Much like players coming up through the minors hoping to be a part of a Major League Baseball game someday, rule changes often do the same thing. They start as minor leaguers, many times coming in with skepticism from the fans and scouts watching them. Eventually though they show that they deserve to be there and find themselves in the majors.
Many of those baseball’s rule changes – the extra innings rule, pitch timer, bigger bases, and limits on mound visitations – came up through the minor league system and are now established major leaguers. This season, another rule goes from being used on a limited basis in the minors to a full-fledged trial.
In the Triple-A Pacific Coast League last season, and for some inexplicable reason, in Charlotte, baseball experimented with what is known as the challenge system. The system was also used in the Arizona Fall League last October. It is a slightly revamped version of the “robot umpire” approach that baseball toyed with a few years back. This season, the challenge rule will be used in all 30 Triple-A ballparks to gauge its effectiveness for being put into play in the majors as early as next season.
Technically, it is known as the ABS (automatic ball and strike) Challenge system. Each ballpark will be equipped with high-tech equipment that will be calibrated to make calls on balls and strikes. Picture the box that is shown on television to show the strike zone. According to IronPigs president and general manager Kurt Landes, the system is soon to be installed at Coca-Cola Park.
“It’s a pretty elaborate system,” said Landes. “It will be installed soon and will be ready for opening day.”
While the system is elaborate, using it during a game is quick and easy. When a pitch is thrown, the system judges it to be a ball or strike, but nobody knows what the system calls. The only way it comes into play is if the batter, the catcher, or the pitcher challenges the call by the homeplate umpire by simply tapping the top of their head. The challenge must be made immediately with no input from the dugout and no chance to view video. At that point, the call from the “robot umpire” is flashed on the board and that is the official call.
Each club has three challenges to start the game. If they challenge a call and they are proven to be correct, they retain the challenge. If they are wrong, they lose a challenge.
Former Phillies outfielder Adam Haseley played for the Charlotte Knights last season and talked about the system when the Knights played at Lehigh Valley.
“I like it. It’s quick and doesn’t take up extra time. And there is no questioning the call. I think the key to it is that it only involves the players with the best view of the pitch and there is no delay in looking at the video. It all happens instantly, and you move on,” said Haseley. “Plus, the fans really get into it since it’s put on the board.”
When the IronPigs went into Charlotte last season, pitching coach Cesar Ramos was all set to hate the challenge system.
“I went in not liking it,” admitted Ramos. “Getting to see how it worked though and hearing what the players had to say about it, my mind has been changed. I think it’s worth taking a broader look at in baseball.”
Most players liked the system and those who had little exposure to it were happy to give it a better look. They will get that look this season. While IronPigs outfielder Dalton Guthrie is hoping to be in the majors this system and not subject to the challenge rule, he likes the idea of it and of most of the other rule changes that have come through the minors.
“It’s interesting. It is extremely rare that arguing a call gets you anywhere, so at least with this system you can have a voice,” said Guthrie. “Sometimes you may have to apologize to the ump, but that’s okay. It gets the call right and doesn’t take a lot of time and in the end, that’s what we all want.”
Meanwhile, 2023 will mark the debut of the pitch timer and larger bases in Major League Baseball. Both were minor league experiments and were approved by the Joint Competition Committee to be used in the majors starting this season.
FLASHBACK: The Strange Case of Second Base
Another new MLB rule was not tried out in the minors but is being implemented almost by popular demand from fans and players. Infield shifts will now be severely limited with two infielders having to be on each side of the second base bag at all times. There also must be four infielders within the outer boundary of the infield when the pitcher is on the rubber and players must stay in the position where they started the inning. In other words, a team cannot have their best infielder move to different positions where a player is more likely to hit the ball. One caveat is that while all four infielders must be positioned on the infield, a team could bring an outfielder into position as an infielder or position them just outside of the infield boundary.