Computer used to call balls and strikes at minor league game

Published 2:12 am Thursday, July 30, 2015

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. (AP) — No blaming or booing the umpire for a questionable called third strike this week in a Northern California independent league.

The human element that many in baseball appreciate will be absent during an experiment for a pair of games. A computer will call balls and strikes as the home plate umpire handles all of his other regular duties.

“It’s going to be strange yelling at that computer,” San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy joked.

Email newsletter signup

On Tuesday night, the computer system was standing in for pitch calls in what is considered to be the first professional game without the umpire making those decisions. A full umpiring crew will be there for everything else.

Dean Poteet, who has worked as an umpire for 40 years, was behind the plate. He said he was initially skeptical about using a computer to assist with his job, but has since warmed to the idea.

“Silicon Valley is right around the corner. Our technology is good here so we might as well try it,” he said. “I don’t think umpires will ever be replaced. I don’t think you can take the home plate umpire or other umpires actually off the field. There’s too much of a personal factor.”

Former outfielder Eric Byrnes oversaw the computer. Early in the game, he offered, “As a matter of fact, not even close” when announcing a pitch to an entertained crowd.

“I have been pushing for a computerized strike zone for years,” Byrnes said. “Just like instant replay was, it is long overdue. Very much looking forward to seeing how the entire process unfolds. I truly believe we are very close to seeing it implemented in the big leagues, just a matter of time.”

The San Rafael Pacifics will use the automated technology in two games against the Vallejo Admirals at Albert Field. The program, Pitchf/x, comes from the company Sportvision in nearby Fremont, offering technology to track and digitally record the full trajectory of live pitches within an inch of accuracy.

“Personally, I have some empathy for those guys back there. It’s not easy to track a 100 mph baseball less than a quarter of an inch,” Toronto Blue Jays knuckleballer R.A. Dickey said. “That’s tough on the human eye. I’m prone to have a little more grace. The one thing you hope for is for consistency.”

The technology features three cameras that record the velocity, trajectory and location of every pitch to determine how closely each pitcher comes to hitting the catcher’s target.

Not that this will necessarily reach the major leagues any time soon — if ever — despite Byrnes’ efforts and energy.

“I have a hard time seeing that ever happen,” Toronto manager John Gibbons said. “It’ll give somebody a wild idea, though. I guess nobody ever figured they’d see replay, so who knows.”

Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t envision it either.

“I think we are a ways away from the technology on — using technology to call balls and strikes. I really do,” Manfred said. “It’s because of speed. It’s because of technology limitations. It’s because quite frankly, the strike zone is different for every single guy.”

Byrnes was umpire of the strike zone to relay the information from the computer everyone in the ballpark. Each night, he plans to donate $100 for each walk and strikeout to the Pat Tillman Foundation and $10,000 if he ejects a player for arguing balls and strikes.

“Hopefully somebody gets tossed,” he quipped.

Pacifics center fielder Zack Pace understands the game evolves, but noted, “I’m really a traditionalist and like this history.”

San Rafael assistant general manager Vinnie Longo is happy to have his team be among the first to test out the system.

“I think that the issue of the automated umpire is going to come to Major League Baseball at some point in the near future, and that we can provide an excellent setting to serve as a trial,” Longo said. “We have a lot of traditionalists in our office when it comes to technology in baseball, but we all feel that this is an exciting opportunity to test out an emerging and controversial part of baseball.”

Even instant replay has had its share of critics along the way.

Dickey appreciates any work to improve baseball even if he is rooting for umpires to stay for the long haul.

“We’ve seen replay for the most part be a success. You have to be open to anything that will uphold the integrity of the game,” he said. “Even with replay there are still some really gray calls. That being said, the behind-the-plate umpire, I enjoy the human error component of it. It makes for a good spectator sport.

“Plus, it wouldn’t give us anybody to yell at. That’s kind of part of the fun.”


AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum in New York and Associated Press Writer Julia Horowitz in San Rafael contributed to this report.