Man vs. machine: Former Lookouts manager Phillip Wellman not a fan of automated umpiring

San Antonio Missions photo / Former Chattanooga Lookouts manager Phillip Wellman, shown with the San Antonio Missions, will be a Triple-A manager for the first time in his career when he guides this season’s El Paso Chihuahuas. An automated system of calling balls and strikes will be used throughout the 30 Triple-A ballparks.

Former Chattanooga Lookouts manager Phillip Wellman is synonymous with some of the most entertaining ejections in the history of professional baseball, but those clashes were manager versus umpire.

Now it's man against machine, as Major League Baseball is set to adopt the automated ball-strike system at all 30 of its Triple-A ballparks in the minor leagues this year. Wellman, whose memorable meltdown at AT&T Field in 2007 has more than 3 million YouTube views, is about to embark on his first season with the El Paso Chihuahuas of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

"I've been thrown out more because of calls on the bases than I have arguing balls and strikes — unless I was just looking to get thrown out," Wellman said this week. "That was always the quickest way to get thrown out, arguing balls and strikes, because it's pretty cut and dry that you can't.

"I think the ejections now for arguing balls and strikes are going to be even lower than they were in the past, because if you yell at an umpire, he's just going to point to his ear because his earpiece told him it was a strike."

Only the Triple-A level is scheduled to employ widespread use of the ABS system for the upcoming season, so Lookouts games in the Double-A Southern League will continue to have umpires and strike zones that can fluctuate depending on who is behind the plate.

ESPN senior baseball writer Buster Olney reported earlier this month that half of Triple-A games will have every call determined by the electronic strike zone. The other half, Olney added, would use the ABS but will allow a limited number of challenges similar to professional tennis.

Wellman first managed the Lookouts in 1999, their final season at Engel Stadium, and again from 2001-03. He won the 2008 Southern League championship with the Mississippi Braves and the 2019 Texas League title with the Amarillo Sod Poodles, and his first season as a Triple-A manager is coming in his 35th year coaching the sport.

The 61-year-old has a bit of an old-school attitude when it comes to this ABS implementation.

"I think we're removing the human element, and I don't like that," Wellman said. "I know what the goal is, and you probably thought I would never say this, but these umpires are better than we think they are, and they're dadgum good behind the plate. These umpires can score around 98%, which means you only miss three or four pitches the entire game.

"Who programs these TrackMan and Hawk-Eye systems? A human does, and if there weren't going to be faults with this, they wouldn't give you any challenges. I wish we would leave it alone, but this is where we're going."

Studying up on this new landscape has made this a unique offseason for Wellman, who lives in Chattanooga but will head west in a couple of weeks. Wellman explained that pitchers, catchers and hitters will be able to challenge balls and strikes but that he may take that out of a pitcher's hands, adding, "They think that every pitch they throw is a strike."

Wellman said catchers can see a pitch as well or better than the umpires, and that's the position he's most concerned about moving forward.

"I think this demeans catching," he said. "Catchers make pitches look better than they really are, but if you're going to have automated balls and strikes, you're going to put somebody back there who can't catch as well but can hit and throw.

"Look, the fans are about to see a nice graphic of a ball crossing the strike zone, and I do understand the intent. I just like the human element."

The Chihuahuas are the highest level in the farm system of the San Diego Padres, who are coming off an 89-73 season that included a National League Division Series shocking of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had won 111 games. Wellman managed Padres star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. for multiple seasons, but most of San Diego's talent, such as pitchers Josh Hader, Blake Snell and Yu Darvish, and position players Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado and Juan Soto, has been acquired from other organizations.

It's a season of great promise for San Diego, and it's a season of great technological intrigue for Wellman.

"I'm curious to see how this goes," he said. "I know initially that I'm not a big fan, but they've tried some things when I was in Double-A. They increased the base size, and I didn't ever notice that, and taking away the shift didn't bother me.

"I'm kind of hoping this goes unnoticed as well."

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