Hours after baseball commissioner Rob Manfred indicated that an electronic strike zone would be used in spring training games, the executive committee of the umpires' union clarified that news, indicating that the electronics would not be used in place of a plate ump's judgment.
Rather, as umpires go through their regular spring work, MLB will be operating an electronic zone for nine games in Florida as it continues to refine its system that is expected to be implemented in the years ahead.
The umpires' committee released a statement to ESPN on Wednesday evening that read: "Reports that MLB will use 'robo-umps' to call balls and strikes in spring training games this year are completely inaccurate. ... Our understanding is that a camera-based tracking system will be running in the background during some spring training games for technology development and training purposes. But any game in which a Major League Baseball umpire is working will have a human calling balls and strikes."
A Major League Baseball official confirmed this.
The umpires' statement also addressed their stance on the electronic strike zone.
The union, according to the statement, "has never opposed the use of technology to improve the accuracy of calls, including on balls and strikes, if it can be done while protecting the integrity of the game. We do not claim to be perfect and we work constantly to improve our performance.
"But no automated system will be perfect either, and we have concerns about potential fundamental changes to pitch-calling that will need to be accepted by both the players and the fans.
"To achieve this new contract with the owners, however, we agreed that MLB can use [the electronic strike zone], if important conditions are met, and after a process through which umpires will have direct input into when and how the technology enters Major League games, including spring training games. We believe our involvement will be crucial to preserving fair play if the owners are determined to introduce this fundamental change.
"We bargained hard for these protections, and the process we negotiated has not even started. Use of ... technology in spring training games this year would be premature and would violate our new agreement. We have received absolutely no word from the Office of the Commissioner that MLB intends to do that."
MLB began experimenting with a computerized strike zone last year in the independent Atlantic League. Plate umpires, crouched in their normal position behind the catcher, wore earpieces connected to a phone that relayed ball or strike calls from a camera system.
Baseball also used the system in the Arizona Fall League last season.
Manfred cautioned Wednesday during an interview with Fox Business Network that referring to the system as robots "may be an overstatement" and emphasized that "from the fans' perspective, it looks exactly like it looks today."
"The current strike zone design is actually three-dimensional," Manfred said, "and a camera is better at calling a three-dimensional strike zone than the human eye."