WALDORF — Of all the potentially awkward moments I’ve had on a baseball field, perhaps none were as discomforting as those I spent last weekend waiting for a robot to speak to me.
The Southern Maryland Blue Crabs were the latest team in the independent Atlantic League to start using the automated ball-strike system, or a robotic umpire. It’s one of the experimental rule changes the league is using as part of a three-year agreement with Major League Baseball, allowing MLB to test various rules and equipment without affecting its minor league affiliates, while also increasing its scouting efforts in the Atlantic League.
A day after the ABS system was put into use at the Blue Crabs’ Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, the team welcomed a handful of media members to try out the system; so I got the honor of being a robot ump’s human companion as left-hander Tommy Thorpe threw his between-starts bullpen session.
The system uses TrackMan, which is also behind the Statcast measurements that have become fixtures in MLB games since their introduction in 2015. A machine in the press box tracks pitches from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt and relays whether they were strikes or balls to a device held by the home-plate umpire, who wears an earpiece to hear the call. While I was getting situated with the technology, Thorpe warmed up with catcher Josh McAdams, and a monotonous, robotic male voice sounded in my ear.
“Ball,” it said, with McAdams out of his crouch while the battery played catch. The calls seemed accurate and well-timed. Once Thorpe started actually pitching, the latter changed.
Thorpe’s throwing session came on the ballpark’s mound, rather than a separate bullpen or cage. The Blue Crabs didn’t position a screen behind McAdams, so manager Stan Cliburn recommended I crouch behind the catcher for my safety. With the earpiece in my right ear and the smartphone-like device connected to it sitting in my right pocket, I got in my stance and readied for the call. Thorpe lifted his right leg and threw.
At first, I heard nothing. It took maybe five seconds for my robot partner to say, “Strike,” but when the majority of an independent baseball team is waiting for you to say something, five seconds feels like five minutes. By the time I quietly announced the call, McAdams had already thrown the ball back to Thorpe. It’s uncomfortable to envision a similar delay happening in an official game with a crowd on hand, too, though MLB’s early reports on the system indicate minimal issues with timing.
I got about eight pitches in the role of robot-dictated umpire before handing off the device, with Cliburn chiding me for not issuing my strike calls loudly enough. Cliburn, 62, has more than three decades of experience as a minor league manager, including four seasons managing the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate. The adoption of a robot ump is obviously a dramatic shift for the game he’s spent about half his life coaching, but one he is seemingly open to.
“Baseball’s about change. Life’s about change,” Cliburn said in his Mississippi twang. “Is it an adjustment? No doubt. It’s an adjustment for the players, but hey, the game’s about adjustments. You’ve got to adjust with the times. You’ve got to adjust with the changes. And when you do that, you stay in uniform and you have a long career.”
That’s what practically every Atlantic Leaguer is after. The Blue Crabs’ roster is littered with players who have experience in affiliated ball and are trying to get back. Thorpe, 26, was the Chicago Cubs’ eighth-round draft pick in 2014 but got released before last season. The Cleveland Indians took McAdams, 25, in 2012’s seventh round as an outfielder, but he missed two straight seasons with injuries, and he played multiple positions for an independent team in the American Association last year.
The Blue Crabs closer is Mat Latos, who as a 22-year-old finished eighth in 2010 National League Cy Young Award voting for the San Diego Padres and is still going in the Atlantic League at 31. Daryl Thompson, a 33-year-old La Plata native who pitched four career games for the Cincinnati Reds, is the pitching coach overseeing the rotation he’s a part of.
The Atlantic League is trying to stick around, too, and being chosen as MLB’s playground helps those efforts.
“We’re here to roll with the times of baseball,” Blue Crabs general manager Courtney Knichel said. “We want to stay alive. We want to survive in this game, and to be the test site of these rules is just a really amazing thing.”
Knichel understands an automated strike zone can be an adjustment for players, coaches, umpires and even fans. Still, she sees the technological progress as a benefit.
“When was the last time you hit a 'P' on a computer and an 'M' came out?” Knichel said. “It doesn’t break. It’s either a ball or a strike. The computer’s never really wrong.”
The system determines a batter’s strike zone in one of two ways. If the Atlantic League player has major league experience, his strike zone is the one he generally saw during his tenure. For players who haven’t reached the majors, the strike zone is the aggregate average zone for players of that height. Those players’ batting stances aren’t taken into consideration, meaning hitters who crouch or stand straight up might end up with an inaccurate zone.
Even with the ABS system in place, the human home-plate umpires remain responsible for all other duties, including foul tips, check swings and out-safe calls. And should the system falter at any point, the umpire then takes over calling balls and strikes. In the robot ump’s early stages, home-plate umpires will also have to make a judgment on some calls. The system can’t read when a batter attempts to bunt, which by rule alters his strike zone; until an adjustment for bunts is made, the home-plate umpire has a say in those calls.
The league has found some breaking balls pass through the system’s strike zone on their way to bouncing off home plate and are thus read as strikes. Inversely, balls that hit the dirt and bounce up through the strike zone have also registered as strikes.
Cliburn said the problems he’s seen so far are minor, with his only qualms being the system’s readings at the top and bottom of the strike zone and an occasional brief delay. Even if Cliburn’s frustrations were extreme, he’s not sure who he would express them to.
“I can look at the robot up there in the press box, but he ain’t gonna answer me,” Cliburn said. “I can’t yell at him because he’s not going to yell back.
“And a good thing, he’s not going to throw me out of the game.”
The use of the ABS system is one of a handful of rule changes the Atlantic League has experimented with as part of its MLB agreement. The robot ump wasn’t introduced until the second half of the season, as was a rule that allowed batters to steal first on any pitch not caught in flight during an at-bat, rather than the traditional dropped third strike rule. Blue Crabs outfielder Tony Thomas became the first player to reach first by stealing it July 13, and the team and the league donated the cleats he wore while doing so to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Thorpe said some of the rule changes are unnecessary, though he considers himself a fan of the robotic umpire.
“TrackMan, I’m OK with,” Thorpe said. “The dropped third strike, obviously, that’s fine, but going before that? I don’t know. It’s kind of funny.
“The game isn’t broken. It doesn’t need to be fixed.”
The players have to put up with these changes while trying to keep their careers going. In McAdams’ case, he said the automated strike zone is helping him do so on both sides of the ball.
As a hitter, he’s comfortable knowing the strike zone won’t shift from game to game. Although Cliburn and McAdams said they have seen problem’s with the zone’s vertical aspects, McAdams called the edges “perfect.”
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“I don’t have to worry about the umpire having a bad day,” he said.
One concern about the ABS system is it will negate one of catchers’ most valuable defensive skills, pitch framing. Some catchers are well-regarded for their ability to steal extra strikes for pitchers, sneaking a pitch into the strike zone enough to trick a human umpire.
“There’s no way you’re fooling a machine,” McAdams said.
As someone who has only caught for the past couple of years, McAdams said he appreciates not having to focus so much on the nuances of the position to keep playing in the Atlantic League. But he also recognizes pitch framing still holds a great deal of value in affiliated baseball, and there’s no guarantee robot umps make their way to the majors in the near future.
Even if it clears all hurdles in the Atlantic League, the ABS system would be tested in the minors before making its way to Baltimore’s Camden Yards or any other major league ballpark.
“We need to see how it works,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters at the All-Star Game. “First in the Atlantic League and probably other places, meaning other parts of minor league baseball before it comes to Major League Baseball.
“We have spent a lot of time and money on technology. It’s not just to address player concerns, obviously. It’s broadcasting uses. That same technology can be used in our broadcasts and has value to our fans. But we feel it’s incumbent upon us, people that play the game, something that could make the game better. We kind of feel it’s incumbent to figure out whether we could make it work, and that’s what we are doing.”