May 15, 2019, 1:00 pm

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

Baseball is stepping up its tracking ability with a new Hawk-Eye scheme. How far into the future will the electric switch take the game?

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

Major League Baseball hopes to review its ball- and player-tracking engineering with a new optical-based scheme that could add even more applied mathematics bells and whistles to the game -- but won't needfully convey the conference any person to replacing ball-and-work stoppage umpires with an automated work stoppage zone.

The conference's plan to electric switch from its actual radar- and camera-based schemes to a individual instrumentality manufactured by Hawk-Eye -- the institution whose electronic line justice revolutionized lawn tennis -- was defined in a memo sent to teams and archetypal according by The Athletic. While no autographed contract for the Hawk-Eye scheme is complete, sources tell ESPN, MLB is aiming for all 30 major conference stadiums to be fully outfitted with it by the All-Star Game.

The actual engineering, which marries TrackMan's radar scheme following the ball with six cameras that track player movement, provides the backbone for the conference's Statcast scheme. 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 scheme 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.

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

    If the work stoppage 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 work stoppages. 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 work stoppage 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 work stoppages would be called.

    While there are a number of proponents for an automated work stoppage zone, sources said, actually 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 engineering, which MLB plans to test in the independent Atlantic League this year by having automated work stoppage-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 would receive increased consideration.

    More important in the short term is keeping up with rapidly evolving engineering. Because MLB prohibits teams from installing their own schemes in stadiums, the onus is on the conference to pursue bleeding-edge engineering. Statcast was reviewed 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 engineering 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 scheme is far likelier to capture every ball hit -- the conference 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 scheme 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 engineering that helped change the game.

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