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Coming soon to a spring training ballpark near you — robots


Major League Baseball will see a few new rules implemented in 2023, but a major change for the upcoming season just one level below “The Show” is already turning heads.

While MLB is implementing an expanded pitch timer, limits on defensive shifts, pickoff restrictions and bigger bases, multiple reports indicate that all 30 Triple-A ballparks will use the Automatic Balls and Strikes System for the 2023 baseball season.

Sources told ESPN in January the electronic strike zone will be used in all 30 Class AAA parks in 2023, which would mark another significant step toward the implementation of the technology at the big league level in the near future.

“I think that you’re going to see the automated system, in one form or another. ... I think in one form or another, there’s a good chance we’re going to be using it at the big league level at some point,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said in October 2022.

According to reports, ABS will be deployed in two different ways in Triple-A. Half of the Triple-A games will be played with all calls determined by an electronic strike zone while the other half will be played with an ABS challenge system similar to that used in professional tennis.

Each team will be allowed three challenges per game, with teams retaining challenges in cases they are proved correct. MLB’s intention is to use the data and feedback from both systems, over the full slate of games, to inform future choices.

But when will robots make their way to the top level of baseball? Manfred has been non-committal in the past and as of late January, MLB had announced no firm date to implement ABS in the Big Leagues.

MLB first started the experiment in the independent Atlantic League in 2019. Then a challenge system was tried last year at Low-A in which a pitcher, batter or catcher had the right to appeal a human umpire’s decision to the computer call.

The Class A Southeast League adopted the challenge system, in which the plate umpires called balls and strikes but the batter, pitcher and catcher each had the power to challenge the decision on a particular pitch. As one official noted, this seemed to foster another layer of in-game strategy, with managers and coaching staffs guiding players on the best manner to use the challenges — avoiding frivolous challenges and protecting the team from egregious ball-strike call mistakes in big moments.

According to the AP, the feedback was “surprisingly positive, according to club staffers, with some in the industry beginning to believe that this might be a good first step in utilizing ball-strike technology.”

Manfred said he liked the challenge system but the sport’s competition committee did not consider robot umpires for the major leagues for 2023.

“There are difficult issues surrounding the strike zone that affect outcomes on the field, and we need to make sure we understand those before we jump off that bridge,” the commissioner told the Associated Press in June 2022.

MLB used ABS at five Triple-A stadiums for parts of last season.

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of the “robo ump” debate.

Any baseball fan who has watched their favorite team be affected by poor human umpiring has almost certainly longed for an automated system.

But over the course of the season, bad calls generally even out. However, few things are more infuriating than watching a playoff game seemingly decided by bad umpiring or an inconsistent strike zone.

Now there are entire Twitter accounts dedicated to showing how umpires perform each night, and the results are often shocking and disappointing.

Despite those errors, there will always be those who defend the human element in baseball.

Notable MLB rule changes for 2023 include:

• Pitch clock — In an effort to create a quicker pace of play, there will be a 30-second timer between batters. Between pitches, there will be a 15-second timer with the bases empty and a 20-second timer with runners on base. At last check, the pitch timer had reduced the average time of game in minor league games by about 26 minutes.

• Larger bases — The bases, traditionally 15 inches square, will instead be 18 inches square. Home plate will be unchanged.

• Defensive shift limits — The defensive team must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two infielders completely on either side of second base.

• Pickoff restrictions — Pitchers won’t be allowed to throw over to a base as often as they want. Instead, they’ll be limited to two “disengagements” (pickoff attempts or stepoffs). If a pitcher disengages a third time for a pickoff attempt, the runner advances one base if the attempt fails.