“My Eye on Yours”: Ball and strike challenges, possibly at an MLB game near you
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Earlier this month in the Arizona Fall League, Red Sox Prospect Stephen Scott got a look at a fastball in the bottom of the zone. For most of baseball’s long and storied history, that’s been the end. Incredulous looks and sarcastic comments were nothing more than token protests in a world governed solely by the referee’s word. But instead of returning to the dugout, Scott exercised a right that few baseball players have ever enjoyed.
He challenged the call.
Within seconds, the big screen was overtaken by a one-tone animated graphic flying toward the plate, its brightly colored trajectory like a comet’s tail. As he walked through a rectangular representation of the strike zone, clipping the bottom edge, the verdict was pronounced: strike. The referee was right. A walk to the dugout eventually ensued, but at least Scott had been able to ask the ump to prove it.
The entire episode, which lasted no more than 10-15 seconds, was a byproduct of an experimental rule that was tested this fall. Major League Baseball. This year, for the first time in the history of the sport, first in the Low-A Florida State League, then in select Triple-A parks and now in the AFL, ball and strike calls have been subject to review within the game . Now, several times throughout fall games at Salt River Fields, the only ballpark with a review system in place, the action comes to a brief pause so everyone in the ballpark can immediately see if the umpire got it right.
And the players seem to like it.
“So far, I think it’s pretty good,” he said rocky prospect Grant Lavigne.
“Honestly, it’s really beautiful,” she added cardinals shortstop Masyn Winn.
“It will make the game a little more interesting,” he said Bras prospectus Justyn-Henry Malloy.
The automated ball and strike (ABS) challenge system being tested works as follows: each team enters the game with three challenges, keeping the ones they win for repeated use. Challenges must be issued immediately, and only by the catcher, pitcher or batter. Unlike the replay review system currently used for no-ball and strike calls in the majors, a coach cannot challenge a pitch. The umpires don’t huddle or retreat in front of the headsets, but watch along with the rest of the stadium as the correct call is displayed on the scoreboard.
A lot of buzz around the video #Yankees Prospect Jasson Domínguez successfully uses the ABS challenge system to overturn a called strike in the Fall League.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 20, 2022
It’s a system similar to the one used for boundary calls in tennis, powered by the same Hawk-Eye technology, but seeks to find a middle ground between human and robot umpires. For several years, MLB has had the technology to move to full ABS, and has actually tested this system at various levels in the minors in recent seasons. With the challenge system, however, the league hopes to preserve the human element while providing a bit of a technological safety net.
The disruption caused by any challenge is brief, lasting a few seconds, and rapid change was an absolute necessity for any such system. “It was very important for us to have a quick fix,” said Joe Martinez, a former pitcher who now serves as MLB’s vice president of field strategy. But even if the challenges extend a game by just a minute, the wrinkles they add to the sport are numerous. By challenging the calls themselves, players exercise a potentially game-changing authority previously reserved for administrators. With real-time feedback on pitch location, the zone can be more consistent as the game progresses. And by giving players the recourse to contested boundary calls, ejections can drop dramatically.
The first issue teams and players have to figure out is who can challenge and when. A fall league team, the Salt River Rafters, who play every home game with the ability to challenge, has banned pitchers from challenging. “Because of the excitement,” said Salt River pitching coach Shane Loux, a Diamondbacks employee “We don’t need them to get angry and challenge 2-0 pitches in the second inning.” The three-challenge limit is designed to prevent frivolous use, incentivizing teams to save them for the most consequential calls. Therefore, situational awareness is key.
With so much power in their hands, players must weigh the stakes against their trust in their own perception. “You have a boundary pitch early in the first inning. Is it really worth challenging?” asked Red Sox infielder Nick Yorke. Others have taken stock of their awareness of the strike zone. Malloy knows he sees the high, outfield better than anything inside, so don’t expect him to challenge many interior attacks. Braus right-handed William Woods he chooses to trust his receiver rather than his own eyes, attached as they are to a constantly moving head at the end of his delivery. Others reserve challenges for obvious missed calls. “One of those easy spits,” Yorke said.
That hasn’t stopped players from exercising the privilege, however. Scott wasn’t the only one to issue a challenge during that mid-October game, though his was the only one recalled on the play-by-play in the league’s Gameday tracker. Many times throughout the game, a pitch would only be delivered for a player to immediately touch his hat or helmet, signaling the call for a review.
Then a brief moment of suspense. Here again, the league is trying to split the difference between speed and entertainment. Once again inspired by tennis, the course is animated in the same style as the Gameday tracker, leaving everyone hooked. Players seem to like the anticipation. “It’s like a weird emotion you get,” Braves shortstop Cal Conley said. Yorke describes it in a way that evokes being called into the principal’s office in high school. “Everybody’s like, ‘Ooooooh!'” she said. If you’ve seen a 55-foot putt come close to the pin, you know the feeling.
“Turn everybody off,” Malloy said. “It creates that little anticipation of ‘aaaaaaaaahhhh OH!'”
So far, the referee has been right more often than not. Through Oct. 24, fall league challenges had been successful just 33 percent of the time, according to MLB statistics. That’s a worse rate than Low A and Triple A, which had hit rates of 44 and 48 percent, respectively. Perhaps relatedly, there have been just 4.4 challenges per game in the AFL, compared to 5.8 and 5.7 per game in Low A and Triple A. Batters have been more successful than pitchers and receivers in the AFL, so they may challenge more often. than their defensive counterparts. The opposite is true in the other two leagues, where pitchers and catchers are challenged more often than hitters and have more success.
What MLB hasn’t tracked at its testing sites is the effect on ejections, though several in the fall league predict a decrease. There were 176 ejections in the majors last year, according to CloseCallSports.com tracking, and 51 percent of those were for arguing balls and strikes. Without a challenge system, a player or coach’s only recourse was to confront the referee. Scottsdale Scorpions manager Matt Tuiasosopo, who coaches in the minors with the Braves, doesn’t like to tweet at umpires, but he would do it occasionally to support his players. But now, if players “feel they’ve been unfair,” he said, “they can challenge it.” Malloy added, “It’s almost like you can say, ‘My eye on yours.’ Let’s see how it looks’”.
This may reduce sending offs, but it remains to be seen what wider effect the system has on the player-referee relationship. (A spokesman for the Minor League Umpires Association did not respond to a request for an interview.) Umpires have certainly gotten used to the replay system in the big leagues, and many players think they have too. will adapt to this. “I hope they don’t take offense,” Lavigne said. A challenge should not be taken on antagonistically. “The players have a lot of respect for the refs, even though they can hurt,” Conley said. “Like us,” he added quickly and diplomatically.
Others have their doubts. “I almost think there could be a negative fallout” for hitters, the Diamondbacks catcher said Cooper Hummel. Similarly, Loux worries that referees hold subconscious grudges against the players they challenge. “Oh, that guy,” the pitching coach said, imagining what goes through an umpire’s head. “He challenges every close pitch.” A complaint or a look can be overlooked, especially since almost every hitter complains. But what about a literal challenge to one’s own authority played out across the stadium?
Questions like this, of course, are why the league tests these systems before implementing them. And the players and coaches have suggestions.
Some would like to use more challenges or split them between defense and attack. With the system in use at just one fall league park, visiting hitters say they sometimes forget they can go against certain pitches. Tuiasosopo wouldn’t mind seeing pitch locations on the big board, regardless of whether they are challenged. At least once, Loux said, an umpire mistook the fit of a pitcher’s hat for a challenge signal, causing confusion. “We had to have a meeting,” he said. “It took two minutes!” The three-challenge limit hasn’t completely eliminated all frivolous reviews either. Winn admits to challenging one in an unequal game. “It was a slider right down the middle,” he said with a laugh. “In those nine boxes, he hit the middle box.”
Loux is among what appears to be a minority opposed to adopting the MLB experiment. I’d rather see bots full time. “An average game has like 240 pitches,” he said, “and we’re worried about six of them.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he’s a catcher who gets some value from stealing hits, Hummel prefers human umpires and no challenges. “I like it,” he said of the challenge system, “but at the same time, I don’t know if I want to.” Blue Jays outfielder Addison Barger hates it and also prefers only human umps. “It just gives you something else to worry about in a sport where there’s already too much to think about,” he said. Ironically, he has won every challenge he has started.
But most fall league players and coaches who spoke The Athletic feel different They see a system that provides real-time referee accountability and one that adds a fun strategic element to the game. It’s quick, painless and even exciting. It would be an interesting adjustment to the rules, although there is no clear timetable for when it might be adopted in the majors. MLB’s competition committee is in favor of the league, allowing commissioner Rob Manfred to adopt rule changes over the objections of the players’ union, but nothing so far suggests that the strike zone challenges will reach the older in 2023.
If the league adopts it, however, it will represent a fundamental shift in how the game answers its most fundamental question. Was it a strike or a ball? Just touch the head and you’ll find out.
(Photo: David Richard / USA Today)
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