Robot umpires: How it works and its effect on players and managers in the Atlantic League, plus what's to come
BRIDGEWATER, New Jersey -- When Major League Baseball first announced its experiment with the electronic strike zone in the Atlantic League, an eight-team independent professional baseball league, the news was met with skepticism. But the implementation of the automated ball-strike system was also accompanied with a bit of intrigue.
I decided to check out the radar-based ball-tracking system, TrackMan, in action now that's it's been up and running for a few months to gain insight about the technology and paint a clearer picture of what this would be like if it were used at higher levels of professional baseball.
The Atlantic League is pretty removed from MLB, but the fact that the league is using its partnership with the Atlantic League to test this out means it's something that the league seriously considering for the future. We've already had players (Cubs' Ben Zobrist in 2017) and managers (Marlins' Don Mattingly in 2019) not only openly talk about the system, but even go as far to say that they can't wait for it to reach the majors.
At the end of July, it was announced that robot umpires would continue to be used in the Atlantic League for the remainder of the 2019 season. So with a little less than a month left in the Atlantic League's regular season, I watched the electronic strike zone get put to use once again during a game between the Somerset Patriots and Southern Maryland Blue Crabs at TD Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Here's how it worked.
TrackMan, or "robot ump," sits up above home plate (at all eight Atlantic League ballparks), and looks like a black box from afar. In reality, the box is a 3-D Doppler radar dish that analyzes each pitch thrown. Using a three-dimensional strike zone, TrackMan is able to calibrate each batters' size and stance, adjusting the strike zone accordingly. So, the system works so that it doesn't allow a 6-foot-7 player to have the same strike zone as a 5-foot-7 player.
Now, here's how and when the umpire gets involved. Once TrackMan identifies a ball's location, it's recorded and then the call is communicated to the umpire via a coiled tube earpiece. The Atlantic League had previously tested the system using Apple AirPods, but they kept encountering issues with low battery life before the game was over. They've since switched to an earpiece, which is connected to an iPhone that's clipped into the umpire's belt buckle. It's no longer wireless but there's no battery issues to worry about. The iPhone is the connecting device to TrackMan's data, and how it gets relayed to the umpire. Next, the umpire will hear a single syllable via a male voice: "ball" or "strike."
So, to recap:
Writing out the process step-by-step, and reading it over makes it seem like it could be something that'll slow down the pace of the game, but when I saw the system in use during the Somerset Patriots' game, it ran seamlessly.
From the pitch getting thrown to TrackMan's identification to the umpire's final call was almost instantaneous with the ball hitting the catcher's glove. If there's an obvious error on the system's call (the wrong call on a bounced ball for example), the umpire is allowed to override and make his own call.
All the while, up in the press box sits a TrackMan tech crew sent by MLB. They man the equipment: A laptop, which shows the strike zone graphic for each batter, adjusting ever so slightly to the specific height and stance. In terms of what the TrackMan software looks like, it's awfully similar to the GameTracker appearance seen when following along with a game online.
That's not to say the system hasn't experienced glitches, or guarantees that it won't during the continuation of its experimental phase. There's still a lot of work that needs to be done as far as the consistency for the strike zone across the different Atlantic League ballparks as well as making sure the connection between the TrackMan software and the umpire's iPhone and earpiece stays strong for the entire game.
TrackMan obviously affects everyone involved on a baseball team, but how has it been for the umpires? Many of which have had to essentially tweak their entire career and approach to calling balls and strikes. After initially being taken aback by the news of an electronic strike zone, Atlantic League umpire Freddie DeJesus now recognizes its game-changing potential.
"As I've had the opportunity to do it now, it's great," DeJesus said. "It's a great opportunity and it's good for the game. I can see it down the line getting to the next level. It's just an opportunity for bigger things to happen within baseball."
DeJesus was the home-plate umpire for the first regular season Atlantic League game to utilize TrackMan to call balls and strikes. His earpiece was requested by the National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum, and now resides in Cooperstown.
"ALPB's introduction of ball-strike technology to high level professional baseball is historically significant. Even more fascinating is the prospect that ABS technology may reach the big leagues as a result of the Atlantic League's partnership with Major League Baseball," Tom Shieber, senior curator of the Hall of Fame, said.
There are plenty of players in the Atlantic League trying to reach higher levels of baseball. With these experimental rule changes (which also allow players to "steal" first base), it could be easy to get discouraged, or frustrated by the results, even. These player are feeling the pressure to perform at the best of their ability, like in any minor-league system, and log the numbers of plays that could potentially be grab the attention of their scouts and big-league execs. Somerset Patriots manager Brett Jodie understands the impact that some of these rules could have on the game, and that he could potentially say that he was a part of some history-making rule change at the highest level of the game.
But at the same time, he's conflicted because he's empathetic for his players and understands the struggle that the MLB partnership brings with it for them.
"They're testing all of us and all in the while, our guys' goals are to get to Japan, get to Korea, get to Mexico, get back to the minor leagues and the big leagues," Jodie said. So it is very difficult because everything counts here.
"All the numbers count, every at-bat counts, every pitch thrown counts, every run given up counts. We we do want to help, we want to test, we want to be on the stepping stone of maybe some kind of greatness that could be implemented. But it's still a very difficult thing to deal with."
Somerset Patriots starting shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez has managed to keep a steady optimistic mindset through the unsteady season of rule changes.
"Honestly, when I first heard in the offseason of the partnership with the MLB, I was like, 'This is great,'" Rodriguez said. "It's more exposure for our league and more data that can only help guys that might be overlooked. So I looked at it as a great opportunity to show what you can do. As long as it's helping the game out while also helping us out, I'm all for it."
Two-time World Series champion and 1977 Cy Young winner Sparky Lyle managed the Somerset Patriots for more than a decade (1998-2012). Lyle has been at every game since the TrackMan system was set up at TD Bank Ballpark, and he's impressed with what he's seen.
"I didn't know how it was actually going to figure it out, but it's actually been pretty good," Lyle said. "I think that if they could perfect it it has the chance to get to [MLB]."
Lyle even went so far to credit the umpires for adjusting to the change.
"I give so much credit to the umpires for going along with it," Lyle said. "Every umpire has their own way of calling the game, but they've been real good about [TrackMan]."
Those who are anti-electronic strike zone argue that, by using a machine, it's removing a human element from the game. They'll be less manager-umpire or player-umpire banter since the umpire won't technically be responsible for the strike zone. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts acknowledged that the human element is a clear part of the game of baseball, but "the part of getting it right outweighs it a little bit," he said on "The Rich Eisen Show."
We've seen our fair share of manager tirades against umpires this season (Aaron Boone's memorable 'savages' rant comes to mind). But former Atlantic League umpire Ray Faustich believes that there will always be an emotional aspect to the game, citing that because a pitcher's outing is far shorter in today's game than in past, they're even more emotionally invested in the outcome.
"There's a human element in all sports, both as participants and as officials," Faustich said. "Football, basketball, soccer, they all have the same issue(s) baseball is dealing with. I think today, [players] are more emotionally involved. [Most pitchers today] are only going to be out there for maybe six innings."
With shorter appearances on the mound, every pitch counts, along with the fact that pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, there's a heightened sense of not wanting the umpire to mess up, Faustich explained.
In a sport that relies so heavily on routines, superstitions and tradition, it's understandable why the news of TrackMan had some fans and players alike spooked. But if something can be good for the game of baseball, and improve it even, isn't that worth the flexibility, or at least, the open-mindedness?
Somerset Patriots starts-leader, right-hander Liam O'Sullivan put it as elementary as this: "If you can get the strike zone to a place where everybody knows what the strike zone is and it's consistent throughout, then it's tough to say that it's not good for the game."