Mets pitcher Mike Vasil during a spring training workout on...

Mets pitcher Mike Vasil during a spring training workout on Feb. 15 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca


As the rest of the world awaits the fallout from the rapid advances of artificial intelligence, or A.I., young pitchers such as Mets prospect Mike Vasil already have grappled with baseball’s robot overlords, known as ABS, the automated ball-strike system.

That’s because the Triple-A level was used as a laboratory for ABS last season, with each series splitting time between a challenge system and a full robo-ump strike zone. Eventually, we’ll see that in the majors, too. And the most likely version is the challenge option, the less radical of the two, which also has the fan-friendly feature of showing the computerized pitch-tracker on the stadium’s video board, similar to what you would see for tennis at the U.S. Open.

We bring up Vasil in relation to ABS for a few reasons. One, he’s almost certain to join the Mets’ rotation at some point this season. Two, Vasil’s promotion to Triple-A Syracuse last season required some serious adjustments to the robot umps. And three, it should be interesting to see how one of the Mets’ top-rated arms pitches Saturday when he’s freed from the robot’s tyranny at Roger Dean Stadium against the Marlins.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Vasil said Thursday afternoon. “I’m looking forward to good, old-fashioned baseball. Me, the umpire and the catcher.”

First, an explainer. No one is saying that ABS, and especially the challenge system, is a bad thing. It’s definitely the future. But the transition is going to involve some growing pains, and those began with the experimental stage the minor-leaguers were put through a year ago. Many — like Vasil — had to adjust on the fly to a smaller, lower strike zone midway through their season if they got bumped up to Triple-A.

While strike zones tend to vary from umpire to umpire in the majors, everyone becomes familiar with their reputations and how they call a game. At Triple-A, the zone became sort of a moving target as MLB worked with the technology and tested the parameters they preferred (smaller strike zone = more offense, more balls in play, fewer strikeouts).

For Vasil, that meant a fast-rising prospect who had a 3.71 ERA through his first two months at Double-A Binghamton, including eight walks and 57 strikeouts, found himself scrambling to recalibrate after a mid-June promotion to Syracuse.

In his first eight Triple-A starts, a total of 30 2⁄3 innings, Vasil had a 7.04 ERA and opponents hit .304 against him. The walks (20) were closing the gap on the strikeouts (39) at an alarming clip, in part because the new robot-patrolled zone (and the umpires now influenced by it) had shaved off the top by a baseball’s width.

With a fastball velocity that sits in the mid-90s, Vasil isn’t someone who just blows people away on pure heat. He relies on a five-pitch mix (four-seamer, cutter, sweeper, curve, changeup), using precise location and varying speeds that can dip into the low 80s with his 12-to-6 curve.

Getting squeezed took some perseverance to overcome, but Vasil did learn to better pinpoint his pitches inside that tighter zone. He also changed his grip on the four-seamer to better adapt to the MLB baseball used at Triple-A.

On Aug. 8, Vasil took a no-hitter into the ninth against the Yankees’ Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre club, and in his final eight starts for Syracuse, he nearly cut his ERA in half (4.04), limiting opponents to a .207 average, walking 18 and striking out 43.

In the meantime, the strike zone remained in flux. Vasil said that toward the end of August, the zone was based more on where the hitter was during his stride. So if they sprung out of a crouched stance, standing taller, Vasil would benefit from a higher top border.

“The zone was constantly moving,” Vasil said.

That was something the Mets had to take into account last season when studying their pitchers at Triple-A. Now they will have to consider it again during the Grapefruit League when watching prospects such as Vasil operate without the confines of the ABS.

“I think that’s a good point,” pitching coach Jeremy Hefner said. “We’re still developing for the major leagues, right? We’re not developing for the Triple-A strike zone. So we understand we have that context . . . Not comparing those two because it’s a different zone, it’s a different type of game.”

Vasil sounds happy to ditch the robots for now. He already noticed the high strikes he was getting in camp during his live batting-practice sessions and is eager to see how his stuff plays Saturday for his first non-ABS appearance since last June. He remembers pitchers being optioned from the Mets to Syracuse last season and hearing the comps.

“They were like, hey, it’s normal baseball — the zone seems huge,” Vasil said. “So now I can get a little bit out of that mindset that the zone is going to be really tight. It’s at least comforting to know that I probably dealt with a more difficult strike zone in Triple-A.”

When spring training is over, though, the robots will be waiting for him again.

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