Almost undetectable to the naked eye, a game-changing experiment is taking place right now at West Sacramento’s Sutter Health Park that could forever alter the job of baseball home plate umpires.
Players and coaches can still disagree with an umpire’s calls if they want, but it won’t do much good. Since mid-May at Pacific Coast League ballparks around the country, a home plate umpire isn’t actually deciding a batter’s strike zone anymore — that job has been turned over to an automated ball and strike calling system, also known as ABS.
Or as Stone Garrett, an outfielder with the Reno Aces, told Reno’s KTVN-2, “You really can’t argue with a robot.”
That strike zone box that has become so familiar to TV viewers is now determining a player’s fate. While it’s still to be determined if the system will eventually be adopted at the Major League Baseball level, currently each thrown pitch is being tracked by approximately 20 cameras and other electronic devices located around the ballpark. The location information is seen by two ABS operators reading a laptop in the park and then sent to the home plate umpire’s iPhone, before a “ball” or “strike” call is heard in the ump’s earpiece. The ball/strike call is made within a fraction of a second, though checked swing calls will still be made by the home plate and base umpires.
The ABS strike zone is a 19-inch wide, two-dimensional rectangle set at the middle point of home plate, which currently includes an inch off either edge (home plate is 17 inches wide). The top and bottom edges of the strike zone are based on the batter’s height and the size of the automated zone which, MLB officials contend, is similar to the zone still being called by real umpires at the MLB level.
“I think the first thing is just getting our eyes adjusted to what we’re used to humans doing,” says Damon Minor, the Sacramento River Cats hitting coach since 2016, who played with the San Francisco Giants and in Japan during his pro career in the early 2000s.
“I think it is a positive overall, as long as it keeps evolving on how big it (the strike zone) needs to be,” Minor continued, adding that he hopes the strike zone is fine tuned and adjusted so it eventually includes just the 17 inches of the plate and not the extra inch on each side that is currently determined to be a strike by the ABS.
Similar trials have taken place at some other lower level minor leagues since 2019, but this is the first year the system has reached as high as the Triple-A level, which is one step away from the MLB. And while the Triple-A Pacific Coast League is testing it out, the other Triple-A league, the International League, hasn’t adopted the system.
In Sacramento, the River Cats 2022 season began April 5 while the ABS system was being installed at Sutter Health Park — at a cost MLB officials won’t disclose — in time for its Sacramento debut May 17 against Tacoma.
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When the Sacramento River Cats won the Triple-A championship in September 2019, nobody could anticipate the changes that would occur before the Pacific Coast League team would play again.
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