Some Triple-A clubs, including Sugar Land Space Cowboys, can now challenge robot umpire calls

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Wednesday, September 7, 2022
Space Cowboys' ballpark testing challenges to robot umpire calls
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Sugar Land's Constellation Field is one of a few Triple-A parks to work in challenges, though, the club's manager described it "like pulling a slot machine."

SUGAR LAND, Texas (KTRK) -- Three strikes. Three outs. Three challenges?

"We leave the game the way it was, and the umpires make the calls," Sugar Land Space Cowboys manager Mickey Storey explained. "But we get to decide if he's wrong."

In June, ABC13 first introduced you to the full Automated Ball Strike System (ABS) in use at Triple-A Sugar Land. On every pitch, the ball/strike call is determined by cameras as part of a Hawk-Eye system and is relayed via earpiece to the human umpire to signal ball or strike.

But late last month, Sugar Land's Constellation Field, home of the top minor league affiliate of the Houston Astros, became one of a select few Triple-A ballparks to begin using the ABS challenge system. A source with knowledge of the situation tells ABC13 the shift is not because the full ABS System was unsuccessful. This is said to be the latest test in technology.

SEE ALSO: MLB hiring for robotic umpire tech staffer who will be embedded at Sugar Land's Constellation Field

In the ABS challenge system, the human home plate umpire calls balls and strikes, but each team has three challenges to use during the game if they think the call is wrong. The challenge consists of the home plate umpire using his earpiece to listen to the Hawk-Eye system to determine if the pitch was a ball or strike.

"It's interesting. It's entertaining," Storey admitted. "My thing is: we want the calls right. I don't know which way is the best way. This is worth a try. It's a bit like pulling a slot machine."

But Storey is not part of that gamble. Only the pitcher, catcher and batter may challenge the ball/strike call. If the call is overturned, the team retains its challenge to use later in the game.

"This leaves some room for the human element," Storey noted. "But also, let's get that call right. It leaves some room for the guys who actually do know the strike zone to have an edge."

And as part of this system, fans in attendance will know the strike zone. When a ball or strike call is challenged, the technology is displayed in the stadium for everyone to see how correct - or incorrect - the umpire was.

With ABC13 on hand for a game earlier this month, an inning-ending third strike call was overturned. Sugar Land's Pedro Leon hit the very next pitch for a two-run home run.

"Ultimately, I don't care who's calling it. It's got to get better," Storey said.

Challenges can be denied, however.

If the home plate umpire determines the pitcher, batter, or catcher took too long to challenge the play, which is more than 10 seconds, or if he feels the player received help from the dugout, the umpire can deny the challenge. Storey calls that a "gray area" and hopes to see that modified.

"I don't think that part of the system is fair," Story said. "It's left up to debate whether the umpire thought the hitter took too long or looked around or got help from elsewhere. That's a slippery slope. It's got to get right. I think with the right amount of adjustments and tweaks, it's something that could play."

Which means every play is under the watchful eye of both humans and technology.

SEE ALSO: First stop, Sugar Land. Next stop, Minute Maid Park? Robot umpire system could be headed to MLB soon

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