Baseball fans, you may soon have to say goodbye to players, coaches and umpires arguing over whether a pitch was a ball or a strike.
While it’s still a long way from entering Major League Baseball, a new software that will be responsible for calling balls and strikes during Atlantic League games was showcased Monday at PeoplesBank Park, in York.
During the league’s all-star game on Wednesday at the Revs’ ballpark, the TrackMan software will officially be used to rule on pitch location, making baseball history as the first pro league to use an electronic strike zone full-time. The software will then be used at all eight stadiums in the second half the league's season.
Blame the computer: The home-plate umpire will still be located in his usual spot behind the catcher, but he will not decide whether a pitch landed in the strike zone. Instead, the umpire will receive a message through an Apple AirPod wireless headphone connected to an iPhone in his pocket and a laptop in the press box.
“As soon as the pitch comes in, in my ear (the umpire will hear) something that says ball or strike,” said Brian deBrauwere, the home-plate umpire for Wednesday’s game. “I’m basically just the mouthpiece for that.”
The pitches are tracked through a large Doppler radar screen located atop the stadium behind home plate.
While the software had been tested throughout the season, deBrauwere said that he still must stay focused on the location of pitches because the system isn’t 100 percent reliable yet. He said that remaining focused on balls and strikes, although the calls aren’t up to him, could create a problem.
deBrauwere feared that the new software may take some of the fun out of the game for fans who enjoy heckling the home-plate umpire on close pitches.
“People here in York love yelling at me when they think I miss a pitch. That part of the game is going to go away a little bit,”deBrauwere said. “I’m happy to blame the computer.”
Fair for players: For the players, the removal of the human element of an umpire calling balls and strikes is something they were excited about.
York first baseman Telvin Nash said that battling with umpires over close pitches created situations where calls went against the batter, although the pitch wasn’t a strike. With an electronic strike zone, Nash can focus on hitting and not whether or not the umpire has a problem with the way he reacted to a called strike previously.
“If you have an umpire you’ve had a history with, you know he’s not going to give you (any close calls,)” Nash said. “He’s going to make pitches that might be off the plate strikes because you have a history. Now, it takes it out of his hands to where he has no say-so of balls and strikes.”
Each player will have a personalized strike zone based on their height and weight and any player that has played in MLB or an affiliated minor-league team in the past five years already has a strike zone created for them because the TrackMan software is used for all MLB-affiliated clubs.
Nash added that the uniform strike zone will allow hitters to be more aggressive once they learn which pitches will be called strikes. With the same calls being made no matter the ballpark or umpire behind home plate, Nash said it’s up to the batter to swing at the right pitches or they will strike out.
As for the pitchers, Revs right-hander Jameson McGrane said that pitchers would approach batters differently with the new strike zone. He said that from what he had seen of the TrackMan system, it called more strikes high in the strike zone and tighter to home plate, which will prevent pitchers from trying work the edges of the plate.
“I think the top end of the (strike) zone is going to benefit a lot of guys,” McGrane said. “I think the approach will be a little bit more aggressive than it was before when guys might want to poke the edges and stay away from hard contact.”
McGrane and York catcher James Skelton agreed that relief pitchers that throw fastballs up in the strike zone would benefit most from the electronic strike zone.
Catchers are less valuable: For Skelton, part of a catcher’s job is to try and make pitches that are close look like strikes to the umpire. Without a human behind the plate to make the calls, a major portion of his duties have been eliminated.
Skelton said that overall, the changes will benefit baseball because they will create a more consistent game, despite the toll they will take on the catcher’s value.
The future of baseball: With technology in sports improving every year, the Atlantic League has become the testing ground for MLB through the three-year partnership the two organizations agreed to in February.
While there have been a number of new rules announced by the Atlantic League and MLB, the TrackMan system is one that umpires and players appear to be in favor of.
Although he enjoyed carving out a strike zone throughout his career, deBrauwere said that the new software is good for the sport. While the arguments over pitch location might be over, he is not naive enough to think the umpires and players will be close friends on the field.
“If this is the wave of the future, and that’s what they want, I’m happy with that too,” deBrauwere said. “If that means we don’t yell at each other about balls and strikes for a night, that’s fine, but I’m sure they’ll find other things to yell at me about.”
Reach Rob Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.