ALCS controversial strikes highlight growth of 'robot' umpire program

A matchup between New York Yankees’ outfielder Brett Gardner and Houston Astros pitcher Josh James in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series has raised eyebrows nearly a week later.

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Gardner and James' matchup came in the second inning of the game with the Astros leading, 3-1, and the Yankees trying to get some more runs back.

Home plate umpire Marvin Hudson called two strikes on Gardner that clearly weren’t, which was pointed out by the broadcast and visible to fans watching the game.

Hudson’s missed calls highlighted the growth of the “robot” umpire problem Major League Baseball has been experimenting with.

During the 2019 season, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball teamed with MLB to be a kind of proving ground for a computer to call balls and strikes instead of an umpire.

The Atlantic League, a baseball league independent of Major League Baseball and minor league baseball, debuted the “robot” umpires at its All-Star Game over the summer. The home plate umpire wears an earpiece connected to an iPhone in their pocket and the umpire then relays the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.

The Arizona Fall League – a professional baseball league where MLB teams can showcase their young prospects – also started to use the TrackMan system to make a nearly instantaneous decision and sends the signal to the home plate umpire.

The prospects who have to deal with the system have admitted that it has its faults but it also has its promise.

“It's definitely unique, it's different from everything we've learned throughout our baseball careers,” Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Seth Beer told The Associated Press. “It's just something new. Something that guys are just a little uncomfortable with so far.”

FILE - In this July 10, 2019, file photo, Ron Besaw, right, operates a laptop computer as home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, gets signals from radar with the ball and strikes calls during the fourth inning of the Atlantic League All-Star minor leagu

Beer, however, said the system has trouble being correct with balls low in the strike zone.

“The really loopy breaking balls or the really hard sliders at the bottom of the zone that end up in the dirt, you might end up having trouble with,” Beer said. “But for the most part, I don't think it's a terrible thing.”

While the average fan watching a baseball game on some broadcasts or on MLB.com’s Gamecast can tell whether a pitch goes into the strike zone, Major League Baseball has said the system isn’t ready quite yet to replace the calls made by the home plate umpire.

The “experimental program has been a positive learning exercise, which was the objective,” MLB spokesman Michael Teeven said in a statement.

He added that the league plans to discuss the results of its tests with clubs and continue to find ways to test the system.

Meanwhile, the fans attending the game lose out the most. Those who have been heckling the umpire at Arizona Fall League games this season forced the league to issue a statement before games saying that the computer was calling balls and strikes and not the human.

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“Get rid of it,” one person yelled. “Let the umps do their jobs!”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.