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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 7, 2023 1:46 pm PDT
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BY KEVIN KERNAN

AMBS is not a fan of ABS.

That is the Automated Ball and Strike System that is coming to MLB, and quickly. Even though I am not a fan of ABS, however, I can’t wait for it to get to Major League Baseball simply because the unintended consequences are going to be magnificent.

In the quest for truth (not always easy to find these days, throughout America) I spoke to someone who spent a great deal of his time in AAA last season scouting players, and also talked to someone who is closely affiliated with the umpires at the major league and minor league levels. Both men have seen the ABS in action.

Umpires don’t have a lot of friends, but I am one of them. Their job is incredibly difficult, especially calling balls and strikes. When technology completely takes over, the way Rob Manfred and his merry band of techno-baseball people want it to take over (and believe me, they can’t wait for that day) they will be surprised at the unintended consequences of Robot Ump.

And as you can tell, AMBS is a fan of unintended consequences.

You see, the ABS is not going to be the cure-all baseball is making it out to be; and I prefer man over machine any day of the week. It’s not a coincidence that about 10 longtime umpires just retired. They see what’s coming, they see what’s here, and they might as well get out.

And before anyone drops an Angel Hernandez joke, I am happy that he is not one of the retiring umpires. I like it that Angel continues to bedevil Manfred and his Baseball Bros.

“They had enough of the bullshit. A lot of them got their 20 years in and I guarantee there are probably 20 more guys who want to get out.”

Through the years I have had conversations with Angel, often in Tampa because he does a lot of Yankee spring training games, and I always found him interesting to talk to and I respect that he continues to work the game in his unique manner.

My baseball writing friend Buster Olney recently reported that the ABS system will be employed in all 30 AAA ballparks this coming season, which means of course that it will be in the major leagues before you can say “Yer Out!’’

Olney wrote there will be two ABS systems. “Half of the Class AAA games will be played with all of the calls determined by an electronic strike zone, and the other half will be played with an ABS challenge system similar to that used in professional tennis.’’

Great, make baseball more like tennis, just the way the baseball elite want the game to be played.

Olney added: “Each team will be allowed three challenges per game, with teams retaining challenges in cases when they are proved correct. MLB’s intention is to use the data and the feedback from both systems, over the full slate of games, to inform future choices.’’

Fantastic.

And so it goes, the steady erosion of the human element in the game. Also the steady erosion of the umpire’s influence in the game. I get it, the players are The Show, but umps are a part of the show too.

Make no mistake, this is a power play by the league to control the umpires.

Before we get to what is really going on with the umpires, let’s look at how these changes will affect the game. Clearly MLB wants to give more advantage to the hitters. It’s all about the hitters. That’s why Manfred has so many former hitters on his advisory panels.

Everything is said to be done to improve “the pace of play.’’

Pace of play is baseball’s climate change.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: MLB Umpire Angel Hernandez (5) has a chuckle during the MLB game between the Cleveland Guardians and Minnesota Twins on June 21st, 2022 at Target Field in Minneapolis, MN. (Photo by Bailey Hillesheim/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here is what one long time scout, who knows the game inside and out and has accurately predicted how the slew of recent changes would affect the game, had to say about the ABS system – and just for fun, he talked about the pitch clock as well because all this really goes hand in hand… or hand in glove.

“I think the Automated Strike Zone and the clock is helping pitching to become better and Major League Baseball, who is crying for more offense, is going to regret doing all this,’’ he flat out told BallNine.

Interesting. So in the end it is going to help the pitcher and not the hitter. Tell me more.

“When you work faster you put hitters on their heels,’’ the scout said. “You get into a rhythm. When you get into a rhythm you tend to have better command and execute your pitches better.’’

The automatic strike zone will call more strikes in hard to hit places, too, according to those in the know.

Noted the umpire whisperer to BallNine: “When that 12-to-6 curve ball hits the dirt and it hits the bottom of the box and is called a strike, the hitters will be screaming for the umpires to call balls and strikes. Then there is the pitch that is up and away and catches the top corner and has never been called a strike and is now going to hit the zone, guys will be bitching and moaning. It’s absolutely going to help the pitcher. There are going to be pitches that hitters can’t even foul off that are going to be in zone, the ball down and in on the inside corner, they can’t touch that pitch. It’s going to be comical.’’

Who needs catchers framing when you have all this?

Who are the hitters going to get mad at if they don’t agree with the call? Are they going to yell at the computer or yell at the people who put the strike zone into the computer?

“Hey ABS, you suck!’’

It will be as they say, a work in progress. I’m here to enjoy the show.

Jim Leyland yelling at umps

Florida Marlins' manager Jim Leyland (R) argues with umpires Tom Hallion and Ed Montague during 4th inning action against the Atlanta Braves 01 August after Hallion called ball hit by Edgar Renteria and caught by Michael Tucker a trap making Renteria safe on first then having crew chief Montague overturn the call and calling Renteria out. (AFP PHOTO Rhona Wise / Getty Images)

In the past you could let the umpire know you were not happy with a call and sometimes there would be an argument. Sometimes there would be just words and gestures. It all made for an interesting part of the baseball show, especially for fans in the ballpark; but no more.

“That’s okay,’’ said the umpire friend, “the fans in the ballparks are just looking at their phones anyway.’’

True, when machines make the call, it doesn’t matter what you think and with each machine-oriented decision, baseball loses a little bit more of its soul.

The beauty of baseball has always been its link to the past, and how it rolls on in a familiar fashion no matter what happens or who is in charge or who is on the field.

You remember the perfect speech in Field of Dreams by Terence Mann, played by the one and only James Earl Jones, who just turned 92? “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game – it’s part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and could be again.’’

By the way, James Earl Jones and Jack McKeon are both 92 years old. That’s pretty cool.

The baseball powers keep fiddling with the game and this is not even the same game as it was in 1989 when Field of Dreams was made.

There was no Fake Runner then, pitchers could disengage from the rubber as much as they wanted to, you could play your infielders anywhere you wanted to play them. Umpires were the ultimate game authority; their call in the moment mattered. There were no little boxes on the TVs to tell you where the strike zone was and there was no Automated Balls and Strikes coming on the horizon, and no pitch clock either. Baseball had no clocks except for the clock in the baserunner’s head used to time a pitcher’s time to the plate or the clock in the infielder’s head to gauge the time it took that particular batter to make it 90 feet. The bases were smaller too. And you could visit the mound as much as you wanted to visit the mound. You couldn’t legally bet a game or the result of an at-bat (legally, at least) in the ballpark. Relievers could come in and face one batter and call it a night.

There were complete games too back then, not so long ago. In 2022 there were 36 complete games pitched. In 1989 there were 429 complete games pitched.

You could even slide into the catcher or the middle infielder in 1989 when it was a game of action, and pitchers could pitch inside without getting the automatic warning. It was a physically tougher game back then – and we are not talking 100 years ago in the days of Ty Cobb, we are talking 34 years ago. We’re talking about a generation.

As we are seeing in our day-to-day lives too, a lot can change in a generation.

Geez, a lot can change in three years.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - APRIL 24: Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Andrew McCutchen (24) reacts after a third strike call by home plate Umpire Ángel Hernández during a Major League Baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Milwaukee Brewers on April 24, 2022 at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Let the record show that the batting average was 11 points higher in 1989 when Field of Dreams was made, .254 to .243 this past season.

The ball was put in play a lot more before they started “fixing’’ the game in this era of “Field of Schemes.’’

And yes they want to speed up the game but there are more commercials now than ever, and that’s not changing, there are not going to be fewer commercials and now you are even getting split screens of the game and a mindless commercial.

Evidently they also want umpires to lower the strike zone a bit, too, not call the high strike as much; but you can be sure the ABS will do that and as our talent evaluator noted: “They have a perception that pitching up is the place to pitch now. Up is only good once you establish you can go down. They think that pitching down because everybody is swinging up is going to help the hitters, I don’t see it happening.’’

Unintended consequences are everywhere.

Each change takes the fan a little further away from the action and takes the game away from the human element and the action.

Here is the bottom line with the umpires, according to the umpire liaison I spoke with at length.

“Baseball wants to be in control of these umpires so badly,’’ he said. “The old-timers will say ‘You want the computer, you got it.’ ’’

Essentially that is what is happening with umpire turnover these days.

ST. PETERSBURG, FLORIDA: A group of future umpires practice their ``you're out`` motion with their thumb at the Joe Brinkman Umpire school, one of only two in the country. (Getty)

“Ten guys retired this year,’’ he said. “The reason is that it had to do with their pension. Their lump sum payment is based on interest rates.’’

That makes sense and with interest rates climbing, umpires would lose a considerable amount of money. “Their lump sum would be less but most of them didn’t want to be around anyway,’’ he explained. “They had enough of the bullshit. A lot of them got their 20 years in and I guarantee there are probably 20 more guys who want to get out.’’

I would imagine the next generation of umpires will do pretty much what baseball tells them to do and that is just the way it is when you are in survival mode, same with scouts for the most part.

Who can blame them? Every week I talk to baseball people who are happy they got out of the game or can’t wait to get out of the game because of the way the Nerds have taken over the game and have changed the game.

Baseball has the upper hand for sure over the umpires. Once the automated strike zone comes in they can essentially say to the umpires, “We really don’t need you guys. We’ve got the strike zone covered. We got replay. You’re lucky to have the job you have.’’

Baseball will have the ultimate power, just the way they want it to be; those on the field playing the game will be beholden to the calls of the automated ball and strike system.

They call it progress.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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