Umpire Brian deBrauwere signals a strike on the first pitch of Wednesday night’s Atlantic League All-Star Game, the first time in baseball history that an automated strike zone was used to call a game. (Photo by Joe Lemire)
YORK, Pa. — During the second inning of Wednesday night’s Atlantic League All-Star Game, Joe Van Meter’s two-strike fastball to Joey Terdoslavich sunk low into the catcher’s mitt and was caught just barely above the ground. The pitch looked low not only to the hitter but also to the umpire, who nevertheless signaled strike three—but it wasn’t exactly his call.
Terdoslavich did a double take, glancing back at home-plate umpire Brian deBrauwere with a look of disbelief. deBrauwere, however, merely pointed to the AirPod in his right ear, his way of reminding the batter that the call came from TrackMan, the 3-D Doppler radar hanging from the roof of the ballpark. At that, Terdoslavich returned to the dugout, unable to advance his argument against an inanimate object.
In the official debut of an MLB-sanctioned automated strike zone, controversy was avoided with no egregious errors and few challenged calls.
“I didn’t really hear any complaining from anybody. If that [low strike] was the one blunder—because I know it was low, I just know it was—but if that was the one blunder, was it 99.9% [correct] then?” said Terdoslavich, who played parts of three seasons with the Atlanta Braves from 2013-15, before adding: “It ran better than I thought it would.”
“The future is crazy,” Mazzilli says. “It’s cool to see the direction baseball’s going.”
Afterward, deBrauwere acknowledged that he would have called the pitch a ball, but he understood why the automated ball-strike system, or ABS, called it a strike: because “the top of the ball is shaving the bottom of the zone as it’s moving down.”
“It’s uncharted territory,” deBrauwere added. “I just want these guys to know that that’s what the system called.”
MLB has partnered with the Atlantic League this season to use the independent circuit as a laboratory for new rules and experiments. The idea of technology calling balls and strikes has seemed plausible ever since QuesTec was adopted by MLB as an umpire evaluation tool in 2001.
The TrackMan-powered ABS has been tested intermittently in the Atlantic League—mostly in the background but occasionally turned on for a few innings—with Wednesday night’s All-Star Game serving as its first full-game demonstration. The system will roll out to every venue in the league in the coming weeks.
“Tonight was very encouraging,” said MLB SVP Morgan Sword, who is overseeing the project. “The system has been up the entire game and has worked well from our vantage point. Once it’s operational in all eight ballparks, we’re going to have a lot of data to work with to evaluate its effect on the game. But no red flags tonight.”
ABS registered every pitch, although communication issues meant that deBrauwere did not hear the automated call for three pitches in the second inning and an entire half-inning in the middle of the game. Those issues appear to have been caused by a breakdown either in the dedicated WiFi network transmitting the calls or in the bluetooth connecting the receiver and ear bud. deBrauwere said the challenge in those moments was to mimic the radar’s strike zone rather than his own personal interpretation so that calls were consistent.
MLB is using the Atlantic League as a testing ground so that issues can be worked out in a lower-pressure environment. MLB would surely invest in a secure, stable network with built-in redundancies to ensure such communication mishaps wouldn’t happen in a big league game.
Once the system is in good working order, one can imagine the next step being a trial in the affiliated minor leagues, although Sword said there is “no timetable yet. Our task now is to build a system that works, and no decision has been made about what to do with that system once we have it.”
To place the AirPod in one’s own ear is so aesthetically unremarkable and simple—a clear, authoritative voice says either “ball” or “strike”—yet it engenders astonishment.
After exiting the Atlantic League All-Star Game, L.J. Mazzilli and Kirk Nieuwenhuis visited the PeoplesBank Park press box to do a few interviews. Both players have extensive pro ball experience, with Nieuwenhuis logging parts of six seasons in the majors, and Mazzilli reaching as high as Triple A—and wouldn’t seem easily fazed.
But the press box visit afforded them a peak behind the curtain. They had the chance to see the laptop running the software converting each x-y-z coordinate derived by the radar into a ball or strike call. Each also popped an Apple AirPod into one ear to hear a few of the automated calls, at which Mazzilli called out to his teammate—“Newy!”—with a can-you-believe-this smile.
“The future is crazy,” Mazzilli then said. “It’s pretty cool just to see the computer’s out and knowing that the TrackMan is tracking everything. It’s cool to see the direction baseball’s going.”
Mazzilli grew up around the game as his father, Lee, was an All-Star player and then later an Orioles manager. He said he expects ABS to be more of an adjustment at the top and bottom of the strike zone, particularly with looping curveballs. Asked if he had discussed the automated zone with his father, Mazzilli replied with a smile, “Everything I just told you came from him, basically.”
Nieuwenhuis said he appreciated how “definitive” the system is. Upon learning that he struck out in the third inning by swinging at a pitch that ABS had registered as a ball, he said, “That one could have gone either way. It’s good to know. Going forward, if they can give us that data, it’s huge. I think that’s the key to it: transparency.”
Atlantic League president Rick White had predicted in advance of the game that fans might grow “bored” of the spectacle. In fact, if they hadn’t read any of the surrounding news coverage, they might have been totally oblivious.
The night was sufficiently historic that one of the game balls will be added to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s collection in Cooperstown, but the only outward hints of any change were a few higher or lower pitches deemed strikes that are customarily called balls, and a few instances in which the umpire’s signal seemed a beat or two delayed. (There was one other can’t-miss moment before the game: The marketing and communications director of the host York Revolution, Doug Eppler, stood on the dugout in a white-tie, black-tailed tuxedo and jokingly exhorted the crowd to blame TrackMan for calls they disagreed with.)
Catcher James Skelton said that all players’ top priority is having consistency with ABS. He’s known for his ability to receive pitches in a way that makes them appear better to a human umpire than they actually are. This skill, called pitch framing, has been quantified and prioritized by big league teams in recent years but could vanish if the ABS keeps spreading.
Both the players and deBrauwere agreed that the radar called a strike zone that was tighter but taller. The corners of the plate were called with no additional leeway while the MLB rulebook’s high and low boundaries were more pitcher-friendly than what is routinely called. That’s jarring to veteran players such as Mitch Atkins, who has been pitching for 16 professional seasons and has made 10 MLB appearances with the Cubs and Orioles.
“The strike zone that everybody’s known for their whole life is not what the TrackMan calls, so it’s just different visually to see what it’s calling and what it’s not,” he said.
Added Sword, “I think we’ve already seen some players recognize the difference between the rulebook strike zone and the strike zone that’s traditionally called, which we’ll have to work through.”
MLB reports that big league umpires are correct on 97% of ball/strike calls. When umpires are graded, they are afforded a small margin of error around the boundaries of the strike zone. TrackMan is said to be accurate within a half-inch. The Atlantic League players had a lot of questions about whether an umpire could overrule or veto ABS calls he perceived to be clearly wrong, but most wanted an all-or-nothing commitment.
“To me, if you’re going to have TrackMan, it’s got to be every pitch,” Terdoslavich said, speculating that vetoes could turn into a murky quid-pro-quo situation. “That would bring the human element back into the game.”
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