01 October 2002
Technology numbers baseball umpires' days?
Deer Park, N.Y. - They're outta here! The umps are, that is.
This Baltimore Orioles fan couldn't be happier. Since 1996, when Jeffery Maier reached over the right field wall at Yankee Stadium and snatched a fly ball from Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco, turning the tide and causing the Orioles to lose the American League championship to the hated Yankees, it has been clear.
On that night in New York, there were six people on this planet who didn't see that Yankee fan's interference with a ball in play. Those exact same six people all happened to be the umpires working that O's/Yanks playoff game, and they concurred that it was a home run. Science now says, "Not so fast, Mr. Umpire."
The U.S. military developed a technology some time ago to track ballistic missiles and perform aerial mapping. QuesTec, Inc. modified and enhanced the technology such that it calls balls and strikes with remarkable accuracy. It is the Umpire Information System.
In fact, the system is so accurate that Major League Baseball (MLB) has signed a five-year contract with QuesTec to provide its latest version of the pitch measurement technology in support of MLB's previously announced strike zone initiatives.
BEHIND THE SCENES
According to the company's Web site, the system works like this. A 360° photo of the field scans into a computer and creates a three-dimensional playing field background. Two cameras sit low and close to the field, just off the first and third base lines. They determine the batter's strike zone.
Two other remote-controlled cameras, mounted in the stands off the baselines and above the field, track each pitch from the time it leaves the pitcher's hand until it crosses the plate. Along the way, the system measures multiple track points to precisely locate the ball in space and time.
An on-site computer processes this information to measure the speed, placement, and curvature of the pitch along its entire path. The entire procedure is fully automatic, including detection of the start of the pitch, tracking of the ball, location computations, and identification of nonbaseball objects such as birds or windswept debris moving through the field of view.
A graphical rendering of the pitch and where it placed in the strike zone appears in less than a second. The computer operator notes the umpire's actual call and compiles all the information on a CD-ROM for the umpire's consumption and education.
At the end of this season, the umps will all receive feedback on their performances. While MLB said the technology is to help umpires get better at their jobs, umpires are scared. The umpires union has hired experts to look into and hopefully debunk the system.
Robert Adair, a Yale physics professor emeritus who wrote the classic study The Physics of Baseball, said in a Wired interview, "If they get this system working differently than it is, and every pitch is called by the system and called accurately, how are you going to resist the pressure to have the system call the balls and strikes? I don't think you're going to be able to do it. There's a certain inevitability in it."
With this new technology on the horizon, the only question remaining is who will the manager argue with and kick dirt on when he doesn't agree with the call?
- Nicholas Sheble
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