YORK, PA – For more than a century, umpires have been traditionally known for commanding the game of baseball behind the plate by calling balls and strikes to the best of their judgement. That may change for good in the not so distant future as the independent Atlantic League officially introduced an automated ball-strike system (ABS) at its All Star Game on Wednesday evening at PeoplesBank Park and will be adopted for the second half of the season.
The ABS leverages modern technology through a wireless earpiece that is synced to an iPhone and TrackMan computer system that utilizes a Doppler radar in a three-dimensional manner around home plate. The implementation of the system took months of planning in collaboration the Major League Baseball executives dating back to discussions in early February, according to Atlantic League president Rick White.
After nine innings of play and much anticipation, the result of the introduction drew mixed reactions from players and optimism for the future of baseball. The game itself went on without a hitch with the exception of an extra second delay on the call for a ball or strike.
As for the home plate umpire calling the inaugural game, Brian deBrauwere had similar sentiments. However, he recalled some instances where he saw a pitch that he would have called differently than the system did.
“There was a 3-2 pitch in the second inning that I probably would have called a strike, but the system actually had it as a ball,” recalling the walk Somerset Patriots infielder Will Kengor drew on Daryl Thompson. “I thought it was a strike, (catcher James) Skelton thought it was a strike and I was about to make the call until the (TrackMan) called it a ball. I have no reason to believe the system missed that, I just think it was a little down for a very tall hitter.”
The next at-bat, fellow teammate Mike Ohlman hit a one-out, two-run home run to give the Liberty Division an early 2-0 lead.
“This type of stuff doesn’t bother me,” Thompson, 33, explained to reporters after the game. “I never let the umpire dictate how the game is going to go for me.”
“There could be times that the Trackman calls a pitch a strike, but the umpire overturns it just because he could and vice versa,” added Thompson. “You can’t go out there wondering whether you’re going to trust the umpire or not (to make the right call), you just have to pitch to contact and not worry about it.”
However, he expressed optimism for the technology placing value on the ‘consistent strike zone,’ but acknowledged that automated ball-strike system would likely benefit hitters more than pitchers.
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Former New York Mets outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, now playing for the Long Island Ducks, agreed with Thompson, but also expressed skepticism in the technology. Although he feels this will eliminate some of the blatant missed calls, especially on the minor league level.
“Any time you have change it’s going to take a while, but I think the concept is good,” Nieuwenhuis explained to reporters inside the press box during the game while he was tuned in to the TrackMan. “I’ve heard positive and negative anticipation from both pitchers and hitters.”
“As a hitter I think I would like it because it’s definitive, especially on inside and outside pitches,” he added. “It’s way too early to tell, it’s going to take a long time and we need a much larger sample size to see if this is going to work.”
Nieuwenhuis’ biggest concern was that the umpires had the discretion to overturn the TrackMan.
“I’m going to say that that cannot happen – you have to be all in or all out with this,” Nieuwenhuis emphatically stated. “It defeats the purpose if the umpire still has full discretion on each pitch.”
As was anticipated, home plate umpire deBrauwere recalled that the strike zone was tighter around the corners and there were a higher percentage of strikes called higher or lower in the zone. He admitted that the implementation of this ABS system takes away from a catcher’s skill to frame pitchers and influence more called strikes.
“You have to call strikes that are credible to the rest of the field,” deBrauwere explained. “Whatever the catcher does to it, it doesn’t matter. There were pitches that the system called a ball that I thought for a second may have been a strike because Skelton is so good at his job.”
Throughout the game, there were only three pitches that didn’t register with the system aside from the half-inning in the middle of the game when it was down and no readings were coming in. At which point, deBrauwere called balls and strikes as he normally would and credited this to coming in with a mentality to calling ‘every pitch of the game as if it’s going to missed by the system.’
Pressed on his opinion of the integration of technology in the game of baseball, he weighed the pros and cons from a player and fan standpoint.
“It’s an interesting question because it’s kind of entertainment versus competition,” he suggested. “From a competition sense, it might be better. But from an entertainment sense, I think it might take a little away from what we’ve come to know baseball.”
Atlantic League President Rick White claimed that the groundbreaking game introducing this technology was six months in the making dating back to talks in February with MLB executives about implementing the TrackMan technology in the league’s eight ballparks. Earlier this year, MLB reached a three-year agreement with the Atlantic League in which experimental playing rules and equipment initiatives would be tested such as the automated ball-strike system.
“In our conversations with MLB today, there were no promises made,” White suggested. “They said that they could envision using (ABS) within the next few years in the league. While there are no guarantees, but I do think that this is the first pioneering step in what is ultimately going to be automated balls and strikes.”
The renewed commitment to establishing itself as a pioneer in professional baseball with the blessing of MLB means that more eyes in baseball circles will be on the Atlantic League, which has been around for more than two decades now.
“Before the fifth inning was completed tonight, we saw articles online with the Washington Post, ESPN, and a number of other well-known national outlets,” explained White. “That would never happen during our All Star Game and it’s illustrative of the fact that we think our national brand profile is rising and for us that is a good thing.”
“It brings more attention to our league and our fans, but it’s especially important because it boosts the profile of our players.”
In addition to the implementation of the ABS system, the Atlantic League has introduced four more rules, which will be adopted for the second half of the season:
While there is often much talk on suggestions to transform ‘America’s pastime,’ the rule changes in MLB have been few and modest with the exception of the adoption of replay assistance. The MLB’s latest partnership with the Atlantic League will allow it to experiment creative ideas to improve the game with little downside. Expect that much of the next generation of rule changes and initiatives in MLB to come from the Atlantic League.