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Report: MLB Umpires Cooperating with Computerized Strike Zone in New Labor Pact

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistDecember 21, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 27:  The umpires stand for God Bless America during the seventh inning stretch in Game Five of the 2019 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on October 27, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Major League Baseball and the umpires' union agreed to a five-year contract Saturday, according to MLB Network's Jon Heyman.

The deal, which still needs to be ratified, includes an agreement in which umpires will cooperate with MLB as the league explores a computerized strike zone.

Jon Heyman @JonHeyman

MLB-ump 5-year deal provides umps with significant increases in pay/retirement benefits, including provisions to allow umps to retire earlier. Umps agreed to cooperate w/MLB in continuing to develop/test ABS (automatic balls/strikes) and assist if Commish opts to use In MLB

MLB has been testing "robot umps" in the Atlantic League using TrackMan. The call is relayed to an umpire wearing an earpiece.

The shift is likely overdue for many fans, who have argued it made little sense to have a computerized strike zone for television broadcasts while relying on home plate umpires to call balls and strikes in stadiums. The jobs of umpires have become even more difficult as catchers improve their pitch-framing.

Critics of automated calls for balls and strikes, however, will counter that pitch-framing is merely another element of the game. Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight wrote in April 2017 how MLB's Statcast wasn't without its flaws, either:

"Errors in both horizontal and vertical movement have never been higher in the four years that Statcast has made some of its data publicly available. So it's not just your imagination as you watch the game on TV: In-broadcast representations of the strike zone (like FoxTrax) take their data from Statcast, and Statcast's errors, in turn, have bred anger with umpires and confusion over how pitches are being called."

Baseball America's Josh Norris wrote in November the experiment had some hiccups as well in the Arizona Fall League. In addition to a delay for TrackMan to communicate the call to the umpire, the system was incorrectly calling pitches below the zone as strikes.

"Hitters throughout the brief AFL season were getting rung up on pitches catchers were scooping out of the dirt as well as ones that crossed somewhere near the middle of a hitter's chest," Norris wrote.

"By the end, two things were clear: Pitchers with arsenals geared toward working from the top to the bottom of the strike zone were at a stark advantage, and nobody—neither hitters nor pitchers—was happy with TrackMan."

The Associated Press' Ben Walker and Ronald Blum noted umpires will still be required for plays such as checked swings and calls on the bases.