Since the very first pitch was tossed at some point during the 19th century, baseball players, managers and their fans have had a problem with the way umpires call balls and strikes.
Let’s face it. Has there been anything about the game quite as incendiary as a missed ball-strike call? It has caused some of the most hilarious arguments in the game’s history; lots of pointed fingers, bad words, dirt-kicking. It contributed making Leo Durocher, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver legends.
Well, Major League Baseball in the 21st century has already changed some of the rules, making the act of arguing ball-strike calls reason for immediate ejection. Now its toying with the idea of eliminating human error from the process by letting computers make the calls in the same way they gauge pitch speed and the height, acceleration and distance of home runs.
Think of it as MLB’s self-checkout line. No need for human interaction, no chance for cashiers to screw things up. No fuss, no muss.
Of course, for this plan to progress, MLB is going to need to test it to see how effectively it might work. And these days, MLB has chosen the independent Atlantic League as its crash-test dummy and lab rat.
On Wednesday in York, Pa., MLB rolled out the technology for the first time at the league’s All-Star Game.
Here’s how it worked: Plate umpire Brian deBrauwere had an iPhone in his pocket connected to an ear piece. When the computer made the call, the result was immediately relayed to him from a TrackMan computer system using Doppler radar. From his usual crouching position, he then signaled ball or strike.
“Until we can trust this system 100 percent, I still have to go back there with the intention of getting a pitch correct, because if the system fails, it doesn’t pick a pitch up, or if it registers a pitch that’s a foot-and-a-half off the plate as a strike, I have to be prepared to correct that,” deBrauwere told The Associated Press before the game.
As the game was going on, the players said they could tell something different was going on.
“One time I already had caught the ball back from the catcher, and he signaled strike,” said pitcher Daryl Thompson.
This will make you scratch your head: Apparently Thompson wasn’t informed about the intrusion of technology until he began barking at the umpire.
Players like Infielder L.J. Mazzilli, the son of former Major League outfielder Lee Mazzilli, told the AP that there were occasions when the hitters had to hang around in the batter’s box for a second or two while deBrauwere was being debriefed.
TrackMan does not make calls on checked swings. And thankfully umpires are allowed to override the computer when it makes an obvious error, like calling a strike on a pitch that bounces into the strike zone from the ground. But if it’s a normal pitch, the computer is the rule of law.
Kirk Nieuwenhuis, who played in the Majors with Mets, Angels and Brewers, thinks there’s no reason to let umpires second guess the computer.
“If the umpire still has discretion, it defeats the purpose,” said Nieuwenhuis.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said there’s no way to tell when or if this technology will be used in the majors.
“We need to see how it works, first in the Atlantic League and then probably other places, meaning other parts of minor league baseball, before it comes to Major League Baseball,” Manfred said. “Kind of gets back to the question that I was asked earlier about the baseball. We hear all the time from players: Why don’t we have an electronic strike zone?
“We try to be responsive to those sorts of expressions of concern. We have spent a lot of time and money on the technology. It’s not just to address player concerns. It obviously has broadcasting uses. That same technology can be used in our broadcast, which has value to our fans. … People that play the game raised this as something that could make the game better. We kind of feel it’s incumbent on us to figure out whether we could make it work. And that’s what we’re doing.”
MLB originally intended to begin testing TrackMan at the start of the season, but there were some issues it first needed to resolve. Atlantic League President Rick White said it soon will be implemented league-wide.
“After that, we’re relatively confident that it’s going to spread through organized baseball,” White said. “We’re very excited about what this portends not only for our league but for the future of baseball. What we know is technology can help umpires be more accurate, and we’re committed to that. We think the Atlantic League is being a pioneer for all of the sport.”
An MLB executive reiterated that totally eliminating the umpire is not its intention. And so far, the umpires seem pretty cool with it all.
“This is just another plate job, and I just get a little help on this one, so I feel very relaxed going into this one,” deBrauwer said.