Atlantic League to continue using robot umpires for remainder of season

The independent Atlantic League is moving forward with its innovative and somewhat controversial robot umpiring system.

The league debuted a system, known as the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS), that has a computer call balls and strikes at its all-star game earlier this month. Since then, the technology has been installed at ballparks around the eight-team league, which is primarily based in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeastern parts of the country.

The league is pleased with the results so far and will continue using the system for the rest of the season, it announced Tuesday.

“This is a landmark day for the Atlantic League and professional baseball,” Atlantic League president Rick White said. “After successfully unveiling the ABS at our All-Star Game in York, Pa., and following positive feedback from managers, players, umpires and fans, we are eager to implement the consistent strike zone accuracy offered by ABS technology.”

How does it work?

The system doesn’t eliminate a home-plate umpire altogether. The umpire still crouches behind the plate like in an MLB game, but wears an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket. After a pitch is thrown, the system relays what is communicated to it via the “TrackMan” technology that uses Doppler radar.

There are some kinks to the system. For instance, the TrackMan could call a pitch that bounces into the zone a strike, so umpires have the ability to overrule the computer’s call. The home plate umpire is also needed to call check swings. There is also somewhat of a delay compared to a usual umpire’s call.

Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece during the Atlantic League All-Star Game that connected with a computer system. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Reaction from players has been somewhat mixed. The delayed calls have been somewhat of a source of frustration, but pitchers have been pleased that more high strikes have been called.

White said after the all-star game that the Atlantic League can be a “pioneer” for the sport.

"We're very excited about what this portends not only for our league but for the future of baseball,” White said. “What we know is technology can help umpires be more accurate, and we're committed to that. We think the Atlantic League is being a pioneer for all of the sport."

Atlantic League testing other experimental rules

The electronic strike zone is just one experiment that the Atlantic League is undertaking as part of an agreement with MLB.

One notable change is the ability for a batter to “steal” first base. That rule grants a batter the ability to take first on any pitch that hits the ground. So if a 1-1 pitch gets past the catcher, the batter can run to first base safely like with a dropped third strike.

Other alterations include allowing a pitcher to step off the rubber on a pickoff attempt and allowing one foul bunt with two strikes before a strikeout is called.

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