PEORIA, Ariz. — You can take your pitch clocks and instant replay, your interleague games and expanded playoffs.
To Mariners manager Scott Servais, they won’t impact baseball as much as another proposed change that may be enacted by Major League Baseball in the near future.
Yes, robo-umps are coming fast, and when they get here, nothing will be quite the same.
“It will change the game dramatically. I think probably more than anything else in my lifetime in professional baseball,” Servais said.
The Mariners will get a taste of the robo-ump — a computerized system that calls balls and strikes via pitch-tracking devices installed at the ballpark — when they play the Diamondbacks on Friday at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
That is the only Cactus League ballpark equipped with the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS).
According to MLB, the system will run in “test mode” at Salt River Fields during the spring. That means it won’t actually be used to call balls and strikes, but officials will be studying its efficiency to work out various kinks. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association agreed during the offseason to cooperate and assist with commissioner Rob Manfred if he decides to implement ABS in the major leagues.
“It will change how you develop pitchers, it will change how you develop catchers and what’s going to be valued as we go forward,” Servais said. “I don’t know if it’s a bad thing or a good thing; I just know that it’s going to change things a lot.”
Funny he should mention “bad thing or good thing.” The ABS system got a test drive last year in the independent Atlantic League and in the Arizona Fall League. Several Mariners prospects experienced it, and opinion was mixed.
Oddly, pitchers and hitters grumbled about the way the computer manifested the strike zone, though most analysts concluded that pitchers are the ones who benefit most. A few players I talked to said they didn’t like it at first, but as the season progressed they adjusted.
“Certain guys loved it; certain guys hated it,” Mariners pitching prospect Penn Murfee said. “There were very few I heard who had middle ground on it. My buddy — who was more of a power arm, high arm slot, big depth in his breaking ball — he loved it. I know other guys who were sinker-ball guys — they hated it.”
The pitch-tracking system reads the pitch, and the computer software determines if it’s a strike — which is the case if it crosses any portion of the strike zone. The operator relays the result to the umpire via earpieces.
The fact that it’s set up as a three-dimensional algorithm led to some jarring visuals, particularly with sharp-breaking curveballs that barely caught the top or bottom of the zone. They didn’t look to the naked eye like strikes, especially if they wound up in the dirt, but they’ll get called by the computer.
In one already famous incident in the Fall League, a player was ejected for arguing a called strike on a ball that almost hit the dirt — with an umpire who had nothing do with it. Another time, as related by Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com, Diamondbacks shortstop prospect Geraldo Perdomo complained to an ump about a strike call. When the umpire shrugged and pointed to his earpiece, Perdomo turned and gestured to the press box.
Screaming about balls and strikes used to be part of the color of baseball. With instant replay, it’s no longer viable to argue close calls on the bases. With the advent of the robo-ump, the nose-to-nose beef between manager and umpire — think former Mariners manager Lou Piniella kicking dirt — may become a relic as well. It’s hard to argue with an umpire who can rightly claim it’s out of his hands.
Or maybe not.
“There’s certain times where you just kind of get mad at it for the sake of the game,” Murfee said. “When everyone on the field is going, ‘OK, that’s a strike.’ No one wants that honorary ball to go up on the scoreboard just because you have to. You want to have the game flow where the outcomes are true.”
And therein lies the rub. Outcomes that might indeed be “true” based on the letter of the law, and the all-seeing, impartial viewpoint of the computer, don’t always match the long-standing orthodoxy of baseball. Listen to Mariners pitcher Sam Delaplane describe his initial robo-ump experience from the Fall League.
“The first batter I faced, the first pitch, might have been a half-inch off the plate. Called a ball. I’ve never had that pitch called a ball in my life. The second pitch was about the same thing, so it was 2-0.
“I remember it perfectly — I then threw a 2-2 breaking ball up in the zone. That’s never been called a strike in my life. It’s called a strike. Then the last pitch I threw that batter, 3-2, was a breaking ball that backed up on him. We all thought it was a ball. It ended up being strike three, called.”
Delaplane noted that pitchers routinely count on their catcher to sell the umpire on a close pitch, via the rapid shifting of the glove into the strike zone. That goes out the window with the robo-ump.
“The low strike of the catcher, that’s part of the game,” Delaplane said. “You have a good guy back there that can really pull it up, it’s beneficial. This kind of takes that away.”
Indeed, the impact on catching may be the most dramatic offshoot of the robo-ump. Pitch framing — the art of making a borderline pitch appear to be a strike — has become one of the position’s most sought-after skills. Many catchers have forged careers out of their ability as master framers.
With a computer calling pitches, however, framing becomes irrelevant. Teams would change what they look for in prospective catchers. Blocking pitches and throwing ability would be far more of a premium. That doesn’t sit well at all with veteran Mariners catcher Tom Murphy.
“I think it kind of devalues the game overall, especially the catcher’s position,” he said. “It’s an art. It’s a science back there. When you kind of take that away, you basically become a wall, and be ready to throw the ball. To me there’s no creativity in that at all. It’s just kind of very bland.”
Murphy said he has put more hours into working on his framing than any aspect of his game. And he hates to think that his hard-earned ability to coax strikes out of close pitches would suddenly be for naught, all in pursuit of accuracy he doesn’t believe is lacking.
“Nine out of 10 balls and strikes calls are accurate in today’s game, as is,” he said. “I think that’s pretty good with just someone’s perspective behind the plate. If I happen to steal more (strikes) than what should be stolen, that’s kudos to me. I’m doing my job.”
Another oft-mentioned problem with the ABS from the Fall League was the perceptible delay while the umpire waited for the data to be read. Delaplane recalled when Mariners top prospect Julio Rodriguez, playing for the Javelinas, took a 3-2 pitch with two outs and the bases loaded and started toward first base.
“Everyone froze” while waiting for the home-plate umpire to make the call, Delaplane said.
Rodriguez smiled at the anecdote.
“I remember,” he said. “I feel like with robots, the game is not as fun. It’s not my favorite thing. I feel like umpires are part of the game. Everyone makes mistakes, but I feel like with just umpires, the game will be better.”
What matters, however, is what Manfred thinks. Once spring training ends, the automated ball-strike system will be used in the Florida State League as MLB continues its evaluation. One area that needs to be perfected is the computer’s ability to adjust the strike zone to the unique batting stances of players of various sizes.
My feeling is that, as with every other change once perceived as radical, players and fans will eventually adjust. That seemed to be the case in the AFL.
“We were the first team to play a game there. That night, it seemed like there was a couple of pitches at the top of the zone that really hurt us,” said Carson Vitale, the Mariners’ major-league field coordinator, who was a coach with the Javelinas in the fall.
“It immediately put a sour taste in the players’ mouth. As the fall league went on, it felt like it was normalized and really became a non-factor.
“If you’d have asked me a year ago where my stance was on this, I’d probably be in the ‘I’m not for it’ camp. I think as we experienced the fairness in the level of play, it became very normal.”
It’s one, two, three strikes you’re out, in the old ballgame — as long as the computer says so.