- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Perhaps it’s not surprising, but several members of the Washington Nationals are not in favor of a robot uprising replacing an age-old part of their game.

They’re in no imminent danger of a takeover at Nationals Park, but just a week before the team’s Wednesday night game against the Arizona Diamondbacks, an automated system had handled the duty of calling balls and strikes at two games played by the San Rafael Pacifics, an independent league team in California.

Former major league outfielder Eric Byrnes announced the computer analysis of each pitch with the flair of a regular umpire. Byrnes is a longtime advocate of using RoboUmps, but he would be hard-pressed to find support from Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper, pitcher Max Scherzer, manager Matt Williams, or Arizona Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale.

“This is a part of the game that I think needs to be left alone,” Scherzer said. “When a pitcher hits his spot, sometimes he has to be rewarded for hitting his spot, and it also puts the onus on the catcher to be able to frame it. [It] brings his skill out to do that, so, you know, I think that’s where the game needs to stay the same.

“Every other call needs to be right, whereas the strike zone, there needs to be some human element of hitting your spot. You know, maybe you get a call, or you miss your spot, but it’s in the zone and it gets called a ball. I know that happens to me all the time.”

The system used in California is called Pitchf/x, which uses three cameras, one in center field and one from each side of the grandstand, to track the velocity, trajectory and location of each pitch. Sportvision, the company which developed Pitchf/x, markets the tool as being able to pinpoint the location of pitches crossing the plate within an inch of accuracy.

Pitchf/x is already installed in every major-league ballpark and is used to track pitches in every game for analytical and informational purposes, but the umpires are still calling the shots behind the plate.

The RoboUmp system uses existing data, loaded by humans, to determine each individual player’s strike zone. If a player changes his stance significantly, the information in the system is adjusted accordingly.

Williams said that he hadn’t given the idea of replacing umpires any thought, though he did know of Byrnes’ involvement and stressed the importance of having experienced umpires on the field.

“That’s a Byrnesie. I know Byrnesie,” Williams said, smiling. “I haven’t thought about that. And, you know, given where we’re at in the season, I probably wouldn’t. I value getting calls right and we have a process to do that. I value the pace of game and all of that as well, but I also value somebody like Brian Gorman, who umpired 3,000 games, [umpiring at third base on Tuesday] night. That’s important, too.”

Hale is not sold on the idea, either.

To him, it’s a solution without a problem. When he was learning the game, players simply had to adjust to the wildly different strike zones individual umpires had and that was that. Since then, he said, things have become much more uniform.

“We had umpires when we played that we knew weren’t going to call a ball six inches off the plate at one point, but they weren’t going to call another pitch a strike, so we kind of got used to each umpire,” Hale said. “And now you try to do that, but I think they’ve made the zone much more fair to the hitter.”

The league currently uses Pitchf/x to grade the accuracy of each umpire after a game. Using that data, Pitchf/x shows umpires calling around 95 percent of pitches correctly.

Still, screaming managers and blowups behind the plate happen. Even a hitter like Harper said that he would not support removing umpires from behind home plate because he enjoys the relationships he has developed with certain umpires and sees them as an integral part of playing baseball.

“Being able to have the conversations, to have the relationships that we do have with the umpires is a lot of fun, and I definitely think that I’d take the side of the umpires over a robotic computer,” Harper said. “Sometimes you miss a heater right down the middle and it’s strike three, or you hang a curveball and it’s a homer into the right field deck. And, sometimes, a ball on the outside half is a strike. It’s just part of the game.”

That Harper, who has never been shy about showing his emotions on the field, has such warm feelings toward the men in black and such a Zen approach to the wills and whims of the game may come as a surprise to those who have witnessed his reactions when calls don’t go his way.

Harper was ejected in the 11th inning of the Nationals’ game against the New York Mets on Friday after a shouting match with home plate umpire Jerry Meals sparked by a called strike three. It was Harper’s third ejection of the season.

“Situations, sometimes you just blow up and the next day you’re fine. I mean, I’ve gotten thrown out multiple times and the next day — two minutes later — you’re good,” Harper said. “I mean, everybody is human. We make mistakes as baseball players, and sometimes, umpires make mistakes also so it’s just part of the game and it’s part of human nature.”

The robot invasion may have to wait. Players and managers alike had different takes on the nuances of the proposal, but when it came to the idea of how to handle human error, the response was always the same: It’s just part of the game.

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