After radical rule changes came to Major League Baseball this season — a pitch clock, the end of the shift, limited pickoff attempts, bigger bases — there could be another important innovation coming soon … a change to how balls and strikes are called.
This season, in six-game Triple-A series, the first three games are called by robot umpires behind the plate—Automated Balls and Strikes—while the final three are called by professional umpires–with three challenges per game allowed.
“I still like the human element,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said. “We don’t have enough arguing already. I think that’s still baseball. If you take that away, you have nothing to argue about it.”
Some Oriole players who have played in both Triple-A and the major leagues seem more supportive of the challenge system.
“I like the human element,” first baseman Ryan O’Hearn said. “I think the challenge system is a good mixture of both because umpires are trying to get it right. They’re human. I think having the human element in the game is a good thing, but at the same time if you have the ability to challenge it, you can back up what you think. Who knows if they’ll do it here or when they’ll do it here or what will happen in the next few years. I only had one game with it, but I like the idea of it.”
Infielder Jordan Westburg, who has had just over a week in the major leagues, isn’t troubled by the lack of the human touch.
“I really liked it,” Westburg said. “I thought it gave you a definite answer. What we’re looking for as hitters is: ‘Is it a strike or is it not a strike’? On ABS days, if it was a called strike you knew exactly where that zone was. If it wasn’t, you knew that it was a ball. Anything further off isn’t going to be a strike. I like the consistency of it. I didn’t have a problem with it.
“I thought it helped the player and the umpire. The umpires are getting those three days of ABS to get feedback of tracking pitches and noticing which balls are strikes and which balls are balls. I thought it made them a lot better. It gave us more confidence to take pitches that might have been close as hitters. Then obviously the challenge helped, too. because if you didn’t think it was a strike instead of raising a fit and disrespecting the umpire, all you have to do is tap your helmet to challenge. It was a simple yes or no whether it was a strike or a ball.”
Orioles catcher James McCann hasn’t played under the experimental umpiring but is intrigued by what it could add to the game.
“I don’t mind the challenge system,” he said. “I think that it’s really exciting. Last year they aired a game on MLB Network where they had it. Anytime they challenged, we’re sitting there in a big league clubhouse, getting excited, kind of running our mouths whether it was a strike or a ball.
“I can imagine for fans that would be an exciting part of the game. It’s pretty quick. It happens quick. I don’t love the idea of making it an entirely a robot calling the game. I think there’s something to be said for catchers receiving, and taking that away from them changes quite a bit.”
McCann’s and Adley Rutschman’s skill at framing pitches could be minimized by an ABS system as Hyde points out.
“The importance of catchers receiving, that would probably go away a little bit,” Hyde said. “We have one of the better ones in the game, two of the better ones.”
Orioles reliever Nick Vespi, who has spent most of the season at Norfolk, isn’t an ABS fan.
“I like the challenge system more than the automatic balls and strikes,” he said. “Automatic balls and strikes can sometimes play in your favor. It can play in the hitter’s favor as well. Sometimes you can’t sneak that ball over the plate one way or the other, but the challenge system is definitely better. If they did the automatic balls and strikes, it would take away from that side of the game. Adley and McCann and [Anthony Bemboom] do a really good job at framing pitches. Sometimes we’re able to steal strikes a little bit off the plate.”
The timing of the three challenges per game could add some strategy to the game.
“If they make a mistake or something, the hitter or the pitcher has the ability to challenge it,” O’Hearn said. “I like the fact that if you get it wrong, you lose a challenge. Guys aren’t just throwing out challenges like crazy. It means something.”
Westburg doesn’t think experienced major league hitters will have much trouble with a new system.
“I think guys that are up here have better eyes,” he said. “They’re understanding the strike zone better than minor league players. I don’t think it would be an adjustment of all. I don’t know what the zones are in comparison to the minor leagues. I’m still learning umpires’ names. I don’t think it would be an adjustment. I think guys are good enough hitters to know where the zone’s at here.”
Hyde hasn’t seen ABS or the challenge system personally. After playing half a season with the new rules, he finds that they’ve worked well for the game.
“It’s such a big deal up here,” Hyde said. “It’s going to have to be right for it to work, so I want to make sure it’s right. It’s going to be an enormous deal if they do that. I want to make sure umpires are on board, and everybody’s on board … I’m sure it’s not going to come here until it’s done extremely well.”
Note: According to a report by MASNSports.com, the Orioles will purchase the contract of outfielder Colton Cowser, their No. 1 selection in the 2021 draft for Wednesday’s game in New York.