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Now balls and strikes ring: robot umpires

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. – Facing a 3-2 score in the seventh inning this Friday night, T.J. The Rivera of the Long Island Ducks let a switch of the boundary pass, threw their bat and jogged toward first base. He thought he had taken a walk to break up a perfect game by opposing pitcher Rick Teasley of the Somerset Patriots.

Five steps down the line, Rivera heard home plate opener J.B. Torres deliver the two dreaded words: strike three. Rivera stared back at Torres and prepared to add a case when he remembered one important detail: Torres did not actually call. A small voice in Torres's head asked him to do so.

"[Rivera] said to me," I was trying to get that ride, but I forgot that it's not on you tonight – it's on the computer, "Torres said.

Baseball's future has arrived in the Atlantic League , a collection of eight independent professional teams ranging from New Britain, Conn., to Sugar Land, Texas In February, the Atlantic League reached a three-year agreement to try a series of experimental rules for Major League Baseball to evaluate, largely designed to improve the pace of the game and generate action, which includes the ban on pile visits and defensive shifts, shorter run-in breaks and allows hitters to "steal" first base on any pitch that fails in the air.

week marked the introduction of the most important innovation: an automated strike zone, shifting responsibility for calling balls and turning from one person to an emotionless piece of technology free from the bias and discrepancies of just me And if the test goes well, the days of major league players asking umps to schedule an eye examination may soon come to an end.

Somerset Patriots pitcher Rick Teasley throws a pitch during an Atlantic League baseball game. Balls and strikes were called by a TrackMan device.


Dominick Reuter for The Wall Street Journal

Ducks manager Wally Backman predicted that MLB will implement the system within five years.

"It's going to happen," he said. “There have been a few places that are questionable, but not as many as if it were a human. The machine will definitely be more correct than they are. ”

All Atlantic League stadiums, including the Patriots' TD Bank Ballpark in Central New Jersey, now have a TrackMan unit high above the plate. It uses 3-D Doppler radar to detect balls and strikes and forwards its "decision" through a secure Wi-Fi network to the commander, equipped with an iPhone in the pocket connected to a wired earbud. This bouncer, who is placed behind the plate as normal, hears a man's voice saying "ball" or "strike" and signals the verdict.

Over the past few months, the Atlantic League considered other methods of communication. They tried to use radio waves instead of Wi-Fi, but learned that doing it without the proper licenses could get out of the FCC policy. Officials gave the creators a wireless Apple AirPod to hold in their ear, but abandoned that approach over concerns about battery life. They also talked about the opportunity to shine a light on the scoreboard to visually represent the conversation or send audio tones instead of words to the hearers ear.

A radar panel is seen on the roof of TD Bank Stadium before an Atlantic League baseball game.


Dominick Reuter for The Wall Street Journal

In the ballpark, it all looked seamless, with Torres calling out strikes after only the slightest delays. Of the 259 tones thrown on Friday, Torres said he personally agreed with TrackMan on all but six of them.

"I had no fear in the world of having to look at anyone and say: & # 39; It was there & # 39; or, & # 39; It had the corner, & # 39; & # 39; so Torres. "It was, 'Hey, this is the earpiece. You want to talk to the earpiece? & # 39; ”

TrackMan no doubt calls a strike zone different from its deadly counterparts. Sticking to the letters – a strike according to the rulebook, but almost always ruled a ball in modern baseball – is called a strike. The same goes for breaking pitches that technically can get to the bottom of the zone, even if they end up at the feet of the pipe, resulting in occasional strikes that extend credibility. TrackMan provides no leeway on the corners.

For that reason, Patriots manager Brett Jodie said that Clayton Kershaw, a pitcher known for his big basket ball, would love the automated strike zone. Greg Maddux, who relied on fastballs with two seams on or near it, probably can't do the edges of the plate. (The league has already spoken to the system to require the entire ball to cross the top edge of the zone to trigger a strike and could do something similar for low strikes.) has long since disappeared in the baseball game, "Jodie said. "Now they're trying to get it back."

The players expressed mixed emotions. They appreciate the consistency of the automated strike zone and the lack of outrageously bad calls, but they regret some of the elements of the game that it eliminates.

The computer reproduces the "toning frame" – the catches' coveted ability to receive a pitch in a way that allows the judges to see balls that strike – irrelevant. Patriots pitcher Nate Roe remembered throwing a pitch in a recent game that badly missed his goal on the outside corner, rather than landing on the inner corner. It forced the catcher to stretch far over the body and move the glove all the way across the plate. Roe said with a human invaders, that the pitch "is probably called a ball." TrackMan, unaffected by how the pitch looked, called it a strike.

The computer reproduces the pitch framing – the catches' coveted ability to receive a pitch in a way that deceives the judges into seeing balls that strike – irrelevant.


Dominick Reuter for The Wall Street Journal

Some players called that a positive, claiming that the intention should have nothing to say. After all, a referee does not wave a basketball shot that a player accidentally knocks or declares an incomplete when the wrong receiver catches a quarterback's pass. Others say that the humanity of umpires contributes to the game.

Patriots catcher Mike Ohlman, who appeared in seven games for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2017, took the example of a persistent wild pitcher who rarely gets the benefit of the doubt on closing calls because, "You have to earn that strike." He sees it as a tradition worth preserving.

"The plate is 17 inches wide," Ohlman said. "If you line up outside, you miss 17 inches and it catches the inside … we're professionals here – you shouldn't be rewarded."

For now, MLB plans to observe how well the automated strike zone is doing before deciding what happens next. It will almost certainly move to the minor leagues before you go to the major leagues.

Until then, revelers will continue to call balls and strike with their judgment alone – and players and mangers will continue to call them blind.

"We feel it is up to us to find out if we can make it work," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "That's what we do."

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Write to Jared Diamond at jared.diamond@wsj.com

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