it's unlikely MLB incorporates ABS by 2025. Manfred cited "technical issues," and while there's been some progress, he believes more work is needed before it's MLB ready.

"I think it'd be the best way to go about it," Twins shortstop Carlos Correa said of the challenge system. "A lot of people talk about the robot umpires and all that, (but) I think the human factor still is important to the game. We all make mistakes; players, umpires, everybody. I think if you can correct those with a challenge system, I think that would be fine. We need to figure out how the logistics will work with that. It sounds like it's working in Triple-A."

'It doesn't play any favorites'

Jason Miller / Getty Images Sport / Getty

You won't find someone more supportive of the ABS system than Blue Jay Davis Schneider.

"Oh, I love it," Schneider told theScore. "As a hitter, it's the best, because you get the true outcome of what (the pitch) should be.

"I believe it should be here, the challenge system at least, because it doesn't play any favorites. If you think you got a call right, challenge it."

Like the current challenge system in MLB with calls on the bases, there's strategy that can be used. Players can be cautious about using a challenge early in a game for fear they might lose it, often preferring to keep them for higher-leverage situations, when the outcome of the plate appearance weighs heavier on the game's result.

"You kind of have to pick and choose when, because you don't want to waste one early and then have that come back and bite you," Schneider said.

Blue Jays right-hander Alek Manoah got his first experience with ABS earlier this season while rehabbing in Florida. He admitted to being completely caught off guard by the challenge system.

"Those kids were challenging every call and I was like, 'What the heck is going on?'" Manoah said. "It was weird. It's kind of like a video game. It's really not like baseball.

"You only get three challenges, so it's tricky. You don't want to sit there and challenge every call. Luckily, I won the first two (I used), but that would have been super selfish of me if I would have lost the first two in the first inning. Those are things I thought about after the fact. In the moment, I know that's a strike - 'challenge.' But if I would have been wrong, you say, 'Shoot, now we're down to one with eight innings left.'"

Burnes says he doesn't know where the ideal place to experiment with new rules is. The Arizona Fall League provides too small a sample size. The minor leagues, at least, allows testing to be done in an extended way, including when games are meaningful. MLB and MiLB players playing under different rules can create issues for some minor leaguers when they make the jump to the big leagues, though.

"There's a lot of things that we caution with the rules committee when we're on the phone calls," Burnes said. "It's like, you're running the tests for MLB in the minor leagues."

Going from a "perfect" strike zone in the minors to the human element of MLB with varying zones has caused some younger players to struggle to adapt.

"They come up from Triple-A and they're like, 'Wow, this feels like a completely different game,' just because of how small the zone is down there," Royals shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. told theScore. "It's kind of a bigger change than they think."

"Last year, coming from ABS to (MLB), you realize how many mistakes umpires do make, in the zone and out of the zone," Schneider said.

Toronto prospect Addison Barger posted a 1.021 OPS and 21% strikeout rates in the minors prior to being called up in April. He went 1-for-18 with six strikeouts in five MLB games before being sent back down.

"(The strike zone) is the biggest adjustment," Barger said. "I don't know if you're learning that strike zone again, but maybe just take a little more chances on the pitches that are the fringy pitches, that may be a ball in Triple-A - they're probably strikes here. It made me be a little more aggressive in the zone, and outside the zone a little bit. You can't be as passive on the pitches on the corners."

It's not uncommon for young hitters to struggle once they reach the majors. This season's sample is small, and it's tough to compare different rookie classes because there's such a disproportionate amount of talent, but rookies are putting up a lower overall average, OBP, slugging, and wRC+ in 2024 than the previous two seasons (through June 10):

"I think (ABS is) contributing to a bigger separation when you come to the big leagues," Burnes said. "When I was coming up, the jump to the big leagues was still pretty big, and that was 2018. Now, talking to guys, talking to coaches, it's just such a big jump. I think a lot of that is guys in Triple-A before were swinging to get to the big leagues. Now, guys aren't swinging, and they get to the big leagues and are forced to swing, and they're not ready."

Despite benefiting from ABS, Manoah believes the relationship between players and umpires can also be negatively affected by the challenge system. While Manoah wants accuracy, he doesn't want an umpire to feel like they're being shown up.

"The one that I challenged that I didn't get right, when I came off at the end of the inning, the umpire kind of made a joke with me: 'Hey man, I might not be able to get the up and down but I know the corner,'" Manoah said. "That tells me the umpires do take it personal. You know, especially when we challenge and win, it shows they messed up the call and everyone sees it."

Schneider agrees that showing up an umpire is one of the negative aspects of the challenge system, but feels that the correct call trumps all; umpires shouldn't take it personally.

"It shows really how sometimes bad the umpires are, so that aspect kind of sucks," Schneider said. "If an umpire gets a really bad call, it kind of puts them in a bad spot. (You're not trying to show them up), you're trying to get the call right. But, like, sometimes it's really bad. That aspect kind of sucks, but umpires should be held accountable."

'Media box is the issue'


Burnes thinks issues with umpires for the most part have been overblown, and that problems with the strike zone are more pronounced due to the implementation of the strike-zone box on TV broadcasts.

"The media box is the issue," Burnes said. "Social media has blown it up and made it a bigger issue.

"I think as technology has advanced with social media, and these media networks putting strike zones up that are incorrect, the easiest thing to do is for (broadcasters) to not put a box up there, and (complaints) slowly start to go away."

"It's not (accurate)," Freddie Freeman, one of baseball's best hitters, said of broadcast K-zones.

"I think for the most part, umpires are more right than players, like 60-40," Glasnow said.

The ABS strike zone in Triple-A this season is 17 inches wide with "a two-dimensional rectangle at the midpoint of the plate. The top and bottom of the strike zone will be set at 53.5% and 27% of the batter's height." MLB continues to tinker with the shape of the zone in order to prevent it from being manipulated by hitters and pitchers.

When speaking with players who haven't used the ABS system, most of the questions are about the technology and how it all comes together.

"I just don't know how they're gonna gauge what the bottom is, what the top is. How are they going to make the strike zone?" Judge asked.

"I don't see how they could really hone in on that system in a big-league game," Freeman said.

"I don't like the automatic strike zone, with the sense (that if) a ball barely hits it, then it's a strike. I don't think that's right," Yankees outfielder Alex Verdugo said. "I think it should be 40-50% of the ball crossing that line."

Max Scherzer said in April that the electronic strike zone should be used as a way to score umpires, with those scoring the lowest sent to the minors. Verdugo agrees that some type of scoring system would be the best way to hold umpires accountable while still allowing them to call their own game.

"There should be some type of grading system or something that happens with umpires to where it maybe tightens up that buffer zone, so whatever mistakes are more cleaned up," Verdugo said.

MLB's made a number of changes over the last several years under Manfred, and many have improved the on-field product. The expanded playoff field, pitch clock, and shift regulations were all met with some pushback but ended up enhancing the game.

Change is hard, though, and it's understandable that some players are reluctant to continue to agree to more alterations. Overall, however, most players are keeping an open mind.

"Whatever benefits the players. Whatever helps grow this game," Judge said.

"When I'm retired 10 years from now and I'm watching the game on TV, I might be like, 'That's kinda cool.' Until you deal with it, (it's hard to really know)," Freeman said of ABS.

"I think (ABS) eventually will come but there (are) still a lot of flaws," Burnes said. "Will it be here by 2026? I would say no. I would say it's probably maybe a year or so after that. It'll get there, but until you're 100% (accuracy), we don't want to see it. "

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