Did a robot ump blow an obvious ball/strike call? Some MLB players have thoughts

·Writer
·4 min read

The institution of an automated strike zone almost feels like an inevitability at this point for MLB, especially as the league experiments with the system in its minor leagues and partner leagues.

Many are eager to see the system after more than a century of watching the Angel Hernandezes of the world blow seemingly obvious calls time after time. And yet, they system may not be as perfect as they hope.

Former MLB player Jordan Pacheco, currently playing for the Lexington Legends of the Atlantic League, triggered a new debate over the auto-strike zone late Thursday night with footage of one of his own at-bats, drawing the attention of multiple major leaguers and a statement from his league's own president.

Was this really a strike?

In the video, Pacheco is batting in the eighth inning and the count at 1-2. Pitcher Benny Wanger fires what looks like a clear outside fastball. Pacheco holds off from the pitch as the catcher lunges his glove across the plate to at least haul in the ball. The announcer immediately starts saying "Ball two is outside," until the umpire signals the auto-strike zone has called strike three.

Pacheco immediately doubles over in disbelief and argues with the umpire, leading to the stadium playing "Let it Go" from Disney's "Frozen." It is quite a scene.

After the game, Pacheco sent a sardonic thank you to MLB, who oversees the use of the system:

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As you might expect, that video immediately triggered a fresh wave of strike zone discourse on Twitter.

Houston Astros star Alex Bregman said "Please no." Rob Friedman a.k.a. Pitching Ninja pointed to bad calls by human umps. Minnesota Twins third baseman Josh Donaldson demanded to see a better angle of the video, to which one of Pacheco's Lexington teammates responded with video of another seemingly bad call.

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Some on Twitter also noted that the Gameday feed had the pitch as a strike, though that system could be using the same technology as the auto-strike zone and be subject to the same inaccuracies.

Atlantic League responds

When asked for comment on Pacheco's video, the Atlantic League responded with the following statement from league president Rick White:

“We understand players may disagree with Automated Balls/Strikes, just as they do with umpire strike zones, however it is troubling when uniformed personnel make statements about ABS without fully understanding the facts. ABS is dependable and is more consistent than human umpires. We are fully committed to our test rules partnership with Major League Baseball and will continue working closely with them to explore possibilities for our sport."

Does this mean anything for MLB?

MLB has working for years to try to make its in-game ball-tracking as precise as possible, switching from the radar-based TrackMan system to the optical-based Hawk-Eye system (best known for its use in tennis) in 2020.

The league really started playing around with automated balls and strikes in 2019, when it had the Atlantic League, Rob Manfred's favorite laboratory, start using robot umps powered by TrackMan (players weren't exactly thrilled then, either). The Low-A Southeast League also started using robot umps in 2021.

An Atlantic League spokesperson confirmed to Yahoo Sports that the league is still using TrackMan to call balls and strikes, so the system that called Pacheco's pitch a strike may not be as precise as the one that MLB could use.

Still, any automatic strike zone is going to have its misses. It's easy to assume that such a system will be perfect, but even computers and high-speed cameras have their margins of error, and sometimes that means thinking a ball clipped the zone when it was really inches away. That might not even be the case with Pacheco — the home plate feed is noticeably to the pitcher's right side and his video conveniently cuts out just before a more objective bird's-eye view — but it's still a reminder that ball-strike arguments probably won't go away if MLB automates its strike calls.

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