Robo-ump calls balls and strikes in Atlantic League

Baseball has officially begun using a computer to judge balls and strikes with an ump still making the actual calls. (Getty Images)

Classic American baseball has gone high tech. 

A computer officially called balls and strikes in regular competition for the first time in the U.S. at a minor league all-star game on July 10. The game, held in York, Pennsylvania, featured all-stars from the eight-team, independent Atlantic League.

A panel above and behind home plate made by sports data firm TrackMan was used to judge the pitches. The calls were relayed from a computer in the press box to home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wirelessly via an iPhone and an AirPod ear bud in his right ear. He then called out a strike or ball.

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Players said the system generally awarded higher and lower strikes than human empires, but overall they “didn’t have any major qualms,” according to an account by Washington Post reporter Jacob Bogage.

Umpires said that TrackMan makes their jobs slightly more mechanical but helps them call a fair game. One umpire said it is another tool he will use in his job.

Bogage also reported that the consensus from league officials, players and coaches is that TrackMan is more lenient on height, but stricter on width. In other words, high pitches might be called for strikes that many umpires would call as balls. Some breaking pitches that bounce in front of the catcher before crossing home plate have also been mistakenly called strikes. An umpire can overrule such calls.

Officials have implemented the technology partly to speed up the game, long criticized for being too slow. Major League Baseball has authorized the technology as a three-year experiment with the Atlantic League.

In addition to calling balls and strikes, the TrackMan technology is primarily designed to calculate a pitcher’s spin rate, exit velocity and launch angle. The League can also use it to grade umpires.

The strike zone used by the computer was calculated from biometric information from actual players. An official strike zone is about a ball and a half’s length from top of the belt buckle to the bottom of a batter’s knee. If a player didn’t have biometric information on file, his strike zone measured that of a 6-foot-2 batter.

TrackMan has been widely known for its technology to track golf shots to help golfers improve.  The technology uses reflected microwaves to track the impact of a club and ball, and the swing is captured on an HD video. Similar data is used for player evaluation and development by all Major League Baseball teams in the U.S., according the Trackman Baseball website.

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