Will MLB’s Latest Tech Disserve Game?

Most baseball fans are probably unaware of a new computer technology, mandated by MLB, and its use throughout 2009, that will be precedent setting for seasons to come.

By Diane M. Grassi

As the end of the 2009 Major League Baseball (MLB) season approaches, technological advances, still in their infancy, were instituted in 2009, intended for the game’s future progress; that according to MLB.

Most fans, however, are probably unaware of the new computer technology, mandated by MLB, and its use throughout 2009, that will be precedent setting for seasons to come.

Firstly, the MLB umpires’ evaluation system from 2001–2008, known as QuesTec, was replaced in 2009 by a technology called the Zone Evaluation® system; a supposed upgrade. QuesTec made use of computerized camera technology in an effort to force uniformity between umpires’ strike zones, as well as MLB’s insistence that umpire inconsistency contributed to the undesirable lengthiness of games.

However, only 11 major league ballparks, out of 30, were ever set up with the QuesTec technology for the 7 year period, and its technological accuracy was continually questioned by pitchers, umpires and clubs alike. Many felt that the strike zone was too small and varied from stadium to stadium, and especially between those ballparks that had no such technology at all. And through it all, MLB was fervent in its declaration that QuesTec was merely a tool for the umpires.

During the 2008 MLB season, the PITCHf/x camera system was installed in every major league park – with certain exceptions made for the last year of Yankee and Shea stadiums in New York, as both the Yankees and Mets relocated to new stadiums in the 2009 season. The object of the PITCHf/x system was to gather data from the stadiums in order to composite requisite information for the camera system technology to go live in 2009.

Data was collected during the 2008 season by the PITCHf/x system that included tracking nearly all pitches thrown for the entire season for supposedly all 30 teams, totaling approximately 700,000. And that data is now being used as the base measure to evaluate MLB umpire accuracy for 2009. – Unfortunately, the umpiring data for the new Yankee Stadium and the Mets’ Citi Field was not included; unaddressed publicly by MLB. –

PITCHf/x takes 25 pictures of the ball in flight between the pitching mound and home plate. Sportsvision® software then uses a ‘best fit’ algorithm in order to calculate compensation for different variables of the ball’s flight path, including the position of the ball when it crosses the plate.

But here is where the disparity arises, as a strike is not called at the front of the plate but where it crosses the plate as it makes its way into the catcher’s glove. The camera, however, starts reporting data 5 feet in front of home plate; reminiscent of the ill-timed traffic light camera that incorrectly tickets a driver for going through a red light while traveling through the tail end of a yellow caution light in an intersection. –

MLB Rule 2.0 defines the strike zone, and presently remains in effect as follows:

The Strike Zone is defined as that area over home plate, the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

Yet, the calls in that strike zone have given way to a technology that cannot be assimilated by the naked eye. Thus, judging an umpire’s accuracy by a standard that may not even be humanly commensurate is foolhardy at best.

Moreover, many players and team personnel reportedly were unaware until the 2009 season got under way that a new camera system was even being used for the strike zone, let alone in all 30 MLB stadiums.

During QuesTec’s reign, an umpire who failed to reach a 90% accuracy rating in a game was notified by MLB that he had called a “bad game.” And such game ratings of 90% or lower averaged over the course of a MLB season would make an umpire ineligible for post-season assignments.

Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s Executive Vice President, Baseball Operations, commented at the beginning of the 2009 season that the Zone Evaluation system “Has given us much more data, much more granular, and it provides many more camera angles for the pitch track. We only had one view with QuesTec. Now we have multiple views… that will allow us to pull up various trajectories.”

In 2009 when umpires arrive at ball parks they receive a printout of how many balls or strikes they called right or wrong for the game the day before, according to Zone Evaluation. Yet, in the early part of the 2009 season, umpires had a learning curve needed to get acclimated to the new system, not to mention in combination with the two new ballparks in NYC. Therefore, umpires’ season averages for accuracy may be markedly different from 2008 when QuesTec was still in use or from the upcoming 2010 season, after having used the new system for a year.

And even though the World Umpires Association – the union for all MLB umpires – approved the change from QuesTec to Zone Evaluation, any objection it has will be addressed for certain during the negotiations with MLB over their next Collective Bargaining Agreement, expiring after the 2009 season.

Umpires’ quality of accuracy was documented as quite high with QuesTec, as they proved there was little difference in their calls between parks that had QuesTec technology and those that did not. Therefore, the need to upgrade such technology by MLB seems less about reining in umpires and more about diminishing the human factor in adjudicating baseball games.

For after PITCHf/x, the upcoming HITf/x will be used for scouting in the not too distant future by MLB teams and it also will be a supposed tool that will measure every aspect of every player’s mechanics. Such technology will put sabermetrics to shame and will again rely upon technology which again, the naked eye cannot see on its own. “Every moving event within an actual game will be tracked,” according to Sportsvision’s General Manager of Baseball Products, Ryan Zander. It will track the pitcher, the ball and the fielder with individual stats.

And it will beg the question of MLB of whether or not umpires and advance scouts will be less and less depended upon as the years go on. Furthermore, such data will eventually be available to fans via paid subscription through MLB Advanced Media, (MLBAM) its internet and electronic media property, which brings fans, the MLB Network and its MLB.TV computer subscriptions for live games over the internet.

The Sportsvision software will utilize 2-4 cameras for HITf/x which has been gathering data throughout the 2009 season, while presently installed at the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park. It is expected to be installed in all 30 MLB stadiums throughout the 2010 MLB season, with the intent of gathering enough data to eventually go live by the 2011 season.

Future Hall of Famer, NY Yankee Derek Jeter, was scouted in high school at Kalamazoo Central High, out of Michigan, by Dick Groch, and was eventually selected in the first round of the 1992 baseball draft by the NY Yankees with their 6th pick. Back then, Groch did not carry a laptop computer, and cell phones were several years away from reaching the mass market. Yet, Groch was still remarkably able to successfully do his job.

What may come as a surprise to many was that Groch had to convince NY Yankee management not to use their 1st round pick on a player other than Jeter, as he did not have stats which necessarily jumped off the page. Yet Groch insisted that, “The ceiling is only left to the imagination,” when it came to Derek Jeter.

Fast forward to the 2010 season and beyond, should a Jeter-like prospect become available. He may never have a shot to ever play in MLB, for not only will he not necessarily fit the statistical profile, but scouts may no longer be considered useful to MLB clubs.

And what a shame it would be for the game of baseball to lose those intangibles which contribute to the elements of its mystique. And it is through its imperfections that allow for a new script for every game played, making us ever more appreciative of its outcome and yet continually indebted to the human element in its sport.

Copyright ©2009 Diane M. Grassi
Contact: [email protected]

By Diane M. Grassi

Diane M. Grassi attempts to shine new light on issues centered on professional and amateur sports through her writing, by going beyond the headlines and sound-bites and to present sports fans with the back-story. In that effort, she seeks out those issues that rarely become headlines and elicits discussion as to why that is case.

Grassi’s goal is to not only provide content, but to offer an outlet for sports fans of all types, of various backgrounds and life experiences, to engage in topical issues with candor, good humor and provocative thought. Yet, to Grassi, it is the issues that are paramount, as opposed to the messenger, while maintaining intellectually honest and original fact-based reporting and research without an agenda.

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