'Robot' Umpires Now Calling Balls And Strikes In One Professional Baseball League
The tradition-rich game of baseball got a significant overhaul this week as a professional league made history by introducing "robot" umpires to the diamond.
The Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, an eight-team league with clubs on the East Coast and a singular Texas squad, introduced the concept during it's All-Star game on Wednesday.
Though the technology is being touted as a robot umpire, the concept doesn't involve a robot at all, the York Daily Record reports. The system involves TrackMan software, which uses a radar system to determine balls and strikes. For the call to get down to field level, the umpire behind the plate carries an iPhone connected to its own wireless network and wears a wireless earpiece so he can hear what TrackMan calls each pitch.
According to the Record, TrackMan measures each batter's height and develops a strike zone based on that information. Pitches are also tracked with a Doppler radar screen that is mounted above home plate.
Pitch Mitch Atkins, who plays for the York Revolution - the squad which hosted the All-Star Game - was the first to face the new technology.
"Some of the pitches they call strikes (now) don't look like strikes. It looks like a ball and TrackMan calls it a strike. It's just different. Every pitch I've thrown (high in the strike zone) has been a ball my whole career, since I was 6 years old until now. It's different to see them called a strike," Atkins told the Record.
"I like the human umpire, but I've been playing a long time. I'm old school."
The Atlantic League plans to use the system in the back half of its 140-game season, an implementation that is part of an agreement with Major League Baseball, The Washington Post said.
The experiment is a three-year deal that includes TrackMan, increase the size of bases from the tradition 15-by-15 to 18-by-18, banning mound visits and a three-batter minimum for pitchers entering a game, among other rule changes. In a trade for the rule changes, the MLB agreed to scout more players from the Atlantic League and provide better scouting equipment, the Post said.
"I have seen this coming. It's inevitable. The game is changing. Baseball needs to speed up to keep up with the world. And if you want to be on board with this, you have to keep up. The game is bigger than you, bigger than any player," Atlantic League umpire Derek Moccia told the Post.
The goal of using the TrackMan software is ideally to eliminate arguments about balls and strikes. However, the Record said Brian deBrauwere, the umpire behind the plate during Tuesday's All-Star Game, had to revert to calling pitches when the software malfunctioned for a half-inning.
Umpires will remain responsible for making other calls on the field, including foul tips, check swings and plays at the plate.
"We want to get it right. So if this helps the game and the officiating of the game, that's what we're here for," deBrauwere told the Record. "Yeah, it takes something out of the umpire's hands, but it places additional focus on other things we're responsible for. Every other decision we have to make will now be magnified. Every check swing, every fair-foul, every safe or out will be even more important now."
When the agreement between the two leagues ends, it is possible that the MLB could institute some or all of the changes across league teams. However, it is unknown what the parameters for making those decisions would be.
DeBrauwere and others told the Record that TrackMan tends to create a strike zone higher than what umpires would call and that players are used to, while also regularly eliminating the outside corners and calling those pitches balls.
"If you ask a baseball purist, they'll hate it," deBrauwere told the newspaper. "They love the manager coming out of the dugout and yelling at the home plate umpire. They love the hitter telling the umpire he's wrong after he strikes out. This system will completely change all that."