glasses!" is the well-worn insult often hurled at umpires
when fans think the officials have blown a call. "Get some
software!" may become the updated version of that familiar
"men in blue" began getting some serious high-tech help
this season with the debut of the "Umpire Information System."
The UIS is a training tool a virtual umpire of sorts
that uses advanced cameras and software to determine the precise
location and speed of every pitch. Following the game, the real
umps can review the data to see just how close to the mark they
system is being ushered in primarily because of changes in professional
baseball, not because umpires are that far off. "I think people
would be pleasantly surprised by just how good umpires are," says
Paul Baim, director of research and development at QuesTec Inc.,
which developed the system. But over the years, the definition
of a strike has changed dramatically. Roughly, the rule book defines
a strike as a ball that passes over the plate between the batter's
lower chest and the bottom of his knees. In practice, however,
the strike zone had drifted so that the waist and the top of the
shins were the real guidelines. The zone also had moved horizontally,
so that pitches on the edge of the plate nearest the hitter were
often called balls while those a few inches beyond the outside
corner were called strikes. Consistency from umpire to umpire
was also an issue.
the strike zone is the heart of the game, and the umpire the ultimate
arbiter of balls and strikes, Major League Baseball announced
that the rule book strike zone would be strictly enforced in the
2001 season. The umps underwent rigorous training to adjust to
the new strike zone--not as easy as it sounds, when you consider
that many of them had been making thousands of split-second calls
for years, even decades, using a different standard.
technology, which combines image processing, photogrammetry, and
physics, first defines the baseball and other images captured
by high-speed digital cameras positioned on the third and first-base
lines. The cameras snap pictures as the ball makes its four-tenths-of-a-second
journey from the pitcher's hand to the batter. Along the way,
multiple track points are measured to precisely locate the ball
in space and time. Using information based on Robert Adair's book
The Physics of Baseball, the system determines the ball's
position and speed in the gaps between sampled data points. The
software tracks and stores every pitch for retrieval and comparison.
MLB is proceeding cautiously, and the Umpire Information System
will only be installed in a handful of parks this season, including
Boston's Fenway Park. No timetable has been established yet to
introduce the system at all major league parks.
officials insist the new technology will not lead to the eventual
ejection of MLB umps, and that it is simply the next step in umpire
training. "The technology exists to replace umpires, though it
isn't reliable enough yet," Baim says. "But the question you have
to ask is, 'Is that really where you want baseball to go?' I don't
think so." Baim adds that the plan is not to "score" how well
umps do, but rather to educate them using constructive feedback
on their own patterns and on areas where they can improve. Sandy
Alderson, executive vice president of baseball operations for
MLB, notes that "this new technology will further enhance the
capabilities of our major league umpires."
technology made its debut with QuesTec's Pitch Trax system in
the fall of 1996, adding some bells and whistles to games broadcast
on television and the Internet. Pitch Trax can create detailed
on-screen charts showing any combination of pitches and their
speed, location, and type (fastball, curveball, etc.). Broadcasters,
such as Fox Sports, use it extensively and commentators love it--"I
feel naked without it," says one--for its ability to show how,
say, Randy Johnson struck out Barry Bonds the last time they faced
each other, or how a team tended to hit a pitcher's curveball
may be just the beginning. QuesTec has also developed a system
to provide information about tennis matches, and Baim says that
other sports and more "gee whiz" features may be added to the
lineup in the future. Several baseball teams, have, in fact, expressed
interest in the data for use in helping their pitchers and hitters,
though there has not as yet been a deluge. "There has been some
skepticism about this 'better mousetrap,'" Baim says.
professional baseball would be happy if all they end up building
is a better strike zone.
Ray Bert is a freelance writer in Germantown, MD.