Sun, Jul 14, 2019 - Page 11 News List

‘Robot umpires’ debut in baseball

AP, YORK, Pennsylvania

Home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere, left, wears an earpiece to receive calls as catcher James Skelton of the York Revolution waits for the pitch at the Atlantic League All-Star Game on Wednesday, in York, Pennsylvania.

Photo: AP

“Robot umpires” have arrived.

The independent Atlantic League on Wednesday became the first US professional baseball league to let a computer call balls and strikes at its All-Star Game.

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.

He crouched in his normal position behind the catcher and signaled balls and strikes.

“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 said before the game.

It did not appear that deBrauwere had any delay receiving the calls at first, but players noticed a big difference.

“One time I already had caught the ball back from the catcher and he signaled strike,” said pitcher Daryl Thompson, who did not realize the technology was being used until after he disagreed with a call.

Infielder L.J. Mazzilli said a few times hitters who struck out lingered an extra second or so waiting on a called third strike.

“The future is crazy, but it’s cool to see the direction of baseball,” Mazzilli said.

The umpires have the ability to override the computer, which considers a pitch a strike when the ball bounces and then crosses the zone. TrackMan also does not evaluate checked swings.

Former big leaguer Kirk Nieuwenhuis does not like the idea of giving umps veto power.

“If the umpire still has discretion, it defeats the purpose,” Nieuwenhuis said.

About 45 minutes before first pitch, the public address announcer directed fans to look up at the black screen hanging off the face of the upper level behind the plate and joked they could blame the computer for any disagreements over calls.

“This is an exciting night for MLB, the Atlantic League, baseball generally,” MLB senior vice president of economics and operations Morgan Sword said. “This idea has been around for a long time and it’s the first time it’s been brought to life in a comprehensive way.”

The experiment was originally expected to begin at the start of the season, but experienced some delays.

Atlantic League president Rick White said it is going to be implemented league-wide over the next few weeks.

“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.”

Sword said the MLB has not received much pushback from umpires.

“One of our focuses is not to replace the umpire,” Sword said. “In fact, we’re trying to empower the umpire with technology. The home plate umpire has a lot more to do than call balls and strikes, and he’s going to be asked to do all of that.”

Strike zones are determined according to the average for players of that height unless there is already information on a player’s particular strike zone if they have played in the majors at some point.

Pitcher Mitch Atkins noticed pitches higher in the strike zone were called.

“Technically, they’re strikes, but umpires never called them,” Atkins said.

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said there is no timeline on when the technology would be used in the majors.

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