Go to any baseball game (or sporting event really) and you will hear someone gripe about the officiating. It’s inevitable. For some it is sour grapes since their team is losing or they feel that an official is favoring one side over another. In rare instances there are horrendous calls that boggle the mind how an official could miss (click here for a YouTube video compilation of the worst calls in baseball to prime you including calls in the World Series to one that costs a pitcher a perfect game). In all, no official in sports is subjected to this more than the umpire behind home plate but that could be changing thanks to a system called TrackMan.

Home Plate Ump, A Thankless Job

The home plate umpire makes more calls during a sporting event than any other official. They call every ball and every strike and that is before they even call a player out or safe. The problem for many fans is that each umpire has their own strike zone, that is if a pitch is called a ball or strike. According to Major League Baseball the strike zone is “the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and the top of the uniform pants — when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball — and a point just below the kneecap. In order to get a strike call, part of the ball must cross over part of home plate while in the aforementioned area.”

But it is not always called that way. The baseball analytics website Fangraphs runs a series analyzing the worst called pitches of a season. Here is the worst called strikes from 2017, and from the first half of 2018 and the second half. Here is the worst called balls of 2018. And these are from the best of the best, the most seasoned and trained umpires in the baseball world. It can only be worse in the minor leagues and in Independent baseball.

If a Boston University study says that Major League umpires missed over 34,000 calls is anywhere close to correct, there is room for improvement, even at the Major League level much less Independent levels where umpires may work a day job as well.

Robot Umpires?

The TrackMan System

One solution to the problem was perhaps a joke a decade ago and that is to have robot umpires and of course that is not unique to just baseball. Well, that joke is now closer to reality as the Independent Atlantic League has installed a system that takes the duties of calling balls and strikes away from the umpire and places it into the hands of AI. Technology is changing sports in a big way.

The system is called TrackMan. It was originally designed for golf to analyze golf swings but like any other technology it can be adapted for other uses and baseball found a use. Major League organizations here in the US and many foreign baseball organizations are installing them to analyze anything and everything to gain a leg up. Now it will be calling balls and strikes, or at least trying to.

Being Trialed In The Atlantic League

Before the start of the 2019 season the Atlantic League and Major League baseball entered into an agreement for the Atlantic League to essentially become a laboratory to try certain ideas. The Atlantic League had pioneered the use of the pitch clock and a reduction in mound visits in an attempt to speed up games in the 2014 season and the pitch clock was adopted for the following season by the affiliated minor leagues with limited mound visits coming in 2018. Other experiments for the 2019 season include wider bases, the elimination of mound visits (except to remove a pitcher and in the event of injury) and an increase in distance from the mound to home plate (which has been delayed) among others

After months of trial and effort the system is ready to be unveiled and Atlantic League President Rick White feels that system is ready for prime time. It had better be, the sports world will be watching as this has become a national story. Trackman uses Doppler Radar to track the pitch and sends its determination to a laptop. The result will then be relayed to the umpire via a cellphone on their person and through wireless earbuds. Each player has a customized strike zone that was pre-scanned if they had played in affiliated baseball or in the majors in the past five years based on their height and weight.

Trackman also is capable of tracking other things like the speed of the pitch, rotation and other things, which will help teams with a mountain of data, something already available to Major League organizations but out of the reach of Independent organizations.

So, would this work? Since the system was being trailed at the 2019 Atlantic League All Star Game held in Nicely Done Sites’ backyard at PeoplesBank Park in Downtown York and home of the York Revolution, we went down to find out. (OK, this writer was going anyway but now I have a reason to really pay attention). 

Balls And Strikes

TrackMan in PeoplesBank Park

Before you find out we will crunch a few numbers. Looking at the games played over the weekend (nine 9 inning games and two 7 inning games from July 5 through July 7) there were 2,786 pitches thrown and 1,757 of them were for strikes or roughly 63%. That would be the only measurable relevant stat as this will be TrackMan’s task. Only one position player was called on to pitch, Lancaster’s Caleb Gindl, and he threw only 20 pitches with 10 for strikes so he does not skew the numbers much. 

Why this sample date range? Well, for one Nicely Done Sites Grand Poobah David Brooks isn’t paying me to conduct a full blown study. The other is that 5 of the 8 teams entered the final weekend of the first half in contention for a first half title and the automatic playoff berths that come with that so they had something to play for. Three days worth of games also allows for enough data to incorporate a poor home plate umpire’s performance or a poor pitcher’s performance and still get a reasonably accurate look at what would be normal.

Disclaimer First

Now obviously some of these strikes were the result of a foul ball or a ball being put in play which requires no judgement call on the umpire’s part. Also the All Star Game is an exhibition game with nothing riding on its results. It also features the best of the best, both hitters and pitchers so this should not be an apples to apples comparison, maybe an apples to pears comparison. But for something experimental a game with nothing riding on it yet one that the players take seriously is the perfect place to trial TrackMan.

The Game

Mitch Atkins of the York Revolution makes the first pitch to Justin Pacchioli of the Somerset Patriots, a called strike

The home plate umpire was still present. Obviously an umpire will still be needed for a play at the plate as well as other calls.  The removal of the home plate ump will not be happening yet so Brian deBrauwere was still needed. The big kink early in the process was that it took too long for TrackMan to call and a ball or a strike and transmit that to the umpire who would physically make the call. In a league where there is a 12 second pitch clock that is a big deal (that’s 12 second from when the pitcher receives the ball until they come set before delivering the next pitch). That has been apparently been resolved.

Also with early trials TrackMan had a hard time with balls in the dirt that bounced up. These pitches should be called a ball but were identified as strikes so the home plate umpire has been given the ability to overrule TrackMan should the need arise. The home plate umpire is also still needed to make calls on checked swings as TrackMan does not yet have the capability to make those decisions. There were a handful of balls in the dirt during the game and it is unknown whether they were called balls or deBrauwere simply overruled the system. There was also only a handful of checked swings and only one player rung up on one (and that by the first base ump).

The Numbers

So how did TrackMan do as far as calling balls and strikes? 238 pitches were thrown and 171 were called for strikes, a 71.8% clip, almost 8% more than was called during the final regular season weekend. It was played in a crisp 2 hours and 36 minutes. In comparison last year’s All Star Game was played in the exact same time but in that game home plate umpire Matt Kane saw 259 pitches and called 160 strikes for a 61.7% rate. 

The big difference came from the high strike being called as well as the shrinking of the strike zone horizontally and that would probably count for the 8-10% disparity. Freedom Division starting pitcher Mitch Atkins of the York Revolution remarked that “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.” It will take some getting used to.

The system also malfunctioned for half an inning forcing deBrauwere to call the strike zone as TrackMan would call it and not how he would call it. 

The Eye Test

I go to a lot of baseball games. I went to 155 last year and this game is number 92 for this season. I’ve seen it all from home plate umpires, ones with strike zones so big you can float an aircraft carrier through and others with strike zones so small that, well, you sit in the stands for 4 hours waiting for the game to finish with both teams mad at them. There are also the umpires with the dreaded moving strike zone, where a pitch for one batter that is called a strike is not called a strike on another. TrackMan is supposed to make the zone more consistent. By doing that the pace and speed of the game will increase making for a more enjoyable product on the field.

I sat slightly off from home plate but not too far away. Section 18 to be exact. You get a fairly good view of the strike zone both vertically and horizontally but its not perfect. From where I sat the only call TrackMan made that made me scratch my head was a called strike three in the 2nd inning to Lancaster’s Joey Terdoslavich that appeared to be low and outside. He turned to deBrauwere who simply motioned to the earpiece and that was that. Other than that there was nothing that looked out of the ordinary but deBrauwere was noticeably slightly slow on occasion in making the call, but not so slow that it would drag the game.

Will TrackMan Get The Call To The Bigs?

While some fans may clamor for their least favorite umpire to be replaced by a robot that is not going to happen, not yet anyway. But technology may be taking away some of their duties. Baseball purists will complain about the strike zone being a judgement and each umpire having their own, which makes the game unique. It’s been that way since baseball was first played in 1845 but there is an issue with the amount of time it takes to play a game and one idea proposed is an electronic strike zone like TrackMan. The strike zone is defined in the rule book for a reason. With AI now calling balls and strikes there will be fewer disagreements, fewer batters (and pitchers) complaining and fewer managers getting into heated Earl Weaver-esque exchanges (though it will not eliminate other colorful ones like Lloyd McClendon from 2001). If done right this can work.

Will TrackMan be coming to a Big League ballpark near you sometime or even a Minor League park? Probably not until 2021 at the earliest, at least to call balls and strikes since many parks (but not all) already have them installed. Unless TrackMan proves to be a major success in the Atlantic League for the rest of the 2019 season it will need a full season to be tested and as many of the issues worked out as possible. It will then be trialed in the minors for a season or two and it will probably need approval from the Major League Umpires Union, so it might be a few years still. Keep in mind that the Umpires Union resisted instant replay when it was instituted and now embrace it.

The people that might like this the most though may be the umpires. Now people will vent their anger at a computer, which does not have any feelings!

–The author is in not employed in any way by TrackMan, the York Revolution, the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball, Major League Baseball or their subsidiaries.

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