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How will the ABS system change the catcher position in MLB?

A Swinging Strike; CC'ed by License 2.0

Angel Hernandez, one of the most disliked umpires of all time, has just retired. Him being awful at his job was one of the few things that practically all baseball fans could agree on, and he will likely be the most hated umpire of all time for the rest of history. Not because he was just that insanely bad, but rather because MLB is just a few years away from adding robot umpires to the game. Robot Umpires, or more technically known as the ABS system (Automated Ball Strike system), has been something some fans of MLB have wanted for a while now, and it is slowly making its way to the MLB.

The first-ever use of the ABS system came in the 2019 Atlantic League All-Star Game, where they used it for the entire game. There are two types of uses for the ABS System. These are the full game use, where every single ball and strike is fed to the umpire from the system, and the challenge system, where the umpire calls the entire game, but each team is allowed to challenge a certain number of pitches, whether it is pitching or hitting. In 2023, the minor leagues added the ABS system in every Triple-A stadium. The way it worked was that teams would play 6 games each week against a single opponent. Three of those games would be a full ABS game, and three would be using the challenge system. 

They are still trying to tweak the system and the way it is implemented. They have experimented with giving teams a certain number of challenges, incorrect challenges, and just about every other way you can use this system. Obviously, they want to get it as perfect as possible before implementing it into MLB, where Rob Manfred said will almost certainly be implemented at the absolute earliest being 2026. Players, Coaches, Managers, and Umpires have had mixed reviews of the system, but overall the consensus seems to lean in the positive direction.

However, a question that has not been talked about enough is what will happen to the catcher position once implemented. Overall, that decision comes down to whether they would rather implement the full ABS system or the challenge system. When it comes to the challenge system, Baseball America says, “Aside from player popularity, the other benefit to the challenge system is it preserves the importance of catcher framing as a skill. With full ABS, there is no need for catchers to frame pitches in a way that preserves or steals a strike. With the challenge system and umpires still calling balls and strikes, that skill retains value”. What I want to answer today is what would happen if hypothetically, MLB implemented the full ABS system instead of the challenge system?

Catchers in their current state are the game managers of MLB teams. The game is heavily dependent on how good your catcher is at calling the game, and how much they can help their pitcher. In a close comparison, I would say they are almost like a Defensive Coordinator in the NFL. It is their job to know the tendencies of the opposing team’s players and be able to adapt mid-game to players who are hot and those who are cold. That is why many MLB fans say catchers make the best Managers, like Joe Torre or Mike Sciosia. They typically have the highest baseball IQ which translates extremely well to managing. This new system could create a shift in how much a catcher’s IQ and defense are valued.

Framing is a skill that has become increasingly important over the last few years. With the addition of the full ABS system, we would obviously see the importance of that skill completely diminish. Now, there are obviously other defensive skills catchers would still need, such as throwing runners out, blocking balls in the dirt, and good baseball IQ to call a good game. However, with framing being removed, a major component is lost. This will lead to teams caring less about putting out a defensively competent catcher and focusing more on offense. More than likely, if the catcher has an OPS+ below 100, they better be great defensively at everything. This would apply to catchers such as Tucker Barnhart, Roberto Perez, Martin Maldonado, Austin Hedges, and many others. These catchers have insane defensive prowess to make up for where their offense completely lacks. They all rank highly in Blocks Above Average and Caught Stealing Above Average, both being Baseball Savant stats. Even with that, most of these catchers are/were not even starting catchers on their respective teams. If they were, they only started for about 1-2 years before the team got someone better to take their spot.

Then there are the catchers who without framing are pretty much only good at one thing. If you look at the last 5 years, Jacob Stallings is first in Blocks Above Average with 59 but ranks 41st in Caught Stealing Above Average with -4. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Christian Bethancourt is 4th in Caught Stealing Above Average with 11, but 57th in Blocks Above Average with -12. Both of these players are not good offensively, so without their elite framing skills being relevant, it's catchers like these who would likely lose their jobs, even with most of them being backups. They simply lose the value they brought to the team before. This applies especially to catchers who the only thing they brought to the table was their framing, for example, Tyler Flowers. He always ranked high in Catcher Framing Runs but had -13 Caught Stealing Above Average and -3 Blocks Above Average. He had a couple of slightly above average offensive seasons, but ultimately, he was also pretty bad offensively. Catchers like him would no longer even really get a chance at the MLB level. 

Personally, I support the addition of the challenge system. Obviously, in a big moment in a game, if what would have been a huge strikeout in the moment ends up being a walk because the umpire made a mistake, the pitcher should not be punished for the umpire being bad at his job. However, I do not support the full ABS system. First off, the imperfections of umpires have always been part of the game. Being able to steal strikes as a catcher is ultimately a skill that some catchers have perfected, and some have not, and is ultimately a key part of the game. It is a craft they have put work into honing, so I think taking away that skill completely would be wrong. Defensive prowess has been what created some of the most beloved catchers of our generation. For example, Yadier Molina is one of the most beloved catchers of the 21st century. Offensively, he finished his career with an OPS+ of 96; below league average. The reason fans loved him is because he was an insanely talented defender behind the plate. He finished with 130 DRS, the 2nd most ever at the catcher position. I know fans want to see more offense, but I believe when defense becomes secondary, fans will notice, and they will not like it. 

Secondly, this shift could almost end up creating what running backs have become in the NFL. Taking away one thing that this position is used for could lead to them becoming more expendable. That sounds extreme, and it is a little bit, but if catchers are no longer game managers, then ultimately the position, as well as the team, suffers overall. Teams will ultimately opt for a Gary Sanchez behind the plate as opposed to a Jose Trevino. Obviously, fans would want the player that is going to produce more runs, but you do not notice how important it is to have a good defensive catcher until you do not have one anymore. 

I will admit that this article is almost entirely speculation. It is also not even the only part of the game that the ABS system will affect. There is always a learning curve with new technology. Umpires will slowly become a thing of the past, hitters and pitchers alike change will change their approach, and it will even result in less ejections. But I believe the catcher position is one of, if not the most important aspect it will affect. We will see in the next few years what comes from it, and if my assumptions are correct. It is all up to Rob Manfred and what his agenda looks like. The game of baseball is forever changing and evolving, and this is just the next step of its evolution.



Baseball America



Baseball Savant

Baseball Reference


1 Comment

RJ Craig
RJ Craig
Jun 09

I personally would prefer the full system because there wouldn't be anymore arguments between balls and strikes, but I understand why people would want the challenge system.

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