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Atlantic League to debut robot umpires and allow players to steal first base

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USA TODAY

The Atlantic League, an independent baseball league, is rolling out a new revolutionary rule and will debut robot umpires to start the second half of the season. 

On Wednesday, during the league’s All-Star Game in York, Pennsylvania, robots will call balls and strikes for the first time in a professional game, according to The Washington Post

The league will also allow batters to steal first base — yes, steal first — on a pitch not caught cleanly, similar to a dropped third strike. Except, the runner can attempt to reach first during any count. 

Using robots will still include a human element, however. A human umpire will still be located behind home plate with a bluetooth-connected earpiece, which feeds the call from a software program in the press box through an iPhone. 

The umpire then relays the call to the players on the field and the crowd, as he or she normally would. And in this case, they can actually overrule the call, and the umpire’s decision is final. 

“I think once people actually see this happening, they’re going to realize it’s not that big a deal,” Atlantic League president Rick White told the Post. 

The circuit expects to equip all eight of its stadiums — seven in New York and one in Texas — with the software, which includes a small panel located above and behind home plate, for the second half of the season. 

When the pitch crosses the plate, the process is simple. The system registers the pitch and spits out the call, either “ball” or “strike.” 

Sports data firm Trackman created the system and Major League Baseball provides it. In fact, per the Post, the league has already been testing the operation at two stadiums over the last few weeks. 

“I have seen this coming. It’s inevitable,” Atlantic League umpire Derek Moccia told the Post. “The game is changing. Baseball needs to speed up to keep up with the world. And if you want to be on board with this, you have to keep up. The game is bigger than you, bigger than any player.”

In February, the Atlantic League and MLB announced a three-year agreement that said the deal will let the big leagues “implement changes to Atlantic League playing rules in order to observe the effects of potential future rule changes and equipment,” meaning it will essentially serve as a testing ground.

MLB wasted little time doing so and is clearly gathering as much data as possible, with negotiations ahead of the 2021 collective bargaining agreement, in which the players and ownership will have to approve such rule changes. 

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