August 08, 2002
You're out!

Michael forwards me this story about PitchTrax, the new technology by QuesTec that follows the trajectory of a thrown baseball. The screenshot shows the sorts of things that it can do, and ESPN and Fox have been all over it.

One of the things that it may some day do, of course, is replace the home plate umpire for calling balls and strikes. As Gary Huckabay notes, this technology is way better than anything a human can do:

Think about exactly what we ask of a home-plate umpire. They must stand behind a man prone to sudden movements, behind and perpendicular to another man who may swing a large club. For their own protection, they wear a mask that slightly impairs their field of vision. Then, they must determine whether a small sphere traveling at 90 mph and intentionally hurled to maximize movement along one or more axes passes through a small three-dimensional space. That three-dimensional space, by the way, changes approximately 80 times throughout the course of a normal day's work.

Sound difficult? It's not. It's impossible--at least to do it at a level acceptable for a game so dependent on the ability of a human to do this job.

I spent a summer umpiring youth baseball back when I was in high school. Even at that level, it's awfully tough. To this day, I remember a game where a pitcher had a 2-2 count on a batter with two outs and men on base. He threw a beautiful pitch for strike three to end the inning. Unfortunately, I called it a ball. I meant to call it a strike, but the word "Ball" came out of my mouth. I can still see the look on the pitcher's face when I made the call. Naturally, it was huge - the batter reached base, and his team scored several runs in an inning that should have ended with no runs scoring. The fact that I still think about it 18 years later should give you some idea about how I felt about it at the time.

(And no, I couldn't just say "Oops, sorry, my bad, I meant to say Strike Three". You learn in umpire school that you stand behind every call you make. To do otherwise undermines your authority. Make your call, make it with confidence, and move on. It's not perfect, but the other choices are worse.)

Human error, of course, is a part of the game. It's even celebrated as such, though that's not much consolation to players and fans that get jerked by lousy officiating. Baseball can be pretty well Superglued to its traditions sometimes, so I don't see any change occurring any time soon. However, if local affiliates start acquiring and using PitchTrax, so that fans can see many times over the course of a season just how inexact the science of calling balls and strikes is for humans, then there will be pressure on baseball to Do Something, just as the NFL and now the NBA have been pressured into adopting some form of instant replay. I won't hold my breath waiting, but ten years from now, who knows?

By the way, QuesTec is working on even more nifty toys for us baseball fans. Man, I love the 21st Century.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 08, 2002 to Baseball

There is nothing that unites or divides fans as much as as bad call from an 'umpire' or referee.

Last season Arsenal played against Newcastle, had a player wrongly sent off, had a penalty wrongly given against us, and generally got screwed by the ref. One player, Thierry Henry, went mental at the end and was banned for 3 games for not being nice to the referee.

In the end, we won the league, but it makes it sweeter when you know you've overcome crap refereeing to do it.

Posted by: arseblogger on August 9, 2002 3:28 AM