Atlantic League to sideline robot umpires and return mound to standard distance
The Independent Atlantic League, one of four independent leagues designated as official MLB partner leagues following MiLB’s 2020 reorganization, will revert to the traditional method of calling balls and strikes in 2022, reports JJ Cooper of Baseball America. The league had adopted the Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) system – known colloquially as “robo-ump” – before the 2019 season, when it struck a deal with Major League Baseball to test equipment and Rule changes under consideration for use in Affiliate Ball. The league will also reduce the pitcher’s rubber-to-home distance to the conventional 60 feet, 6 inches after a season-ending trial of an extra foot was frowned upon by players and coaches.
As Cooper points out, the strike zone change is likely driven by the expectation of more widespread implementation of ABS among miners; there was no official announcement, but MLB did post Jobs for an ABS technician to work with each team in Triple-A West (the successor to the Pacific Coast League) earlier in the offseason. The technology was also deployed in the Low-A Southeast (the revamped Florida State League) in 2021 and the 2019 Arizona Fall League.
While just one of many rule changes mooted by the commissioner’s office during Rob Manfred’s tenure, the proposed automation (and thus standardization) of the Strike Zone has proven to be among the most polarizing. Beyond longer-standing intra-fan disputes over the relative value of innovation and tradition, proponents of the idea have suggested that a strike zone standardized by precise technological measurement would greatly reduce the element of human error in refereeing decisions (and, perhaps, would reverse the trend of declining contact rates), while those who oppose it argue that the vagueness, ambiguity and idiosyncrasies of referees individual characters – as well as the arguments that often arise from them – add intrigue and drama to the game.
Regardless of their opinion of the potential implementation of ABS at the big league level, any longtime fan of the game will recognize a gradual change in the strike zone since the advent of pitch tracking technology in the early 2000s, when MLB introduced the QuesTec umpire. Information system in major league baseball stadiums to track umpire performance. This much less invasive system has drawn its fair share of criticism (Curt Schilling infamously took a bat for a QuesTec camera after a bad start in May 2002, and the umpires’ union filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board about its use before obtaining its withdrawal in the 2005 contract negotiations). However, these are long-term effects (as compiled in 2017 by Joe Lemire of Sports Business Journal) made the effective strike zone closer to its rulebook definition, decreasing its width while increasing its height.
Despite the removal of ABS, the Atlantic League will continue to test a number of potential adjustments to the game, including the use of 17 inch bases (2 inches larger than standard), anti -change (which require all four infielders to have two feet in the infield before each pitch), and improved extra-inning “zombie runner” rules (which would place runners first and second to start the 10th inning and charging bases in all innings thereafter). Other changes to Atlantic League play are expected to be announced later in the spring.