Prism Magazine September 2001



Technology Strikes Back

- By Ray Bert

New software can help Major League Baseball umpires do a better job of making calls behind the plate.

Get some 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 invective.

Baseball's "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 were.

This new 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.

Because 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.

The 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.

Baim says 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.

Company 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."

The pitch-capture 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 especially well.

And baseball 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.

For now, 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.