Editor's note: This is part of a KSL.com series looking at the rise of artificial intelligence technology tools such as ChatGPT, the opportunities and risks they pose and what impacts they could have on various aspects of our daily lives.

Salt Lake Bees pitcher Ryan Smith contends he's not the type of baseball player who will argue with an umpire over balls and strikes, but there are times he's surprised by the call made behind the plate.

In true baseball spirit, he'd adjust his pitching locations to figure out where the zone was that day. That changed on May 17, 2022, as Smith's Ballpark joined others across the Pacific Coast League in adopting the automatic ball-strike system, commonly referred to as ABS by those in the game.

Calls are no longer made by anyone on the field, nor by a human at all. They come from a set of cameras tracking all sorts of movement happening in real time, sending the data to a loud computer server operating in a press box. The computer alerts the umpire as to whether the ball sailed through the strike zone, and the umpire reports to the players what the computer determined.

So, if Smith had an issue with how a pitch was called, he knows he'll just have to accept it.

"It's a yes or no; it's binary, as opposed to being some gray area left there," he said.

That's the reality more minor league players will have at times this year as MLB expands its test of this technology to all 30 Triple-A ballclubs across the country. Both the Pacific Coast and International leagues will use two different ways of implementing the ABS system before it could enter the majors in the future.

AI's place in sports officiating

The technology behind this isn't new, but its growth over the past few decades is now making "robot umpires" possible.

It all dates back to the creation of Hawk-Eye, designed by Paul Hawkins, who studied artificial intelligence as a graduate student in the late 1990s. He explained to Slate in 2012 that his experience as a semiprofessional cricket player who dealt with questionable umpire calls inspired him to design a system that better tracked the ball than a human eye could.

He developed a high-speed camera that could track the ball as it sailed through the air, then created a computer program that predicted its path to determine where the ball would land. This could help determine if umpires made the right call every time a bowler threw a ball to a batsman, which can be similar to the subjectiveness of a baseball umpire calling balls and strikes.

His product debuted in 2001 as a way to show viewers if the right calls were being made during a cricket match on TV, though it went on to become an officiating tool, as well. Tennis and soccer adopted Hawk-Eye fairly early, using it to determine line calls and goals at Grand Slam events and the World Cup by the end of the decade.

Baseball also picked up the technology to help clubs collect all sorts of interesting information used in talent evaluation. Those tracking a game online could see a virtual strike zone after a strike was called, too.

Then, a little less than a decade ago, broadcasts started using it to help show viewers whether a pitch was a ball or a strike right at the moment the ball crossed the plate. People could see if the umpire was right or wrong before the umpire could make a call.

These Hawk-Eye servers are used to collect information from cameras set up all over Smith's Ballpark. They help determine balls and strikes as a part of the automatic balls-strikes system.
These Hawk-Eye servers are used to collect information from cameras set up all over Smith's Ballpark. They help determine balls and strikes as a part of the automatic balls-strikes system. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

While testing an automated system began with some minor leagues in 2019, MLB and Hawk-Eye announced that year a new version that opened the door for a more accurate automated strike zone. They began testing it on a wider scale last year.

Players, coaches and umpires were eager to see how it would work in a real-game experience. Triple-A umpires were not made available for comment for this story; however, players said they found the system didn't really change much, aside from blips here and there. It was a pretty smooth transition.

"There may have been a few days where some guys felt it was off a little bit, but I think as (the season) went on, things were ironed out and it definitely felt more consistent," Smith said. "I don't know if everyone agreed with it at all times, but at least it became kind of concrete knowing where the edges were."

Who calls the strikes?

The automatic ball-strike system is now something all 30 Triple-A clubs are experimenting with. The Salt Lake Bees will have a different automated strike zone experience than last year's, though, as MLB figures out the best way to apply the system to major league officiating.

"It's too far down the path now for me to think that it's not going to show up in the big leagues at some point," said Bees manager Keith Johnson.

This year, the automatic ball-strike zone will call balls and strikes during Bees home games held between Monday and Thursday, the same way every home game was called last season when ABS was implemented. But during Friday, Saturday and Sunday games, home plate umpires will resume their regular duties with automated zone backing them up.

Under this scenario, pitchers, catchers and hitters can challenge balls and strikes, sparking a quick review of what the automatic ball-strike system called. Each team starts with three challenges. They can make as many appeals as they'd like throughout the game until they've made three unsuccessful challenges.

The latter appears to be the direction major league teams are going with the system. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred "hinted that the challenge system is a likelier outcome" over a completely automated system, the Sports Business Journal reported Monday. This year's Triple-A system will help in making that decision.

Salt Lake Bees managers Keith Johnson, right, and Sacramento River Cats manager Dave Brundage, left, exchange lineup cards with umpires before a game at Smith's Ballpark on Saturday. Johnson said he prefers an automatic ball-strike challenge system over a complete computer overhaul of home plate umpiring.
Salt Lake Bees managers Keith Johnson, right, and Sacramento River Cats manager Dave Brundage, left, exchange lineup cards with umpires before a game at Smith's Ballpark on Saturday. Johnson said he prefers an automatic ball-strike challenge system over a complete computer overhaul of home plate umpiring. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

It's the outcome Johnson prefers. Prior to the season beginning, he lauded the challenge option. Relying solely on computers, he said, tampers with the long history of the game, as part of baseball's pageantry is rooted in its human error, such as arguing over balls and strikes.

"There's a lot of things in this game that should remain the same but there are some things that, if it's an improvement on the game, then I think it should be added," he said. "If you're doing something and there's a way to make it as accurate as possible, I think you have to explore it."

MLB allows teams to challenge some calls already, including whether a runner is safe or out or if a batter swung at a pitch or not. But when it comes to balls and strikes, players like Smith are prepared for whatever the future holds.

He sees the arguments for and against it. Ultimately, he sees it as something that could make it easier for everyone to accept the call on the field.

"In theory, it's a little more concrete and fair across the board," he said, of the ABS system. "I'll be happy to play either way."