MLB’s Experimental ‘Challenge’ System Has Legs – Twin Cities

A Major League Baseball ABS technician, right, gives his sign off to the umpire team ahead of Friday night’s Saints game, the first at CHS Field to use experimental ‘challenge rules’ regarding balls and the strikes (John Shipley/Pioneer Press)

Triple A baseball is a player’s last stop before putting on a show. The same goes for the new rules which, like players, tend to start with a weak A-ball and work their way to the top.

This season, the major leagues added the pitch clock, bigger bases and a ban on harsh defensive changes after successfully hitting Class AAA ball. The rules being tested this season are equally sweeping, including using technology to call balls and strikes — what MLB calls the Auto Balls and Strikes system.

Even more interesting is the “Challenge” system, a hybrid of ABS and human referees. Basically the ABS system works but the plate umpire calls the balls and hits. Any of the three players – pitcher, catcher and batter – can call for a challenge.

The challenge system was first put to the test at CHS Field on Friday when the Saints hosted the Nashville Sounds.

“It’s a bit like throwing referees under the bus,” Saints outfielder Kyle Garlick said. “They work their tail there.”

It’s true. If anyone has anything to lose, it’s the umps. After a ball or strike has been disputed, the Kinetic ABS graphic is displayed on the scoreboard, immediately telling the crowd whether the referee got it right or wrong.

During last week’s series in Rochester, NY, Garlick was the first Saints player to contest a strike call. He won, by the slimmest of margins. Later, he lost one.

“It’s going to make umpires less relevant, and they’re working hard to get to the big leagues,” Garlick said. “And right now the most important part of the game for them is calling balls and strikes – and they’re taking that away from them.”

On the other hand, batters have been battling balls and strikes for 150 years and finally have an objective umpire to decide who is right. Friday’s early score: plate umpire Dexter Kelley 2, Players 0 before the game was suspended by rain in the third inning.

This is why the challenge system seems to have more legs than the straight abs. It retains the human element while giving referees, players and fans the ability to say, officially and without further debate, “I told you so”.

This is very fun.

While TV shows have been showing viewers the trajectory of locations in the zone for years, there’s something hugely satisfying about seeing the system actually count for something.

Each team receives three assigned challenges, but if the player is correct, the team keeps the challenge. This was apparently a problem in the early days of ABS experimentation, as Class A umpires, like Class A players, are just beginning to perfect their craft.

Twenty challenges will wipe out that half hour we all salvaged with the timer.

But that’s unlikely to happen in the majors or, as Kelley showed us Friday, Triple A. With two hits and no outs in the second inning, Nashville shortstop Andruw Monasterio challenged a low strike call on a 2-1 pitch. It made sense, 3-1 with two and no one was worth the risk – and frankly the ball was low. But he barely cut the box.

On the next pitch, Monasterio took a 2-2 offering from Simeon Woods Richardson and sent it into the bullpen behind left field for a 3-0 lead. Woods Richardson then challenged a four-ball call on the next batter, right fielder Monte Harrison. With Harrison first, the scoreboard replay showed the ball complete outside the box.

Triple A teams play the first three games of a series of six consecutive ABS games, and the next three with the challenge system. The ABS area is 15 inches wide – like the plate – but the vertical dimensions are customized for each player based on height. Yes, they are all in the system.

The challenge system will add another layer of strategy for managers and players, if only because challenges are best used in high leverage situations, and often with two strikes.
“I think the umpires will hate it, but we’re all held accountable,” Saints receiver Tony Wolters said.

But it’s the other aspect – the fun, the drama – that Wolters fully endorses.

“I think the more competitiveness we can bring to the game – anything in the game – the more viewers will watch, the more people will like the game,” he said. “It has to be a priority.”

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