BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Automation technology has infiltrated most every industry. America’s pastime included.
To eliminate the human error associated with umpires calling balls and strikes, Major League Baseball introduced a pilot program in the minor leagues. The Automated Ball-Strike system made its local debut Tuesday night at Sahlen Field.
The robo-umps were barely noticed by spectators watching the Bisons open a 12-game homestand by rallying to beat the Syracuse Mets 10-9 in 10 innings. Home-plate umpire David Arrieta signaled balls and strikes as normal. But instead of calling them like he sees them, the ump played it by ear.
Buffalo’s ballpark, the oldest and largest of all Triple-A venues integrating ABS, has been equipped with 12 high-tech Hawk-Eye cameras on the roof. The eyes in the sky connect with a computer in the press box to track the strike zone in three dimensions, determining the result of each pitch and audibly informing the umpire in an instant.
MLB is testing two innovations in Triple-A this season. Games played on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday will utilize ABS to call every pitch. For contests on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, umpires call balls and strikes the traditional way, but pitchers, catchers and batters can use ABS to make challenges.
“There are several important questions about how best to deploy this powerful technology that remain unanswered at this point,” said Morgan Sword, an MLB executive vice president of baseball operations, told The Associated Press. “We hope to use this season’s test at Triple-A to make progress on those questions.”
Brad Bisbing, assistant general manager of the Bisons, observed after the club played a two-week road trip under the new systems that fans “don’t see any difference,” during the week when ABS is fully operational. “The umpire still makes the strike call or the ball call, but it is just fed into their ear,” Bisbing said.
“It’s so minuscule. The naked eye probably won’t even notice it,” umpire crew chief Cody Oakes told The AP after a recent game in Worcester. “It’s only noticeable to us.”
The weekend system will be more perceptible for fans who can see the results of the ABS challenge on the scoreboard at the same time as the players.
“They can single to the umpire that they would like to challenge the call,” Bisbing said. “The replay will almost instantaneously be on the scoreboard for everyone to see and the umpire will make the call whether to keep the call or overturn it based on what they see.”
Wynton Bernard, the Niagara University graduate who joined the Bisons for his 11th minor-league season, played in the independent Atlantic League when ABS was introduced in 2019.
“Back then it wasn’t that good,” Bernard said. “A lot of pitches would be misread and way out of the zone. It’s gotten 100 times better now.”
Bernard trusts the accuracy of ABS now, and appreciates how a tighter and more consistent strike zone can favor batters.
“I think overall it is good for baseball, because we know where the zone is on both sides,” Bernard said. “A ball is truly a ball. A strike is truly a strike.”
“You don’t get those calls two inches off the plate anymore,” Bernard added. “When you know that’s a ball, you get frustrated at the umpire. And now you don’t have to get frustrated anymore.
“Before, if the pitcher makes a good pitch, sometimes he gets rewarded by the umpire. It looks like a strike, but it’s really not. Now that’s called a ball. We get to zone in on better pitches.”
Triple-A players are one call away from the big leagues. Last summer, Bernard had to adjust from ABS back to umpires when made his MLB debut with the Colorado Rockies after playing in the Pacific League.
“That itself can be tough,” Bernard said. “It was a little bit of an adjustment back to the human element. Essentially you have to tell yourself it’s the same game and not to make too many changes.”
Other Bisons players said ABS has changed the game for them.
“The zone was a little bit of a shock to us from what we were used to before. I think the top of the zone was a little bit shorter than what we were used to. Like anything, baseball is a game of adjustments and we are trying to make those adjustments,” Bisons catcher Rob Brantly said.
“As we get more comfortable in the game, we are getting a little bit more confident in when we challenge. I’ll never forget my first time challenging one. Man, I thought I was going to have a heart attack because if you lose one challenge, that’s one challenge on the whole team, not an individual challenge,” Brantly continued.
Teams are permitted three failed challenges per game, and players must tap their cap or helmet immediately to initiate a challenge. Looking into the dugout before deciding to challenge is now allowed.
Much like the pitch clock that had purists panicking, only to quickly and quietly blend into the flow of the game, automatic balls and strikes could soon be coming to the major leagues. And much like the players themselves, the robo-umps are working their way up through the minors on their way to the show.
The goal: Eliminate the individual and sometimes inconsistent strike zones that vary from umpire to umpire, and with it the possibility that a game can turn on a bad ball/strike call.
MLB officials say say there is no timetable for a potential robo-ump callup.
“We usually do things here in Triple-A and they get adopted into the big leagues,” Bisons manager Casey Candaele said. “It seems like that is what’s going to happen. But who knows?”
Some fans called this system a home run, while others said it should be out. Some believe baseball is moving forward into the future.
“It could make it more fair and people could be happier because it is less biased, but it also might take away some of the fun at the same time,” Joshua Mink of LeRoy said.
“Overall, if it’s going to help get the calls right, get the strikes and balls right, it’s good for the game,” Andrea Muszynski of Buffalo said.
Others said they like the traditional game, using an umpire to make the call themselves.
“Players should play and those officiating should be able to officiate, whether it is a good call or a bad call everybody is at the mercy of the officiating decisions,” John Ryan of Lancaster said.
The home-plate umpires will still call other plays live, such as check swings and scoring runs. ABS is only for pitches.
Jonah Bronstein joined the News 4 roster in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. Read more of his work here.
Tara Lynch is a Buffalo native who joined the News 4 team as a reporter in 2022. She previously worked at WETM in Elmira, N.Y., a sister station of News 4. You can follow Tara on Facebook and Twitter and find more of her work here.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.