I shot this photo of a sign on an outfield wall at McCormick Field, home of the Asheville Tourists, South Atlantic League (Class 'A') Minor League Baseball
As a lifetime baseball fan, I have watched thousands of hours of Major League Baseball. (Take a look at my earlier post Baseball Fan For Life.) I remember watching Boston Red Sox games in my parents living room on a ten-inch black and white television back in the early 1950’s. As technology has improved over the decades since, I (like most sports fans) have been impressed by how we can watch games on our home TVs and see the action even better than the folks in the ball parks. Also, like other baseball fans, I have become more and more frustrated at baseball’s umpires ball and strike calls being inconsistent. Those calls aren't just inconsistent between umpires, but even a single umpire's changing strike zone during a game. I have felt for the past few years that is was finally time for a technology-based solution.
Now, it seems that may actually happen. From AP Exclusive: Computer plate umps allowed in new labor deal:
NEW YORK (AP) Computer plate umpires could be called up to the major leagues at some point during the next five seasons.
Dec. 21, 2019, By BEN WALKER and RONALD BLUM
Umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract announced Saturday, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if Commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the major league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.
The independent Atlantic League became the first American professional league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game on July 10. Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an earpiece connected to an iPhone in his pocket and relayed the call upon receiving it from a TrackMan computer system that uses Doppler radar.
The Atlantic League experimented with the computer system during the second half of its season, and the Arizona Fall League of top prospects used it for a few dozen games this year at Salt River Fields.
MLB has discussed installing the system at the Class A Florida State League for 2020. If that test goes well, the computer umps could be used at Triple-A in 2021 as bugs are dealt with prior to a big league callup.
Reading the AP article got me excited by the prospect of actually watching the umps get the ball and strike call right (or consistent, at least.) So I did a little research around the web and found this article on The Atlantic League website that describes the test.
TrackMan, or "robot ump," sits up above home plate (at all eight Atlantic League ballparks), and looks like a black box from afar. In reality, the box is a 3-D Doppler radar dish that analyzes each pitch thrown. Using a three-dimensional strike zone, TrackMan is able to calibrate each batters' size and stance, adjusting the strike zone accordingly. So, the system works so that it doesn't allow a 6-foot-7 player to have the same strike zone as a 5-foot-7 player.
Now, here's how and when the umpire gets involved. Once TrackMan identifies a ball's location, it's recorded and then the call is communicated to the umpire via a coiled tube earpiece. The Atlantic League had previously tested the system using Apple AirPods, but they kept encountering issues with low battery life before the game was over. They've since switched to an earpiece, which is connected to an iPhone that's clipped into the umpire's belt buckle. It's no longer wireless but there's no battery issues to worry about. The iPhone is the connecting device to TrackMan's data, and how it gets relayed to the umpire. Next, the umpire will hear a single syllable via a male voice: "ball" or "strike."
The Atlantic League website article goes on to say
1. Pitch gets thrown
2. TrackMan tracks and identifies the pitch's location
3. Phone tells umpire whether it's a ball or strike
4. Umpire physically makes the call behind the plate
Writing out the process step-by-step, and reading it over makes it seem like it could be something that'll slow down the pace of the game, but when I saw the system in use during the Somerset Patriots' game, it was ran seamlessly.
From the pitch getting thrown to TrackMan's identification to the umpire's final call was almost instantaneous with the ball hitting the catcher's glove. If there's an obvious error on the system's call (the wrong call on a bounced ball for example), the umpire is allowed to override and make his own call.
All the while, up in the press box sits a TrackMan tech crew sent by MLB. They man the equipment: A laptop, which shows the strike zone graphic for each batter, adjusting ever so slightly to the specific height and stance. In terms of what the TrackMan software looks like, it's awfully similar to the GameTracker appearance seen when following along with a game online.
Read the rest of the interesting article about the Atlantic League test on their website at AtlanticLeague.com.
It seems that it may take a few more years to actually happen. However, I am excited and really looking forward to it!
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