How are robo-umps faring in the minor leagues?

Daytona Tortugas experiment could foretell MLB’s future

The establishment of an umpiring crew of non-carbon-based life forms will be interesting.
The establishment of an umpiring crew of non-carbon-based life forms will be interesting.
Illustration: Shutterstock

The Daytona Tortugas are, in many ways, as average as a minor league team gets.

The Cincinnati Reds’ affiliate in what’s now known as Low-A Southeast feature three of the organization’s top 10 prospects, but Tyler Callihan, Austin Hendrick, and Rece Hinds aren’t ticketed as superstars, just guys with bright futures. The Tortugas rank sixth in their 10-team league in OPS and runs scored, as well as pitcher strikeouts and win-loss record (they’re second in the league’s West division behind the St. Lucie Mets).

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What makes Daytona interesting this year is the Tortugas’ home-road splits. Going by their record, you’d never know anything was up. They’re 14-16 at Jackie Robinson Ballpark, and 11-13 everywhere else in Florida. It’s how those games are playing out that’s the eye-popping part.

At home, the Tortugas are averaging 4.52 runs per game and allowing 4.80. On the road, they’re averaging 5.46 runs per game and allowing 5.17. Daytona pitchers average 2.57 more strikeouts per game at home, while their batters whiff 0.65 more times per home game. As a result, the average game in Daytona has featured 9.32 runs scored, while the average Tortugas road game has seen 10.63 runs.

There’s nothing particularly notable about the Daytona ballpark’s dimensions. What stands out most about it is that it’s been there since 1914 and became the Dodgers’ spring training home after Jacksonville refused to allow Jackie Robinson to play games there in 1946. After one Grapefruit League go-around, the Dodgers opened up their historic facility in Vero Beach, but since Daytona was the first city in Florida to allow Robinson to play, they put his name on the park.

Daytona Beach was also a spring training site for the Orioles in 1955, and for the Expos from 1973-80. These days, though, it’s the only place in Low-A Southeast that isn’t a Grapefruit League facility. The Tortugas and the Fort Myers Mighty Mussels, the Twins’ affiliate that plays at Minnesota’s complex, are the only teams in the league that aren’t outright owned by their major league parents.

That’s why Daytona is the one ballpark in Low-A Southeast that is not equipped with an Automated Ball-Strike system, the most controversial of the minor leagues’ experimental rules this year.

Major League Baseball, officially, does not have a timeline for implementing “robot umpires” or any of the other rules being tried in the minors this season. But two management sources have told Deadspin to expect some of this year’s pilot programs, such as pitch clocks and larger bases, to show up in the majors as soon as next season, with automated pitch calls not far behind.

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“I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me, 2023, there were robo-umps,” one source said. “I could definitely see that.”

There still needs to be agreement from the players and umpires unions before MLB proceeds with computerized balls and strikes, but as far as the MLBPA goes, there are many bigger issues to negotiate ahead of the December 1 expiry of the current CBA. The umpires already agreed to the general concept, and to help (in rather vague terms) with its implementation, and it’s also generally thought that umpires are largely fed up with criticism over missing calls on 100-mph pitches by a fraction of an inch thanks to the fact that broadcasts now include superimposed strike zone boxes and StatCast-fed pitch tracking graphics that highlight arbiters’ errors.

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“They’re not going through a process right now that they see as long term,” a source said. “The only one that I would be very surprised if we saw it over the next 12 to — well, I don’t even want to say 24 months — but over the next 12 months, is that robot strike zone, because technology is very specific to that one.”

While MLB might not be rushing automated balls and strikes into play for 2022, it’s clear that the desire is to have the system set for implementation as soon as the technology is ready. That explains the situation in Low-A Southeast on two levels. One is that the system will already be in place at Grapefruit League parks as soon as MLB gives the go-ahead to use it in spring training — they’re set up now, with no plans to remove them. The other is that, as MLB gets feedback from minor league teams’ management about how things are going with its various experimental rules, when it comes to the robo-umps, that feedback is coming from MLB teams themselves, since they’re the owners in the erstwhile Florida State League.

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So, it’s coming, but how’s it actually going to work, and what’s up with those big splits for the Tortugas between human-umpired games at home and computer-umpired games on the road?

“They’re working on the technology to make sure that the ball lives in the zone,” a source said. “So, obviously, when it crosses the plate, it has to stay in the zone for some period of time. I think that’s great in theory. The problem is, everyone in baseball has said to me, it’s going to take three guys at the Rays or the Dodgers to figure out exactly how to exploit whatever computerized strike zone exists.”

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Los Angeles already has been working on this. Five years ago, Clayton Kershaw said he didn’t want to see robot umps because, “As much as the hitters complain at times about strike zones, the high strike would be called in that box, and that never gets called, so they would have more issues than they think, for sure.”

So, even as much as Kershaw might benefit from being able to drop curveballs onto the top of the computerized zone for strikes, he could see how it would be exploited. The response to this concern seems to be making the computerized zone tiny, which is why Daytona’s strikeout rates are so much higher, hitting and pitching, when human umpires are calling their balls and strikes.

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Major league veteran Dustin Garneau, currently catching for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate in Toledo, got a taste of the robo-ump experience during a rehab assignment earlier this season with Lakeland. As he saw it, the system is not a finished product, but he knows its day is coming.

“[Rob] Manfred wants more offensive baseball,” Garneau said. “It’s obvious. He’s taking substances out. The balls have gotten harder. And for whatever you want to say about that, this is going to shrink the zone dramatically. It’s going to get balls on the plate, because even catching against these Low-A guys, they knew there was no strike zone inside. So they just eliminated that part of the plate and just get out over the plate and dive at it. They weren’t afraid of having called strikes on their side of the plate. And that would dramatically change the game of baseball for pitchers.”

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As a hitter, Garneau loved his four-game stint in Low-A, as he went 4-for-10 with two doubles, a triple, and a sacrifice fly. As a catcher, he could see a major change to his profession creeping up on the horizon.

“It was different, definitely because of how the transition of catching has gone over the last half-decade or so, learning how to catch balls and knowing where the zone is,” Garneau said. “And that zone was really, really small in my opinion. … I don’t like it, being a catcher, but it’s an interesting dichotomy because it really would emphasize the blocking and throwing game. But the receiving aspect, you can dunk a baseball for a strike, and they’ll just call it a strike.”

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As much skill as there is in pitch framing, it’s also an entire art based on fooling umpires into calling strikes, and there’s an argument to be made that a strike should be a strike, not an interpretation of a strike. The concern is that MLB, even without a timeline on bringing robo-umps to the top level of the sport, is preparing to push ahead with the plan as soon as the league possibly can do so. The minor league management that they’re getting feedback from on robo-umps is themselves, and the upcoming labor talks provide an excuse to rush it into practice.

“It’s obviously a little weird how, the year before our CBA happens, they implement this in baseball and try to do a test run,” Garneau said.

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To be fair, this isn’t the first test, as MLB also worked with automated balls and strikes in a partnership with the independent Atlantic League and in the Arizona Fall League, the latter of which also means that Cactus League grounds are set up with the robs-ump system. It’s all part of laying the groundwork to make a major change to the game of baseball with as little resistance as possible.

“It’s purposeful that it’s the old Florida State League, and that’s almost completely owned by major league teams,” a source said. “So, any complaints go nowhere simply because they’d be complaining to themselves.”

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They do still want to get it right. As extreme as the Tortugas’ home-road splits are, they were even more extreme at the start of the minor league season. There’s an inkling, but no confirmation, that some tinkering is being done in-season with the ABS system, fine-tuning the robot umpires so that the tiny strike zone that Garneau saw in Lakeland becomes just a small strike zone, and maybe tweaking the top and bottom of the zone to deal with those big breaking balls.

It’s already better than the initial tests of ABS, where pitches could bounce into the zone for strikes, but it’s not a finished product and rightly remains under testing. We’ll see how much better the technology gets between now and 2023, because like it or not, robot umpires are coming sooner rather than later.