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What is the proposed ball-strike challenge system in MLB?

Among proposed changes to MLB rules slated to enter the game is one that seems a long way off, but is perhaps the best way forward.

Among proposed changes to MLB rules slated to enter the game is one that seems a long way off, but is perhaps the best way forward.
Michael ReavesAFP

MLB rule changes are in store for 2023 that have fans and players up in arms, both in anguish and in defense of the changes. Most of the focus has been given to the two imminent alterations, namely pitch clocks and larger bases, but there is a compelling argument to be made for another change that could appear on the horizon.

While the larger bases are generally seen as a practical solution to the problem of base runners interference calls and possible injuries at first base, the pitch clock has been met with a mixture of enthusiasm by proponents and bile by traditionalists. The introduction of clocks in baseball smacks of undermining the core soul of the game, and while acknowledging the need to speed the game up, there seems to be little consensus on how to do that.

The problem is elevated to an even higher level of shrillness when it comes to balls and strikes. With the media frenzy around umpiring this season, fans are again torn against those who argue for balls and strikes to be completely automated, the so-called “robot umpire” solution, and those who say that the human element can’t be removed from the game without fundamentally altering it. In this case, however, there seems to be a proposal that may find that elusive middle ground.

The ball-strike challenge system is an intriguing idea that could bridge the gap between the two factions. The way it works is that each team has three challenges to a called ball or strike that they can invoke. Much like the challenge system that is already in place both in the MLB and in the NFL, if you win your challenge, you get to keep it.

Only the pitcher, the catcher, and the batter may challenge the call, and once the challenge is made, the play is immediately reviewed by the same automated system that would be used in the “robot umpire” scenario, and the decision is relayed to the umpire via an earpiece. Simultaneously, the crowd in the stadium and at home will see the replay and decision on the screen so they can follow along as well.

This system is perhaps the best of all worlds, retaining the human element of umpiring while also allowing for technology to be used to make sure that questionable calls are able to be reviewed. The system has already been trialled in Triple-A ball and MLB insider Anthony Castrovince says about the results, “What’s interesting is more often than not, the umpires have been right when these calls have been challenged.”

With only one challenge in five being overturned, this could provide a visual and public demonstration for the vocal naysayers that the umpires do in fact get most of the calls correct.

Not likely to be used in MLB next season, it could very well work its way into the league in ‘24 or ‘25, as perhaps the best all-around compromise acceptable to both sides.


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