Farewell robo-umps? MLB picks a Triple-A system fans see at remaining Bees games


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SALT LAKE CITY — The days of robo-umps may soon be numbered.

The Salt Lake Bees and all other Triple-A teams will switch to a full-time challenge system on Tuesday after all games had been split between two ways of calling balls and strikes over the past one and a half seasons. Games completely called by an automated ball-strike system will be phased out.

Beginning in 2023 and up to now, the ABS system determined balls and strikes during all games held on Mondays through Thursdays. The challenge system — where pitchers, catchers and hitters on each team can challenge balls and strikes called by human umpires as many times until they reach three incorrect challenges — had been used for games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

When challenges are requested — something that must be done within seconds of a pitch — players and the crowd learn the correct call as an illustration of the pitch and strike zone created by ABS is displayed on the outfield video scoreboard.

It's unclear if the move to fully challenge process will be carried into 2025, but the Associated Press reported that a Major League Baseball memo to Triple-A managers announcing the change cited an overall preference for the challenge system over full ABS. It noted that about 61% of staff and players surveyed said they preferred the challenge system, compared to 11% who preferred ABS. Fans also preferred the challenge system by about a 2-1 margin.

The decision comes after Pioneer League — an MLB partner league that includes the Ogden Raptors — also announced it would lean on a challenge system this year, signaling that MLB is trying to gather more data on it.

Salt Lake Bees players lean toward what the survey found.

"I definitely like the challenge system better than the full ABS. It still leaves a human element in the game," Bees catcher Chad Wallach told KSL.com. "That's been a part of the game since it started, so I like keeping a part of it out there."

Wallach admits that he wasn't a big fan of either ABS or the challenge system since ABS emerged in minor league games in 2022 as a test for possible major league use; however, he's warmed up to at least the challenge system since then. He's indifferent if it becomes the norm in baseball, calling it a "fun little twist."

Cameras set up above the Smith's Ballpark box suites help operate the automated ball-strike system that are used to operate challenges during games are pictured during a game on Saturday.
Cameras set up above the Smith's Ballpark box suites help operate the automated ball-strike system that are used to operate challenges during games are pictured during a game on Saturday. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

That's because the challenge system has become much more strategic since it was implemented in games. Instead of challenging anything, Bees players are instructed to be selective with their challenges.

It doesn't make much sense for a leadoff batter to challenge a 3-0 strike on the corner, but it may make sense to challenge a borderline pitch with two strikes, two outs and runners in scoring position. It may also make more sense to hold onto challenges later in a game rather than blowing them all in the first inning — unless the team believes runs could be scored or saved early on.

This is ultimately up to the player's discretion at the moment. During Saturday's game, Bees catcher Zach Humphreys initiated the first challenge of the night, which turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to overturn a lead-off strikeout. Later in the game, he successfully challenged a strike-three call that would have led to a pivotal out in the 8th inning.

"The general consensus is if you're going to challenge, make it count," said pitcher Kenny Rosenberg. "You have to be smart with it especially because you only have three."

The Smith's Ballpark video board plays a video showing the outcome of an unsuccessful challenge of a strike-three call during a game between the Salt Lake Bees and Reno Aces on Saturday.
The Smith's Ballpark video board plays a video showing the outcome of an unsuccessful challenge of a strike-three call during a game between the Salt Lake Bees and Reno Aces on Saturday. (Photo: Carter Williams, KSL.com)

Rosenberg, like Wallach, favors the challenge system over turning over the game to the robots. He believes many others in the clubhouse feel the same way now because offers them an opportunity to craft skillsets like framing pitches that they'd need to know if they're called up to the big leagues — which doesn't use either system.

But if MLB does adopt challenges, which MLB.com reports could happen as early as 2026, Rosenberg sees advantages from it. It keeps a human error element, but it could also hold umpires accountable during games in a way that could be beneficial.

If that's the case, Bees players and everyone else who has gone through Triple-A over the past few seasons will have been a part of history. Current minor league players seem to recognize they are part of something new in the long history of the game.

"It's cool to be in this era of baseball," Rosenberg said, pointing to several other recent rule changes that were tested in the minors and now appear to be a part of the game moving forward. "As time passes, I think I will look back and think that's pretty cool I was a part of some of those changes — and hopefully they will be for the better."

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Carter Williams is a reporter who covers general news, local government, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com.

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