When it comes to newer inventions, MLB’s plan to automate balls and strikes leads the league in controversy
With MLB’s Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) technology, an official in the press box monitors a laptop running a system that electronically determines the call. The home plate umpire receives the call via a wireless earpiece.
BY REID CREAGER
What’s the most passionately debated baseball invention of the future? OK, Biff, let’s go to the video right off the bat.
Put down your Inventors Digest for a second, or switch over from this story you’re reading on your phone, and go to this link. We’ll wait here.
Has your jaw closed yet? Yes, folks—that was a called strike three.
It’s understandable if you sputter or slobber in astonishment (though the latter is not recommended if you’re holding a phone). Welcome to the latest future technological adventure from Major League Baseball, Inc.
The automated balls-strikes system responsible for that baffling call is currently in use in the low minor leagues, with eyes on implementation in the majors within a few years.
Granted, automated balls and strikes are seldom this horrendous. But you can get an idea of potential future problems and just how much the refinement process needs work.
July 10, 2019: With the first pitch of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball All-Star Game at PeoplesBank Park—home of the York (Pennsylvania) Revolution—a baseball revolution was under way.
The called strike, thrown by York’s Mitch Atkins, was the first pitch using MLB’s Automated Ball-Strike (ABS) technology. The ball was sent to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
The umpire raised his right hand to signal the strike, but that judgment was relayed to him via a wireless earpiece.
An official in the press box monitored a laptop running the TrackMan radar system that electronically determined the call. Pitches were tracked through a large Doppler radar screen high above home plate. The radar system measured a player’s height and created a strike zone.
The experimental technology is the result of Statcast, MLB’s camera-based analytics system introduced in 2015. Statcast can measure player movements and ball flights in intricate detail. It records pitches mistakenly called balls after crossing the middle of the plate, and pitches taken extremely high, low or wide of the plate mistakenly called strikes.
A study by the Boston Business Journal using Statcast and Pitch f/x data showed that in the 2018 season, MLB umpires made 34,246 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game, or 1.6 per inning.
On Opening Day 2020, MLB introduced more upgrades for pitch tracking and other tech arenas. The new-and-improved Statcast platform replaced TrackMan radar with optical tracking sensors from Hawk-Eye Innovations and cloud infrastructure from Google Cloud.
According to MLB: “The Hawk-Eye Statcast system has demonstrated significant accuracy improvements in pitch, hit, and player tracking, and its pose tracking capabilities open up an exciting new frontier for analysis. Additionally, MLB is consolidating its infrastructure on Google Cloud to leverage Google’s industry-leading machine learning, analytics, application management, and data/video storage capabilities to increase reliability and manage governance at scale.”
Hawk-Eye’s Synchronized Multi-Angle Replay Technology (SMART) video replay and distribution system has been used by MLB to support the challenge system used in its Replay Review since the 2014 season.
Like many new devices and processes that are called inventions, ABS is technically more of an innovation that had its roots in prior inventions. It’s an outgrowth of the graphic boxes we have seen on televised baseball games on the right side of the screen that show where a pitch crossed through and/or landed in relation to the strike zone.
Inventors Digest found U.S. Patent No. 7,341,530B2, titled Virtual Strike Zone and approved on March 11, 2008. It explains the familiar problem it attempts to solve:
“When watching a baseball game on television, it is not clear to the viewer where the exact boundaries of the strike zone are. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the umpire correctly determined whether the pitch was a strike or a ball.”
The Abstract description explains how it works. “A system adds a graphical image of the strike zone to a video or other image of a baseball game. The system determines location of the strike zone and the ball in real space. The locations of the strike zone and the ball are depicted in the video.
“Based on knowing the locations of the strike zone and the ball, the system can determines (sic) whether the pitch was a strike or a ball.”
Reaction to the innovation has been largely predictable.
Players and coaches either diplomatically say ABS will take some getting used to, or they bluntly say they hate it. (High Point Rockers pitching coach and former Cy Young Award winner Frank Viola showed no ambiguity, becoming the first to be ejected for arguing balls and strikes in an ABS game on July 17, 2019.)
Many fans mourn another invention that kills the human element—not long after instant replay came along to lengthen games, all but end entertaining arguments with umpires that were a tradition since the sport’s origins, and often blow the call anyway.
MLB’s take has been understandably self-promoting, with some of ABS’s stated advantages arguably dubious.
One of the purported goals of eliminating the human element in calling balls and strikes is to stop arguments from managers, coaches and players about those calls, which lengthen games. (Reducing game durations has been a stated goal of MLB for several years, even though commercial breaks are much longer than they used to be and the introduction of instant replay adds time as well.)
The alleged time-saving merit of automated balls and strikes is a head-scratcher for several reasons: 1) It’s rare that traditional balls-strikes arguments significantly delay a game; 2) Many fans prefer seeing arguments anyway; and 3) If an automated call is ridiculous enough, the home plate umpire is going to get an earful regardless.
(Another obvious reason for pursuing ABS—though conveniently not mentioned by MLB—is the embarrassing performances of some of its umpires when calling balls and strikes. Angel Hernandez, long the face of umpiring incompetence and an unwilling star on YouTube because of it, exasperates teams and fans almost every time he is behind the plate.)
And of course, MLB’s pledge to always get it right on balls and strikes can be seen as misguided. The simple fact is that some pitches cannot definitively be called balls or strikes with unfailing accuracy and without argument, even with a machine.
There will always be a subjective nature to super-close calls—especially given the myriad variables that include how much of the ball was in the strike zone at what time. Sometimes, what is seen in a computer-generated presentation after a pitch can be subject to interpretation. And even the most sophisticated tracking machines have a small margin of error.
Besides, in some instances—including in games where ABS is used—the umpire makes the final determination of a ball or strike being called based on factors other than the strike zone. ABS is specifically focused on the strike zone and the flight of the ball, so the umpire is responsible for judging other criteria that help determine pitch outcomes. These include checked swings or catcher’s interference.
And what about when the technology goes on the fritz? You guessed it: Those hopelessly retro skin-and-bone types make the calls.
So, always get it right? Nope. Strive to get it righter? If you’re really seeking accuracy, that’s a better—if ineloquent—way to put it.
There is no distinct timetable for when MLB games will utilize automated balls and strikes, given the fine-tuning obviously required. Regardless, every system ultimately deserves the chance to succeed or fail on its own merits.
Meanwhile, ABS has been roundly criticized as an unnecessary attempt to appeal to younger, tech-obsessed fans—from a pro sports league that long trailed in the innovation arena.
Here are other examples of recent baseball innovation and its byproducts, either associated with MLB or used by its teams. We promise it’s not all as scary as that pitch you saw on YouTube.
Launch angle: Sports fans began hearing this term in 2015 when Statcast—which, among other things, can measure ball flights in intricate detail—was introduced. But the concept has an earlier history, as evidenced by U.S. Patent No. 8,561,310 from 2013: “Method to determine the launch angle of a golf putter face during a putting stroke.”
The notion of launch angle adds an interesting element for statheads, even if the science of it is complicated enough to confuse, well, scientists.
A launch angle of zero is basically a line drive at the pitcher’s knees. A grounder is a negative figure, and 90 degrees is a pop-up straight above home plate.
Alas, the greater the understanding of and emphasis on this complex phenomenon, the more hitters try to swing with an uppercut motion to hit more home runs (as opposed to a level swing that increases the chances of making contact). After all, it has long been an axiom that “chicks dig the long ball.” So do bank accounts.
More alas: MLB home run totals have soared to unpalatable extremes. 2019 marked the most prolific home run season ever with 1.39 home runs per game.
And more alas (or, strike three): MLB’s strikeout rate has climbed eight percentage points in the past 16 seasons—from 16.4 percent in 2005 to 24 percent in 2021 at last count.
Exit velocity: Americans love speed. Just ask the millions of NASCAR fans. So, given MLB’s recent obsession with trying to keep up with the Joneses, what took so long?
Exit velocity—a measure of the speed of the ball off the bat—and launch angle were both introduced at the same time, and are paired as the reigning MLB metric king and queen. They are also both inextricably linked: Analysts say a launch angle range of 25-35 degrees is the sweet spot for home runs when paired with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. The exit velocity is crucial because at lower velocities, those flyballs are outs.
New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton holds the exit velocity record of 122.2 mph for a single he hit on Oct. 1, 2017. He holds most of the top velo figures, and routinely adds to them when he is not on the injured list with his salary that will average $25 million per season through 2028.
Swing Tracker: This sure is a long way from the days when Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn was considered a tech pioneer for reviewing his in-game at-bats on VCR tapes.
The Swing Tracker sensor is a training aid used by many MLB teams. The sensor attaches to the knob of a bat and transmits data about angles, planes and velocity to produce a 3D model of a player’s swing.
The product’s manufacturers also cleverly came up with a feature called “damage potential,” which estimates flight distance and the path of a ball while training. Manufactured by Diamond Kinetics, Swing Tracker is affordable at $99.99, and $4.99 per month for software.
Edgertronic: Most MLB teams use the high-speed video camera’s slow-motion visuals to see how a pitcher’s grip changes as he releases a ball, or how subtle adjustments in finger position affect ball rotation. The Edgertronic SC1 is capable of capturing up to 22,000 frames per second.
Rapsodo: According to Fast Company, every MLB team uses Rapsodo—as well as more than 100 individual players, 500 colleges and about 400 baseball academies.
Situated on the ground between the pitching mound and home plate, Rapsodo’s units combine radar with a camera to generate data on ball speed, velocity and spin for pitchers and velocity, spin, launch angle, and projected hit outcome for batters. Many other technologies focus on body mechanics. Edgertronic and Rapsodo focus on the ball.
K-Vest: We’ll call it the Elvis System, because it can be customized to focus on aspects including pelvis rotation and torso bend.
The K-Vest uses sensors on a batter’s upper torso, pelvis and lead arm and hand to capture motion for a detailed analysis of swing efficiency. Each sensor gathers 200 data points per second, transmitted to a laptop and turned into a 3D rendering of swing mechanics. Most MLB teams use it.
Sabermetrics. Why? A Patent for Sabermetrics. Why?
Can sabermetrics be patented to the extent that baseball journalists can no longer write about those statistics?
Those who feel sabermetrics are an oft-unnecessary extreme for evaluating baseball performance—this writer included—can only dream. But a patent issued on August 11, 2020, sought to limit the open nature of exchanging that information.
Baseball patents generally apply to technological advancements in viewing and measuring various aspects of the game; baseball sabermetrics have been basically patent free. But Greiner Agencies was issued U.S. Patent No. 10,737,167 for a “baseball pitch quality determination method and apparatus” based on a relatively common baseball metric.
A group called QOP (Quality of Pitch) Baseball announced the patent in a Sept. 13, 2020, then tweeted and sent infringement warning messages to baseball journalists who study and write about pitch quality.
Why did QOP pursue patent protection? Well, after receiving the patent, the group announced: “This now certifies QOP as THE metric for calculating pitch quality. Look for QOP during future MLB broadcasts.”
If this was an attempt to land a lucrative licensing deal or agreements with MLB or any baseball broadcasting outlets, it so far has failed.
Stephanie Springer, a former patent examiner at the United States Patent and Trademark Office, wrote about the subject at length last December for Baseball Prospectus—including the patent’s history, owners and possible ramifications. She said QOP made a big mistake in trying to limit the free exchange of ideas:
“QOP has quite possibly sustained self-inflicted, irrevocable damage to its reputation within the baseball community, all but guaranteeing that QOP will not be used in sabermetric writings, and will likely be met by a frosty reception at any future sabermetric conferences. While they may allege that they merely want to contribute to the community, actions speak louder than words.”—Reid Creager