Nats have mixed views on robo-umps in Class AAA

Nationals reliever Jose A. Ferrer rose through Washington’s minor league system relying primarily on his four-seam fastball, especially against left-handers. Ferrer, a lefty himself, liked to attack left-handed hitters with inside fastballs early in at-bats.

But early in his season with Class AAA Rochester, he wasn’t getting the strike calls on the corners he was accustomed to, thanks to the automated ball-strike system, known as the ABS system, or more colloquially, the robo-ump.

“It definitely affects you a lot, especially when you have a game plan,” Ferrer said through an interpreter. “Even though I’m going to throw that certain pitch to a hitter, then I have to keep in mind: ‘Oh shoot, that strike zone, I have to worry about that as well.’ ”

This season, Major League Baseball experimented with the ABS system in Class AAA, in which teams play one six-game series a week. Three of those games are on the ABS system — every pitch is captured by cameras and the call is relayed to the home plate umpire. Umpires call balls and strikes in the remaining three games, but teams have three challenges.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that it is unlikely that the ABS system will be implemented in the big leagues in 2024. Still, the use of robo-umps in Class AAA shows how seriously the system is being taken.

Opinions on robo-umps are varied among the Nationals who have experienced the system. But pitchers and hitters agreed that the strike zone was significantly smaller. Starter Jackson Rutledge, who made his MLB debut earlier this month, thinks that was partially why he had six walks in his first Class AAA start this season. Outfielder Alex Call called its use “way better for the hitter.”

Pitchers were in agreement that it was hard to get a strike call at the top of the zone. The ABS strike zone was intentionally designed to be lower to cut down strikeouts on four-seam fastballs at the top of the traditional zone.

“I felt like I started throwing the ball, keeping it very low,” Ferrer said. “And I don’t know if there was a discrepancy, but it seemed like the automated strike zone was beneficial to that low pitch and you learn to use that in your favor.”

“The top of the zone is just nonexistent,” catcher Drew Millas said. “It feels like the top of the zone is at your belly button instead of your letters.”

Some pitchers, including Ferrer and lefty Robert Garcia, felt like the zone helped them improve, forcing them to throw over the plate more often. And now that Ferrer is in the majors, he feels like he’s getting more chase because the zone is bigger with umpires.

Pitchers and hitters found that strike zones weren’t consistent from stadium to stadium. Players noticed that strike zones fluctuated as the systems “recalibrated” between series early in the season. Jake Alu recalled a game in Toledo, in which he noticed the strike zone was different from Rochester. Rutledge also recalled a few times the technology didn’t work.

Two weeks ago, Baseball America reported changes to the ABS strike zone, expanding it to account for different body shapes of players. The system eliminates catcher framing from the game, diminishing value for defense-first catchers. And the zone calls strikes for any ball that touches the corners, even if the pitch was poorly executed.

“There were some very pitcher-friendly pitches and obviously being a pitcher, I loved that,” said Nationals starter Jake Irvin, who had one start with the ABS system before being called up in May. “But it isn’t fantastic for the game when I throw a curveball that almost hits the dirt and clips the bottom of that zone and they call it a strike. It just made things a little bit less competitive at times, I felt like.”

But Irvin and pitchers would have the chance to challenge the call. And therein lies the strategy and intrigue. Does a pitcher or hitter risk burning a challenge in the third inning? And which players are allowed challenge a call?

“I think I maybe saw one pitcher get a challenge right all year. Normally the catcher has a way better idea. Actually, it’s 100 percent true,” Millas joked.

And though the system likely won’t debut in the immediate future, beliefs around its implementation and use diverge.

“I’m a baseball purist,” reliever Jordan Weems said. “I think that’s part of the game, is having an umpire out there that … some might give you the outer third, a little bit off. Some might give you a little bit in … But that’s the way baseball wants to go and, if they make that choice, that’s something you got to adjust to. Baseball is always a game of adjustments.”

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