It's going to be some time before the Florida State League begins play, but when it does, the Sunshine State's Class A Advanced circuit will usher in a whole new era of baseball.During the 2020 season, nine of the FSL's 11 stadiums will use HawkEye technology to call balls and
It's going to be some time before the Florida State League begins play, but when it does, the Sunshine State's Class A Advanced circuit will usher in a whole new era of baseball.
During the 2020 season, nine of the FSL's 11 stadiums will use HawkEye technology to call balls and strikes. Parks in Bradenton, Charlotte, Clearwater, Dunedin, Fort Myers, Lakeland, St. Lucie and Tampa as well as the stadium shared by Palm Beach and Jupiter will have the new system. Daytona and Florida (which will play in North Port beginning this season) will use the more standard umpire setup.
Human umpires won't be fully replaced at those nine parks, mind you. There will be an umpire behind home relaying HawkEye's calls -- as determined by views from multiple cameras -- and to make calls on plays at the plate. But otherwise, the era of automation is coming to the FSL as a test run in 2020, and several farm systems see the coming changes as learning opportunities.
"I'm interested," Twins director of player development Alex Hassan said in Fort Myers last week. "I'm interested to see how this looks and feels. It might be a fluid situation where we do have to evaluate which pitches are we getting that we wouldn't normally assume we would get. How is that affecting us at the plate? How does that impact our approach? This is new stuff. We're still in that phase where we're trying to figure all that stuff out, and we're still trying to see how it'll impact the pace of play and how it's going to impact how we need to approach our at-bats and our work on the mound."
This system isn't wholly new to baseball, of course. The automated strike zone first came famously to the Atlantic League last season -- an independent circuit that, through a partnership with Major League Baseball, proved to be a testing ground for several potential rule changes. The results were strong enough to continue the experiment in last autumn's Arizona Fall League, where robot umps were used only at Salt River Fields. That system involved TrackMan, meaning the FSL expansion will utilize a different technology -- adding to the intrigue farm directors will have across Florida when baseball hopefully picks up in the summer.
"From a game-to-game basis or even a stadium-to-stadium basis, there might be an adjustment period with what the intricacies of that zone happen to be," said Rays director of Minor League operations Jeff McLerran. "But that's not different from what happens now. This umpire might give you this part of the zone. Another umpire might give you another. While they're trying to be as uniform as possible, we anticipate there's going to be some variation stadium to stadium. Hopefully our guys are adaptable enough to make the adjustments needed."
One aspect of the game that many expect to be primarily affected is the receiving aspect of the catching position. Backstops who can steal extra strikes have always held value in the game, but that has become even more quantifiable in recent years with clubs taking to technology (like TrackMan) to measure who turns balls outside of the zone into called strikes by an umpire. It's a reason why, for example, one big spring storyline was the Yankees' Gary Sánchez working on a one-knee stance to help get a couple more strikes for his pitchers at the bottom of the zone.
That skill goes away with an automated strike zone. A catcher no longer needs to stick a pitch right at the corner. He could wave his glove wildly after making the catch. He could not move his body whatsoever. It won't matter. Either the pitch hit the zone or it didn't. That's one thing in everyday play in the FSL, but without robot umps coming to the upper levels at least this season -- Major League Baseball reached a deal with Major League Baseball Umpires Association this offseason to allow robot umpires into The Show within the next five years -- teams still will need to find ways to evaluate which catchers are capable of bringing value to that aspect of their game.
"Receiving is obviously important as far as their development," McLerran said. "If they happen to move to [Double-A] Montgomery, that receiving is still very much in play. We're going to do the best we can to try out some new things that may play better with the robot umps than otherwise, but definitely, we're not going to give up on the receiving aspect of our catchers."
"Even if it's an umpire or a robot, we do a ton of work with our catchers with receiving and defense and how their body is set up, what they need to do individually in order to receive the ball," added Phillies director of player development Josh Bonifay. "We're going to see. It's new for everybody. We may have them stand there on two knees and receive the ball. It's like nobody knows how it'll work out. But every day, we receive right-handed breaking balls, left-handed breaking balls, sliders, changeups -- we do everything we possibly can to get our catchers to receive the ball better at this point. We have our coaches and our eyes. ... With a robot -- if it doesn't give us certain things -- then we'll have to figure that out. Where we need to set up, where we need to receive. I think we need to adapt every year."
Bonifay, in particular, could be in for an interesting time when it comes to the crossover between framing and HawkEye. Rafael Marchan -- the seventh-ranked Phillies prospect -- earns plus grades for his defensive work behind the plate and seems ticketed to open at Class A Advanced Clearwater after spending 20 games with the Threshers last season. Stripped of his ability to take strikes for his pitcher, Marchan's value would be much more tied into his average bat and well-below-average power. That's why "our coaches and our eyes" would play such a heightened role for the Phillies in evaluations of the 21-year-old, that is until he reaches Double-A Reading.
Farm directors also expressed an interest in how the new system will affect pitchers and hitters alike. Arizona Fall League players consistently reported that the newly regulated zone took an adjustment period. The most consistent critique concerned breaking pitches. Curveballs, in particular, were capable of touching just the bottom of the zone before bouncing in front of the catcher. To the batter looking back, it's a ball in the dirt. To the cameras building the zone, it's a strike. On the opposite end, sliders were sometimes capable of looking like strikes but moving horizontally away from the front end of the zone, thus going for balls.
It's enough to make one wonder whether the curve might become the most popular pitch in the FSL this season. Clubs, however, insist they'll try to keep pitchers pitching to their actual strengths, not those perceived by HawkEye alone.
"Throw strikes, throw in that box," Bonifay said. "There's no adjustment on that front. Right now, we have to throw it where the umpire is calling strikes. Same thing with the robot. If they're able to locate it in that zone, then they're going to get strikes. ... We're not going to change our pitchers' repertoires because of the box at this point."
All of that said, the biggest adjustment might be in the human-interaction department. For all intents and purposes, Royce Lewis had an impressive Fall League campaign in 2019. He was named AFL MVP after hitting .353/.411/.565 over 22 games for Salt River, meaning his home games were played under the new automated system. Yet MLB.com's No. 9 overall prospect had issues that went beyond his Arizona numbers.
"Sometimes, umpires -- because I treat them how I want to be treated -- if I think it's a ball, I might say, 'Hey, where'd you have that?'" said the Twins shortstop. "That's it. Or maybe, 'I thought that was outside.' That's all I've said. They're human beings. They're not going to be 100 percent. But I appreciate the human umpire because I'm able to have the conversation. They can say, 'That was on the corner, no more, no less.' This robot umpire, I was asking the [home-plate] umpire, 'Was that on the corner?' and he said, 'Strike. I don't know what to tell you.' All he hears is strike or ball."
Those in charge have a simple solution for their players in such a situation.
"Hang with them," said Tigers vice president of player development Dave Littlefield. "We're not going to change it. You just have to adjust to what's taking place."
Lewis, who is likely to open 2020 back at Double-A Pensacola or up at Triple-A Rochester, has his own advice for Florida State League players to come.
"With this auto zone, it's black or white, ball or strike," Lewis said. "There's going to be some fine-tuning with it. We had some balls bouncing in the dirt that are called strikes. I was telling our pitchers, 'Hey, spike that curveball, knick that zone!' It's kind of tough, but baseball's going into that phase. I try to tell anyone going to high-A to be prepared and try not to get to two strikes because it could get dangerous. But mostly, continue to learn and grow, and don't let the strike zone get to you."
Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.