Automated balls and strikes not just a gimmick 

By:  Bruce Jenkins  

I made sure to pack a number of things on my visit to baseball history Tuesday, including sunscreen, plenty of bottled water and an open mind. All of it came in handy. The scene at San Rafael’s Albert Park was going to be steamy, radical and futuristic, and when it was over — after every ball and strike had been called by a computer — it didn’t seem so terribly disturbing. 

As the San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals went about their business in a Pacific Association independent league game, a few hundred fans and media witnessed the first computerized umpiring in professional baseball history. Credit Eric Byrnes, serving as both driving force and entertainer, for making it a delightful evening. But there was much to be learned. Get past the novelty and good-natured laughter, and a serious issue was at hand. 

Could this actually work in the major leagues? 

It sounds almost frightening from a traditional viewpoint, and Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred cast a skeptical vote to the Associated Press this week, saying, “I think we are a ways away from using technology to call balls and strikes, I really do. It’s because of technology limitations. It’s because, quite frankly, the strike zone is different for every single guy.” 

There would be rampant skepticism among old-school baseball types, as well as contemporary players who wouldn’t appreciate such dramatic change. What more precisely defines the grand old game more than a hearty “strike three!” from the home-plate umpire and a barrage of opinions from players and fans? You’re seriously going to remove that? 

It was all fun and intrigue in the balmy climate of Marin County, with delightful touches of the minor leagues: heavily forested vegetation beyond the right-field fence, local advertising (“Pete’s 881 Club”) on the outfield fences, and those ever-so-local announcements to the crowd. (“Hi, I’m Amy G. Go, Pacifics! And when you need suspended acoustic ceilings…”) 

In such an idyllic setting, nothing can go terribly wrong. But this was hardly an experimental venture in terms of the technology. The Pitch F/X system, produced by Sportvision in Fremont, is the same used for graphics on major-league telecasts, as well as major-league umpires doing their own evaluations. “You could install it in the big leagues right now and be 100 percent ready,” Byrnes said. 

Byrnes seems the perfect choice to launch this project. As a former big-leaguer, he brings instant credibility. For every walk and strikeout called over two games (it will be in place again Wednesday night), he donates $100 to the Pat Tillman Foundation. And he’s the one delivering the ball-and-strike news to the crowd, with great enthusiasm and humor. 

(In an authentic big-league setting, to state the obvious, there would be silent communication from the designated computer location to the plate umpire and scoreboard operators. It’s likely that large monitors would be installed so fans could witness the pitch tracking for themselves.) 

Yes, the home-plate umpire still exists; he’s just free of the ball-and-strike responsibility. Three cameras — one in center field, two at the backstop corners behind home plate — triangulate the input to produce a result that Byrnes says is startlingly accurate. “Right now, our margin of error is within an inch,” he said. “If you asked around about the margin of error for a normal umpire, they’d say ‘up to a foot.’ So which do you feel better using? 

“You always want to see the human element,” he said, “but I’ve always said the human element is the players. I’ve never walked away from a game thinking, ‘Hey, great — the umpire took it into his own hands.’ I’m not trying to get rid of him. All I want is for the strike zone to be consistent.” 

As it stands now, pitchers and managers need to consult their scouting reports on every home-plate umpire. If the Giants got that low strike Tuesday night, it could be an entirely different story Wednesday. “Not only that, there are betting lines directly affected by umpires,” said Byrnes. “There are guys in Las Vegas who actually bet on games based on who’s working the plate. Is that what we want?” 

Byrnes said it would be reasonable to expect “initial resentment” from pitchers who “appreciate getting a call if it’s six inches off the plate. Then again, what everybody wants most is consistency. Now they’re gonna be getting calls up here (chest) anddown here (knees), because that’s the entire strike zone. 

“As for the hitters, I’d be shocked if they wouldn’t want this. What does the game need right now? More offensive production. It’s gonna force pitchers to throw the ball over the plate, and it’s gonna force hitters to swing at strikes that, for whatever reason, were rarely called over the years.” 

You’d have to think Manfred is right about the timing. It will take years, and extensive experimentation throughout the minor leagues, before the major leagues even consider such a thing. This initial venture was no joke, though. It wasn’t at all alarming, it provoked serious conversation, and it was not to be taken lightly.  

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