By: Brian Frank
The Bisons have been playing with the new automated ball/strike system (ABS) for a month now. The new system uses Hawkeye technology to call balls and strikes for Tuesday through Thursday games. On Friday through Sunday, a challenge system is in place, where the home plate umpire calls balls and strikes the traditional way, but teams have three challenges to use throughout the game. If a challenge is unsuccessful, the team challenging loses one of its challenges. Only the batter, pitcher, and catcher can challenge a pitch, with no assistance from the dugouts allowed.
The Herd Chronicles spoke about various aspects of the new system with several Bisons in one-on-one interviews over the past homestand, including manager Casey Candaele, starting pitcher Casey Lawrence, relief pitchers Hayden Juenger and Trent Thornton, catcher Rob Brantly, outfielder Wynton Bernard, and infielder Davis Schneider. The following are excerpts from those interviews arranged by topic.
The Sahlen Field scoreboard notifies fans that a pitch has been challenged. Photo credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
The system in general received favorable responses.
Bernard: “I actually really like it. You know where the zone is, so you don’t have to worry about anything. If it’s a ball off, you know it’s a ball off. If it’s on the plate it’s a strike. Sometimes when you have an umpire behind the plate, you don’t know if he’s going to call it a ball or a strike, so I actually kind of like the ABS system.”
Schneider: “I like it. I feel like every strike zone is a little different, so the ABS plays no favorites or anything like that. It can’t miss a call. It can’t make a bad call. I really like it in that aspect, that it plays no favorites. A strike is a strike no matter what. It’s just going to be straight up – and I like it like that.”
Candaele: “It’s hard to say. I guess if you can get everything right then that’s good. I do think there’s some glitches still, a little bit. But they’ll figure those out, I’m sure. I think the regular ABS takes the guessing out of everything. I guess the only thing would be, if it’s a blowout game and it’s about three and a half hours long, the umpire can’t expand the zone. Then you could be there for quite a while. I don’t know. I think it’s good. The clocks and all those other new things have been pretty good for the speed of the game and accuracy and just having a more legitimate game.”
The challenge system used Friday through Sunday seemed to be the favorite of the two systems. However, some pitchers pointed out that the challenges, even though the process happens quickly, could interrupt their rhythm on the mound.
Lawrence: “The challenge system is interesting. I just don’t like the delay. I get it from a fan perspective and being able to put it up there – you get the oohs and the aahs. But it kills the momentum and the flow, especially for me. I like to work quick and get on there and get rolling. Whether we’re challenging it or the hitter keeps challenging it, it’s like an extended timeout every time. I almost wish it would go to the ABS instantly, where it’s – hey, challenge, strike, boom, here we go, we’re going to keep playing. But other than that, I was really impressed with how fast it comes from the umpire. So it’s a little bit of a work in progress, but I think it’ll get there.”
Juenger: “The challenge system, I don’t mind it. I think it’s very interesting and keeps the fans engaged. I know for us we get engaged when someone challenges. The hard part is when you’re on the mound and you get challenged. In Gwinnett I had a pitch that was challenged and it just touched the corner. It went my way because the umpire called it a strike, and it was a strike. But your heart kind of sinks when you’re on the mound because it’s like – I got a strike, but 1-and-1 to 0-and-2 is a big difference.”
Bernard: “I’ve actually challenged a few. I got them wrong. They were right on the corner. But I’m fine with that. I challenged another one and I got it right. I like the challenge system too, because it’s just comfortable knowing where the zone exactly is. Sometimes – I mean we all make mistakes – but sometimes umpires will call balls that are strikes or they’ll call strikes that are balls and they’re not even close. At least with the zone you know it’s legit.”
Schneider: “I also like the challenges too, when the umpire is calling it, because you kind of get a feel for the strike zone a little bit more. It feels good when you challenge a pitch and you end up being right. I’ve done it once and I got it right. It felt good because it was a two-strike count. I like it though. I like both – I like how it switches three days off and three days on. I like it that we’re going to be doing that the whole year.”
Candaele: “I think one thing it (the challenge system) does is it teaches players their strike zone. You’ve got to know the strike zone – and catchers, it teaches them that what they think is a strike sometimes is not and what they don’t think is a strike can be. In that aspect I like the challenge system because it makes someone go – oh, I challenged that like five times and I’ve been wrong every time, so maybe I need to make an adjustment.”
Only the batter, pitcher and catcher can challenge. The Bisons have their catchers institute challenges when they’re in the field, rather than the pitchers.
Lawrence: “We’re so far away as a pitcher, and it’s tough sometimes in certain situations, depending on the pitch you’re trying to execute, to really tell did that pitch catch the plate or did it miss by just a little bit. Was it a strike or was it a really good pitch? They’re two different things. So I like relying on my catcher back there who’s sitting there following it in with his eyes. I haven’t personally challenged anything yet. If it was something in a big situation, you know, seventh inning with the bases loaded, strike or ball, I would think about it. But I haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
Juenger: “I leave it to the catcher. I think as a pitcher we can at times get a little prideful when it comes to whether it’s a strike, if it’s a good pitch, and then you go back and look at the iPad or when the report comes back and it’s a ball off the plate. So, it’s a good pitch, yes, but if we’re out here challenging – they’re (the catchers are) a lot closer to home plate. I trust them and trust their judgment. The catchers we’ve got here are really good.”
One of the observations of the system is that some unique aspects of the game may be lost – like catchers framing pitches, or pitchers with good control getting strike calls when pitches are just off the plate – and, of course, some of the ‘human element’ of calling a game is lost.
Candaele: “It used to be, if you were a pitcher, you could establish that you had command of your pitches, then you would start getting balls a little bit off of the plate – which you’re being rewarded because you’re around the zone. If you’re all over the place, then you didn’t get the corner calls. So I think in that aspect, some pitchers will get hurt by it, some will get helped by it. As with anything, I think it just takes getting used to.”
Lawrence: “In the past, relationships with umpires and those kind of things, making quality pitches time after time, and being able to manipulate the strike zone a little bit, walk an umpire a little bit – those days are gone because the pitches have to be on the plate.”
Brantly: “It changes the catcher’s perspective of the game dramatically. There’s a huge emphasis on presenting strikes, and making sure you’re keeping strikes in the zone – every single pitch. That still is an element in the big leagues. My first day with the ABS, it was shocking that it was just a completely eliminated element of the game. It took away from that kind of focus, but in that sense, if you’re taking away from somewhere, maybe you can get more somewhere else. You think about the elements like the catch and throw, blocking, game calling – you’ve just got to, not shift priority, but make sure you’re on top of those things that much more because the priority of those things become greater.”
Lawrence: “Umpires are human. They’re going to make mistakes. I’ve always kept that in the back of my mind. I personally, if it was up to me, I’d choose to have an umpire call the game. I just like the human nature of the game. The pure form of it. I get a little worried about the future of the game with all the data and the electronic stuff that is infiltrating. I think there’s a place for it. You know, maybe it could be used at the lowest levels to help umpires learn the strike zone.”
Juenger: “I think it takes the human effect of the game out of it. I don’t like that part of it. But I get what they’re trying to do. I like the challenge part of it though. I think the challenges are very interesting.”
There is strategy that goes into when a challenge should be called, especially since a team can only lose three challenges per game.
Brantly: “It’s got to be pretty blatant (to challenge). It’s not like we’re up there – oh, coin flip, let’s see if it pans out for us. If you’ve got a certain number of challenges by the end of the game, and you’re unsure, then go ahead and use your challenges if you’ve got them. But I don’t think that we’re trying to burn them necessarily on ones that we’re not sure about early. But if we’re sure about it early, if you’re confident, then the coaches have given their consent. If you’re confident, then they trust us. So we just navigate it like that for now. If there’s a way to strategically use it better, we’re going to find out as we go along.”
Lawrence: “We haven’t put anything concrete in. I think we’re doing it the right way and we’re feeling it out and figuring out what the best strategy is with it – because there is a strategy to it now. You’ve got to make sure you have one for the later innings for when a big pitch happens that you have a chance to turn the tide a little bit, change the momentum. Our big thing right now is we’re trying not to have the pitchers challenge because of us being so far away. But I know some guys get a little antsy and they get the tap of the head (the signal for calling a challenge). But It’s a learning experience for everybody.”
Schneider: “Everyone says that you just have to make sure. If it’s close, like if it’s an inch on, and it’s a strike, then it’s okay – but if it’s blatant (then challenge it. Just don’t call it because (you’re upset). You’ve got to keep your emotions in check when it comes to that. If you strike out on a good pitch you can’t really challenge it. You just have to tip your cap.”
The scoreboard shows fans that a challenged pitch was low. Photo credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
It's also notable that Triple-A is using ABS this season, but Major League Baseball is not. So, players who go up to the big leagues will have to adjust to not using the system – and then will have to readjust to it if they return to Triple-A.
Lawrence: “I’m interested to see guys that have used it here and then go to the big leagues. Is it changing the way they’re pitching from when they go up to when they’re down here. Just like the pitch clock did last year. So I think there’s a lot to learn from that.”
Brantly: “Having the awareness that in the event you get called up to the big leagues, that (pitch framing) being a major element of a catcher’s game, I think it’s important to still work on that when you’re here. You’re not getting the feedback anymore from the umpire’s perspective. You’re going more off what has helped you be successful in the past and making sure you’re presenting those pitches the way that you best know to help a pitcher keep those strikes during a game when you are in the big leagues. I think that’s the one controllable element we have there in the event that we do get called up to the big leagues, that we can stay ready that way.”
Another observation made by many players is that high strikes are not getting called as much as they expected they would be.
Thornton: “Pitchers thought that we were going to get a little more of the top of the zone, but that really hasn’t been the case. It’s like they’ve kind of tilted the strike zone. I don’t know. It’s interesting.”
Brantly: “I think the most obvious one would be the top of the zone for everybody – because balls that look like they’re about belt high, right over the middle of the plate – for us just having the full expectation of that being called a strike, and to see the umpire not call it a strike, and knowing that that’s an ABS decision – we were like – wow. We were just all shocked.”
Juenger: I threw a pitch in Gwinnett that I thought was a ball, and it was a strike. It was up and in and it was a strike. I think the hard part is figuring out the height. I think what people are finding out is that the high strike is gone. That’s kind of eliminated, so the hitters are adjusting to that and not really chasing anything upstairs. But I think as it goes on, it will be alright.”
Brantly: “I think with the zone itself, I think it was a bit shocking to everybody at first to find that the zone wasn’t quite what everybody thought it was. However the ABS ended up being configured, there was an adjustment period. I think we’re still trying to adjust. From my vantage point, with all teams using ABS, I see a lot more walks currently – especially pitches we thought were strikes at the top of the zone – they just aren’t there anymore. It’s caught some of us by surprise.
The height of the strike zone is set using players’ heights.
Schneider: We did our heights in spring training – I was listed at 5’10” (in past years) and now I’m 5’8 ½” So that kind of helped me out when it comes to that. But it’s actually a lot smaller than I thought. I thought it was going to give you a lot more leeway with high pitches but it’s actually pretty tight up and down now.”
Lawrence: “I think the toughest thing is just knowing that it’s a little bit of a moving strike zone based on hitters. It always has been, but it just seems to be a little bit different than what it’s been for my last 13 years. I think it’s just like anything – like the pitch clock was an adjustment. I think it’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment in the height of a hitter and where his zone starts and stops. Realizing and coming to a conclusion of where that is. For me I was just trying to convince myself that the umpire is calling the game and go pitch.”
Brantly: “If it’s going based on heights, it shouldn’t really matter the depth at which your stance is getting in. Like if you know you’re six-foot tall and it’s to like a certain marker, I’m sure you can stand straight up and down and get an idea, even when you do get down in the crouch, where that top is. That being said, it’s still been kind of shocking to players how the top just doesn’t seem to be where it used to be.”
Some pitchers believe hitters are being more patient with the new system and not chasing pitches off the plate.
Juenger: “I think at first you’re going to see more walks. Hitters aren’t swinging as much, they’re not chasing, they’re sitting on one pitch, where before you might get them to chase a little bit. Now they’re not really chasing. There’s no more edge pitches in my opinion. You’re not really getting that buffer zone – with yes, it’s a ball, but the umpire calls it a strike because it’s a half a ball off the plate.”
Thornton: “I feel like there’s a lot of people that thought that it would go more towards pitchers, but I think the zone’s kind of shrunk a little bit. Hitters’ approaches change a little bit. They’re a little bit more patient because you’ve really got to fill up the zone. But I don’t know. It’s still pretty early, just seeing how it’s going to play out. But you see walks are up, guys approaches are a little bit different, they’re a little more patient. And when you challenge, you’d better be right because those three challenges go quickly.”
Brantly: “I think there’s been more walks all around. So I would say that that’s a byproduct of maybe hitters being a little bit more patient, just because I think they’re just as uncertain about the zone as the pitchers and catchers are. I think we’re all just trying to feel it out. If, as a hitter, I see that a certain pitch is being called a ball, I’ve got to recalibrate. Everybody’s adjusting, so we’ve just got to take it day by day. But who’s to say that the zone doesn’t get readjusted? It’s just a lot of unknowns for us as players. We’ve just got to go out there and compete the best we can.”
In the end, it appears the new system is here to stay, and likely coming to Major League Baseball soon.
Brantly: It’s a game of adjustments. Baseball has always been a game of adjustments and if this is going to be an element of the game from this point forward, we just have to find how to work with it the best we can – how to stay competitive and throw lots of strikes, and keep hitters off balance that way.
Juenger: “I try not to think about it when I’m out there. I think it’s still just throw strikes, pound the zone, let them hit it essentially – and get your strikeouts when you need to.
Lawrence: It’s like anything. The game’s going to change and you’ve got to adapt or you’re going to die.