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Minor League Baseball To Experiment With Robotic Umpires

Birmingham Barons outfielder Luis Basabe moves toward a ball in front of the vintage scoreboard in 2019 at Rickwood Field, America's oldest baseball park, in Birmingham, Ala.
Jay Reeves
Birmingham Barons outfielder Luis Basabe moves toward a ball in front of the vintage scoreboard in 2019 at Rickwood Field, America's oldest baseball park, in Birmingham, Ala.

Umpires will have a little help behind home plate in some minor league games this season – from a "robot ump."

Major League Baseball announced Thursday that select games in the Low-A Southeast will use a robot to help call balls and strikes. The use of the technology, called the Automatic Ball-Strike System, will also "ensure a consistent strike zone is called, and determine the optimal strike zone for the system," according to MLB.

The robot's use is one of a number of experimental rules announced Thursday, which the league said are "designed to increase action on the basepaths, create more balls in play, improve the pace and length of games, and reduce player injuries."

MLB has often tried out rules in the minor leagues it is considering for the majors. The league has implemented a number of rule changes at its highest level in recent years to try to reduce dead time, shorten games and — it's presumed --make them more exciting for fans.

"The game on the field is constantly evolving, and MLB must be thoughtful and intentional about progressing toward the very best version of baseball – a version that is true to its essence and has enough consistent action and athleticism on display to entertain fans of all ages," Theo Epstein, consultant to MLB, said in a statement.

"These rules experiments will provide valuable insight into various ways to create a playing environment that encourages the most entertaining version of the game," he added.

In the Triple-A, the league will experiment with expanding the size of all bases except home plate from 15 inches square to 18 square inches. The league hopes to "reduce player injuries and collisions," and said it could also mean that runners are able to steal more bases.

In Double-A games, the team in the field will be required to have at least four players positioned in the infield, "each of whom must have both feet completely in front of the outer boundary of the infield dirt."

The league said this rule is "intended to increase the batting average on balls in play."

The Automatic Ball-Strike System has already been in use in the independent Atlantic League and Arizona Fall League. As The Associated Press noted, it "got mixed reviews from players, with complaints about how the TrackMan system grades breaking pitches down in the zone."

The robot could help rein in different interpretations of the strike zone among umpires. It also limits the ability of catchers to frame a pitch, which can help make a ball just barely out of the zone look like a strike.

Pitch framing is "going to be a lost art in the game," one independent league catcher bemoaned to Lancaster Online shortly after the technology was introduced.

As Sport Techie said in early 2020, the robot has the potential to "transform the governance of baseball's most fundamental interaction."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.

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