PORT ST. LUCIE — There was not a better catcher in baseball last season at turning a borderline pitch into a strike than Tomas Nido.
The Mets catcher has nearly perfected the practice of adjusting his glove just so and catching the ball at a certain moment, an art that many artists do not want taken away.
What happens to catchers such as Nido, whose best asset would get legislated out of the game if and when the robots take over?
“I’m wondering the same thing,” manager Buck Showalter said Saturday before the Mets beat the Nationals, 4-2, at Clover Park. “On the surface, you think it’s going to completely change the dynamic of the catching position.”
As Major League Baseball and the Players Association warred over the new collective bargaining agreement this offseason, there were offers from the league that included an automated strike zone, which the union reportedly rebuffed.
Eventually, the two sides agreed on down-the-road rule changes such as a pitch clock, larger bases and restrictions on the shift, which can be enacted in 2023. Yet, the fact that MLB clearly wants robo-umps — and is tinkering with their usage in the minors — signals the technology that gets balls and strikes precisely correct likely will be implemented eventually.
“I don’t think it’s that close, we’re still a couple years away,” said Nido, who said he kept an eye on whether pitch-framing would continue through the CBA talks. “And I don’t think [automated strike zones are] going to be as efficient, and I think the pitcher still needs somebody back there that makes them feel good and who they trust.”
The robo-ump system first was used in the Atlantic League in 2019. In select games in Triple-A and in the Low-A Southeast this season, the less-fun-named Automated Ball-Strike will be in play.
Nido developed his craft through six years in the minor leagues — reaching forward to grab low pitches and reaching back for high offerings, catching the ball in whatever fashion that best presents it as a strike to the umpire — and said he has tried to polish off his framing in the majors.
Last year, according to Statcast data, 53.5 percent of pitches that did not induce swings and landed in the “shadow zone” — the edges of the strike zone — Nido converted into strikes. Texas’ Jonah Heim was second at 52 percent.
Nido has put a lot of work into being among the best at an art that may be gone in the coming seasons. Though he said is “not necessarily against” robot umpires, he thinks hitters who crave the automated zone should not be overly excited. The 27-year-old cited instances in which pitchers miss spots but still accidentally find the strike zone.
“I don’t think it’s going to benefit the hitter as much as hitters think,” Nido said. “We’re going to see when [catchers] set up down and away and the pitcher misses up and in, and it clips that corner, it’s a ball.
“Goal [with an automated zone] it’s a strike because even though he missed his spot, it hits the automated strike zone. They’re not going to like that.”
Without the art, some of the subtle but important talent from today’s catchers would no longer be relevant.
If so, “Maybe Pete [Alonso is] the catcher next year,” Showalter said.