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If computers replace plate umpires, hurlers will have to adjust accordingly

The independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has used a radar system to determine balls and strikes in all its games for nearly a month.

The Atlantic League is the first American pro baseball league to let a computer call balls and strikes.
The Atlantic League is the first American pro baseball league to let a computer call balls and strikes.
Julio Cortez/AP

Nobody will be kicking dirt on this home-plate umpire. Screaming about your “savages” will just fall on deaf ears. Calling this ump “four eyes” will sound more like a compliment than a dig.

A new kind of umpire is being tested, sending shock waves through professional baseball.

The independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball has used a radar system to determine balls and strikes in all its games for nearly a month, and already some pitchers have adapted to the new strike zone by changing the way they throw their pitches and the manner in which they attack hitters.

Given that the experimental automated strike zone was installed as part of a partnership between Major League Baseball and the Atlantic League, it’s not too much of a stretch to believe that a robotic umpire will one day be calling balls and strikes at Guaranteed Rate Field and Wrigley Field.

“If it does move to Major League Baseball, I think we’re going to see a very different approach take place over time in terms of the art of pitching,” said Rick White, the president of the Atlantic League and a former MLB executive.

The automated strike zone has the same parameters as the one defined in the MLB rulebook: The upper limit of the zone is “the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants” — or roughly a batter’s armpits when in his stance — “and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.” And, of course, the ball must cross over some part of the plate.

Pitches that are over the plate and just above a batter’s belt are no longer called a ball, for example.

“You’ve seen pitchers get calls that were not normally called, whether it be like a low curveball or a fastball that is at the knees, and what usually is called a ball is now being called a strike for us,” said Dallas Beeler, a former Cubs starter who now pitches for the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters in the Atlantic League. “But at the same time, the edges are so much tighter for the pitchers now that it’s more north-south than it is like east and west on the plate.

“Bigger, though? I would just say it’s more consistent.”

The home-plate umpire hears either “ball” or “strike” in his earbuds almost as soon as the catcher receives the pitch. It’s his job to relay the call, assuming there wasn’t a superseding event such as a swing and a miss at a pitch outside the zone.

The TrackMan system measures much more than the pitch location. It tracks 27 characteristics of the ball each pitch, including spin rate, exit velocity and launch angle. Each MLB team has been receiving the complete set of TrackMan data from every Atlantic League game since May, which should enable them to make more informed player signings.

Only a sliver of the baseball needs to clip an edge or the bottom of the zone for TrackMan to register the pitch as a strike. Ross Detwiler — who began the season in the Atlantic League and has made 12 appearances, including seven starts, with the White Sox this season — theorized he would try to take advantage of that if the robotic umpire was ever adopted in the majors.

“Me throwing a bigger curveball as opposed to a slider, I could try to just nick the bottom of the zone with that,” Detwiler said. “Or, throwing sinkers down, it could just hit that bottom line of the zone so it’s automatically going to be a strike no matter how the catcher catches it or no matter how late it breaks. Sometimes it is just starting to break once it gets to the plate, and I mean if that hits the bottom line of the zone the ball could be in the dirt and still be a strike.”

In the Atlantic League, pitchers are already making similar adjustments. Beeler said pitchers are attempting to throw bigger 12-to-6 curveballs that cross through the strike zone and end up in the dirt.

TrackMan has deemed many such pitches to be strikes, and it was an adjustment for hitters and umpires alike, according to White.

Umpires have gotten into the habit of determining if a pitch is a ball or a strike based on where it is when it passes by the hitter — and batters often stand deep in the box to counter the uptick in velocity seen across the game in recent years — or is received by the catcher, White said. He added that -umpires have said they never would have called those low breaking pitches strikes, when in fact they are.

White believes that the automated strike zone could benefit pitchers.

“The real art of pitching is to hit spots and to make a hitter swing at pitches that are outside of his hot zone, making him hit the pitcher’s pitch,” White said. “That’s exactly where Ross is going in his comment because if you can make a hitter offer at a pitch you’re delivering to a spot, it skews the statistics far more in your favor.”

White, who made it clear that MLB will be the one deciding if the automated strike zone moves forward, noted that the situation, pitch count and barking managers hold no sway over the TrackMan system.

He also said he would expect hitters to adjust and foul off those tricky breaking pitches.

The automated strike zone is one of several experimental rules being used by the Atlantic League. Defensive shifts are outlawed. Mound visits also are forbidden unless there’s a pitching change or injury. Pitchers are required to face at least three batters or reach the end of an inning. Again, an exception is made if the pitcher is hurt. Pitchers also must step off the rubber before making a pickoff attempt. And those aren’t even all of the new rules.

Detwiler made three starts for the York (Pennsylvania) Revolution in the Atlantic League before the White Sox organization selected his contract May 9. Human umpires called balls and strikes in each of his games, and Detwiler believes “you have to have the human element” in baseball. But he added that if one of the experimental rules were adopted in the majors, he hopes it would be the automated umpire because he believes it would expand the strike zone.

Former Sox pitcher David Holmberg cautioned that any discussion of any of the experimental rules coming to the majors might be premature.

“I don’t really think that it could ever go into the big-league game because there are so many things involved with the big-league game like unions and players and owners and things like that the commissioner would have to go through to have something implemented,” said Holmberg, who made 37 appearances for the Sox in 2017 and now pitches for the Somerset Patriots (New Jersey) in the Atlantic League.

Beeler, who started five games with the Cubs between 2014 and 2015 and earned a World Series ring with the team, has pitched when the automated strike zone is in use and also said it would be the best of the experimental rules to implement in the majors.

The right-hander also has adjusted his approach since the automated strike zone went into effect, setting up in different spots on the rubber in an attempt to find the best angle to attack the hitter.

Beeler said that if he is facing a right-handed hitter, he might set up on the third-base side of the rubber and have his catcher set up a few inches off the outside corner. He’ll then try to throw a four-seam fastball or cutter down in the zone that catches the outer edge of the zone at the front of the plate and runs away from the batter. If facing a left-handed hitter, he might set up on the first-base side of the rubber and throw a two-seam fastball or sinker down and away that falls away from the batter.

“If I was in the big leagues right now, I probably wouldn’t be messing around with it so much,” Beeler said. “But we’re in indy ball. We’re all trying to fight to get a job [in affiliated baseball]. This is a place to try some things.”