Will Robot Umpires Kill the Baseball Art of Framing a Pitch?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
One of the most skillful elements of competitive baseball could soon be on its deathbed, thanks to technology.
- Coaches and players fear robot umpires could end one of the most critical tasks of a catcher — deceiving umpires into calling strikes.
- In 2019, as many as 22 pitchers in MLB converted more than 50 percent of non-swing pitches into strikes.
One of the most important things a catcher does behind the plate in a Major League Baseball game could be tossed into history’s dustbin in a few seasons because of — what else — technology.
Current and former catchers insist the art of “framing” — deceiving the umpire into calling a ball a strike — is their most critical job these days. But an automated ball-strike system that MLB soon plans to test in the minor leagues threatens the future of framing, if it gains traction.
In 2019, as many as 22 pitchers in MLB converted more than 50 percent of non-swing pitches into strikes. In other words, they got strikes on more than half of the pitches that should have been called a ball. The top five catchers aiding them are Austin Hedges of the San Diego Padres, Tyler Flowers of the Atlanta Braves, Yasmani Grandal of the Chicago White Sox, Roberto Perez of the Cleveland Indians and Christian Vazquez of the Boston Red Sox.
Whenever minor league baseball resumes after the coronavirus lockdowns, presumably 2021, MLB plans to introduce RoboUmp, the automated umpire, into the Florida State League, a Class A minor league for prospects, usually 18 to 22 years old. The padded ump, the human, will lose his role as arbiter of balls and strikes.
If we get a computer calling balls and strikes, it is going to change the catching position dramatically.
Travis d’Arnaud, Atlanta Braves catcher
MLB isn’t known for experimenting lightly. If RoboUmp eliminates missed balls and strikes by the human umpire and gains some acceptance, it could be used in the Major League soon. And that’s worrying many players and coaches — some of whom argue that it could reduce the utility of catchers.
“I’m worried about this coming to the big leagues,” says Atlanta bench coach Sal Fasano, a former big league catcher. “We have nine guys on the field, and you take away one-ninth of the game. Why not just say every ground ball to second base is an out? It’s the same difference.”
Several coaches and players see RoboUmp as another intrusion of technology on the nuances of the game. “If we get a computer calling balls and strikes,” says Atlanta catcher Travis d’Arnaud, “it is going to change the catching position dramatically.”
But aren’t players and coaches the ones to blame, with the vitriol flying from the dugout on missed calls? Batters routinely turn to umpires and shake their heads in disgust after a called third strike. Pitchers glare at umpires after a missed call. The 2019 World Series between the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros was replete with bellyaching — from pitchers and hitters — about the strike zone and umpire mistakes. Nationals manager Dave Martinez screamed at home plate umpire Lance Barksdale after one call: “Wake up! It’s the World Series!”
Among the most impacted could be the Braves, where 34-year-old Flowers, as well as d’Arnaud, has some of the best framing skills in the game. Flowers was the second most successful framer in 2019.
Fasano says the Braves take full advantage of their veteran catchers in teaching younger catchers the intricacies of framing.
So how does framing actually work? The skilled catcher can take a low pitch that might otherwise be called a ball and, ever so slightly, turn his forearm and raise the glove enough to make the umpire believe the catcher caught the ball in the strike zone. The skilled catcher squeezes his shoulder blades together to make it appear that his body is perfectly square — not out of alignment — so the umpire thinks, “The catcher didn’t lean, so it must be a strike.”
“Some guys are good artists, some guys are bad artists,” Fasano says. “Now [with the automated umpire], basically you are rewarding the guys who are bad artists.”
Flowers makes $2 million a year, and while fans and media ridicule his arm strength, the Atlanta pitching staff understands his greater value at getting some extra strikes called for them. “Pitchers tell our front office, ‘Hey, bring Flow back, please,’” says right-handed starter Mike Foltynewicz.
Fasano is worried that RoboUmp might also impact how well Atlanta’s minor league catchers master the art of framing. “My best [catching] prospect is supposed to play in that league this season,” Fasano says of 22-year-old Shea Langeliers. “This could really impact his development. I don’t want him in that Florida State League.”
Langeliers says he is still going to work on framing in the Florida State League this season if he is assigned there — whether the umpire is human or a robot. His job, he says, is to save his pitcher the amount of thrown pitches and “save their arms.”
Already, technology — while improving accuracy — has robbed the game of some of what made it special.
Instant Replay has ended most arguments between umpires and managers and players, but arguments delight fans. The three-batter minimum, adopted for the 2020 season to speed games up with fewer pitching changes, could end the role of the left-handed relief specialist. Now, the computer-operated umpire behind home plate could end the taunts at the home plate umpire of “Blue, you stink.”
Ballet could have more verve than baseball and that is an unsettling thought to big league players and managers. But they asked — no, they screamed — for it. And “it” is coming.