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MLBUA agrees to cooperate with development of ABS for MLB

According to Ben Walker and Ronald Blum of the Associated Press, MLB and the MLBUA have agreed to a five-year collective bargaining agreement, pending ratification by both sides. Folded into this agreement is umpire cooperation in the development of an Automated Ball/Strike System (ABS).

ABS uses Doppler radar to locate the ball in relation to the strike zone and relay the information to the home plate umpire using an iPhone and an earpiece. Home plate umpires would still be needed for check swings, foul tips, or bounced pitches. It was first used at the Atlantic League All-Star Game and then the Arizona Fall League. It’s being considered for use in the Florida State League in 2020 and possibly in AAA during the 2021 season. If eventually adopted, it would likely be at the Major-League level within five years.

Although a mostly popular idea with the fans, especially after high-profile situations such as the “Savages in the Box” game, it does come with problems and critics. In testing thus far, players have noted that although side to side calls have been mostly correct, it struggles with pitches on the higher and lower ends of the strike zone. This is mostly a technological issue, however, which would likely be overcome with some adjustments.

One must also wonder about long-term unintended consequences. It seems quite clear that the skill of pitch framing will quickly erode. It would exacerbate the conflict between the “human error” component to umpiring and using skill to get an edge, and the more progressive view of just “getting it right.” Another consideration is the impact on pitchers and the hitters. Hurlers like Greg Maddox and Mike Mussina lived on the edges, and this would seemingly hamper the nibblers and favor those who depend on velocity. Fastballs are sexy, but also result in more “all or nothing” at bats. That this will happen is only a theory, but would fans be happy with more games dominated by strikeouts and home runs?

Those questions will be eventually answered. It could be a raging success, or we could lament that we got what we asked for. Stay tuned.