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Robo umps? Not so fast. Here's what MLB's technology upgrade means

May 15, 2019

Jeff PassanESPN

CloseESPN MLB insiderAuthor of "The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports"

Major League Baseball hopes to refresh its ball- and player-tracking technology with a new optical-based system that could add even more statistical bells and whistles to the game -- but won't necessarily bring the league any closer to replacing ball-and-strike umpires with an automated strike zone.

The league's plan to switch from its current radar- and camera-based systems to a single device manufactured by Hawk-Eye -- the company whose electronic line judge revolutionized tennis -- was outlined in a memo sent to teams and first reported by The Athletic. While no signed contract for the Hawk-Eye system is complete, sources tell ESPN, MLB is aiming for all 30 major league stadiums to be fully outfitted with it by the All-Star Game.

The current technology, which combines TrackMan's radar system following the ball with six cameras that track player movement, provides the backbone for the league's Statcast system. Since its introduction in late 2014, Statcast has revolutionized the game and introduced into its lexicon the concepts of exit velocity, launch angle and spin rate.

Optical tracking uses cameras to capture movement, whether a ball or human beings, and the Hawk-Eye system will require up to 12 additional cameras to be installed around stadiums. Between the expected accuracy of its spin-rate data and tracking of both pitches and players, Statcast 3.0 using Hawk-Eye could deepen team and public understanding of the game being played -- and do plenty more.

Track the kinematics, or movement patterns, of every player on the field, including pitchers, whose injuries could potentially be mitigated? Perhaps. Give greater insight into the path that bats take during swings and allow hitters superior control? Certainly.

Lead to robot-ump revolution? Probably not.

2 Related

The calls for an automated strike zone have grown louder in recent years as technology helped turn fans into instantaneous umpiring ombudsmen. The Hawk-Eye system could be accurate to within a few millimeters, perhaps a centimeter, an improvement upon the current one. The far greater concern regards the concept of the zone itself and how certain calls could play publicly.

If the strike zone is three-dimensional -- 17 inches wide, 17 inches deep, with the back corners cut at an angle, from the hollow of the knees to around the belly button -- an automated zone runs the risk of rewarding pitches that simply don't look like strikes. Such scenarios are not particularly common but could threaten the credibility of an automated zone with the public. Sliders can clip the front corner of the prism as they're bending outside. High curveballs can drop into the zone at the back of the plate. There is, of course, a relatively easy fix for this: change the strike zone to a fixed plane, whether it's the front of the plate, the middle of the plate or perhaps the area where the most strikes would be called.

1. More accuracy in tracking players and the ball: The current radar- and camera-based system is incredibly accurate. MLB believes Hawk-Eye's entirely camera-based system will set an even higher standard.

2. No immediate robot umps: Whatever the fidelity of the system, an automated strike zone is as much a mental hurdle for MLB as it is technological. Right now, it's simply not a priority.

3. New statistics: Exit velocity, spin rate and launch angle are now part of the baseball dictionary. As the system measures more parts of the game, newer numbers will germinate.

4. Health warnings: Optical systems such as Hawk-Eye can capture limb movement of players. If a pitcher's arm angle deviates significantly, it could be a sign that something is amiss.

5. Big Brother baseball: The league has told teams there could be up to 12 additional cameras installed with Hawk-Eye. And to think Orwell was more of a cricket guy. (Cricket leagues use Hawk-Eye, too.)

While there are a number of proponents for an automated strike zone, sources said, currently it is not a high priority for MLB. There almost certainly would not be buy-in from players, either, and baseball is typically deliberate with such fundamental change. The solution could be a combination of humans and technology, which MLB plans to test in the independent Atlantic League this year by having automated strike-zone calls piped into earpieces worn by umpires, who then would use their judgment whether to overrule a call. Since home-plate umpires won't be going away anytime soon -- they're still needed for plays at the plate, interference calls, check swings and more -- the success of the human-tech combination would help the automated zone receive increased consideration.

More important in the short term is keeping up with rapidly evolving technology. Because MLB prohibits teams from installing their own systems in stadiums, the onus is on the league to pursue bleeding-edge technology. Statcast was refreshed in 2017 with the introduction of the TrackMan radar, and MLB's desire to upgrade again -- almost like people do with their phones -- led to the likely adoption of Hawk-Eye.

Technology in particular has evolved rapidly. Nearly every organization in MLB uses high-speed, slow-motion versions to capture pitch grips and frame-by-frame mechanical breakdowns. Others are tooling with machine-learning technology in hopes of unearthing the next great advantage.

And MLB anticipates the next version of Statcast being a literal and figurative game-changer likewise. The camera system is far likelier to capture every ball hit -- the league says today's tracks only nine of 10 batted balls -- and will test that hypothesis and plenty more in the second half.

That's when the Hawk-Eye system is expected to be functional. Teams will be given access to the data, according to sources, when it's installed in all 30 stadiums. And if the data is solid and its fidelity confirmed, Hawk-Eye is expected take over in 2020 and offer the newest iteration of the technology that helped change the game.

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