Major League Baseball and the MLB Umpires Association reportedly reached an agreement on Saturday to develop and test a computer strike-zone detection system. The automated system, which should greatly improve call accuracy, could be used in MLB games sometime within the next five years.

Umpires agree to test automated strike zone
The new MLB umpire labor contract includes the possible use of an automated ball-strike call system. (Image: MLB)

According to Associated Press sources, the new labor contract between MLB and its umpires includes provisions for the testing and use of an automated strike-zone system. While the contract still has to be ratified by both sides, it bodes well for the long-contested use of technology to make and/or assist with strike-zone calls.

Strike-Zone Technology Advances

In 2015, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was against the use of an automated strike-zone system. Manfred said, “It’s because of speed. It’s because of technology limitations. It’s because, quite frankly, the strike zone is different for every single guy.” A computer-based strike-zone system had also been a non-starter with MLB umpires, who saw it as a job killer. But times and technology have changed.

umpire's earpiece for computer strike zone
The earpiece worn by home plate umpire Freddie DeJesus during the Atlantic League’s first regular season game using an automated strike zone system is now in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (Image: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

Recent testing of a Doppler radar-based computer system in the independent Atlantic League has been promising. Umpires still make the call, but before they do, they get the call from the TrackMan computer system. Atlantic League umpire Freddie DeJesus said, “As I’ve had the opportunity to do it now, it’s great. It’s a great opportunity, and it’s good for the game.”

The TrackMan system has also been used by MLB’s Arizona Fall League. In 2020, fans can expect to see automated strike-zone systems used in some minor league parks.

Thousands of Bad Strike Calls Avoided with Robo-Umpires

Automated strike-zone technology probably can’t come soon enough for fans. In 2008, MLB became the last US major league sport to adopt instant replay. To this day, however, strike-zone calls are not reviewable.

On average, reviews take more than a minute each. MLB felt it would slow down the game too much if balls and strikes were reviewed. But bad strike zone calls aren’t good for the game either — and there are a lot of missed calls.

A Boston University study revealed that MLB umpires made 34,294 inaccurate strike-zone calls in 2018. While the number is staggering, bad ball-strike calls are hardly a secret. Television strike-zone graphics highlight every missed call. So, while it may be awhile before MLB fully embraces an automated strike zone, it appears they’re finally ready to do whatever it takes to improve strike call accuracy.

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  1. The ones that ESPN use are perfect. You can’t do this quick enough. I’ve been preaching this for years.

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