Somehow this news slipped right on past me, and others it would seem. Evan Drellich of The Athletic wrote about it this morning, noting that Rob Manfred told Brian Kenny at MLB Network during MLB Now last week that “It’s why we’re using it (the automated strikezone) in Minor League Baseball next year, in some ballparks at least. ”
Minor League Baseball is and always has been a testing ground for rule changes that Major League Baseball is considering using in the future. In the last few years they’ve adopted the “runner starts on second base in extra-innings” rule to try and keep games from going 19 innings. They’ve also adopted the pitch clock, attempting to speed up the games with regards to pitchers taking too long between pitches.
This past year Major League Baseball went to The Atlantic League to test out a few new things. One of them was to use Trackman to call the strikezone rather than human umpires. Opinions were split on how that went. The powers that be then put it in place at Salt River Fields in the Arizona Fall League. With two teams sharing the complex this year, there was an automated strikezone for more than a few games out there this season, too.
From the article by Drellich, the plan remains a bit unclear. Which leagues will be used doesn’t seem to have been decided. It also hasn’t been decided on what system would be used to call the balls and strikes. Both are important to the conversation, but it’s the latter one that is far more important in my opinion.
Currently all of the testing has been done by utilizing the existing Trackman systems – both in the Arizona Fall League and in The Atlantic League. Trackman is the same system that’s used in the Major Leagues that tracks the pitches/hits you see on Gameday or your television screen. There are some issues with it and what it’s spitting out. It, just like the umpires, aren’t perfect. It should, however, be consistent on a given day – at least when it comes to the edges of the plate. The top and bottom of the zone, there’s plenty to be figured out there since it changes with every single batter.
That, though, is less of an issue for me. The larger issue is two-fold. First, all of this testing that has been done has been done via Trackman. The issue is that Trackman will not be used in Major League Baseball beginning next year. They are moving to the Hawk-Eye system that’s used in tennis and cricket around the world. Currently the minor leagues have Trackman installed at every park. Continuing to use that to test things out seems a bit strange because you can’t exactly work out the kinks for the Major Leagues by using an entirely different system.
Drellich reached out to the Commissioners office about the system that would be used and there was no comment. As I wrote about back in May when the story came out about the switch to Hawk-Eye, Trackman is going to remain in the minors for now. But teams are also considering Hawk-Eye in the minors, too. Perhaps the league where this will be tested out in 2020 would be done using Hawk-Eye that will need to be installed league wide.
The other issue that comes into play here for me is the way this messes with development. It feels apparent that the automated strikezone isn’t coming to every league in the minors in 2020. If that’s the case, then the players going through the leagues that do have it are going to be facing a different kind of development than those who don’t. Pitchers will have a different working strikezone in a league that they didn’t below or above it. The same goes for hitters. What is a strike on June 19th in the Florida State League is no longer a strike on June 21st when that player is promoted to the Texas League.
Being able to understand the strikezone is very important to development. And having different rules in different leagues can really throw a wrench into that. This isn’t like a pitch clock, or even starting a runner on second base. Those don’t fundamentally change the way in which you play the game. Changing the strikezone absolutely does. And when it’s different from level to level, that is a real problem.
This story, of course, is still developing. Major League Baseball is being rather quiet on a lot of fronts with this one. Plenty of things need to be hammered out – but for now, this seems like a poorly thought out plan. And honestly, that shouldn’t surprise anyone given that it’s a plan being implemented by Major League Baseball.