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A minor-league baseball team let a machine call balls and strikes last night

A minor-league baseball team let a machine call balls and strikes last night

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Baseball is a sport that's often caught between two worlds. It's a sport that embraced advanced statistics alongside more "old school" scouting and basic counting stats like RBIs, but it's also one where the "human element" plays a huge role in almost every part of the game — specifically, the home plate umpire who calls either a ball or strike on every single pitch. With the advent of advanced technology like the Pitch F/X system that tracks the location of every pitch thrown in a game, fans have started wondering when the umpire might get put out to pasture — or at least get some assistance from this system that has been installed in all 30 major league stadiums.

MLB might be an organization extremely resistant to change, but fortunately independent leagues like the Pacific Association are free to experiment. That's how a minor-league game between the San Rafael Pacifics and the visiting Vallejo Admirals had its balls and strikes called by the Pitch F/X system last night. Wired was on hand to check it out, and it sounds like it was a lot less drama than you'd expect — the home plate umpire was freed up to keep a closer eye on other parts of the game. The computer results of the ball and strike data were simply checked out by another umpire at a computer terminal; that ump then made the call over the loudspeaker. It's the first professional baseball game in which a computer had the final say on balls and strikes.

The first game with a computer calling the plate, but probably not the last

It seems like there were no issues to speak of throughout the game, but purist still may balk at such a system being rolled out in the big leagues for a variety of reasons. Not the least among those is that Pitch F/X doesn't actually track the ball all the way into the catcher's mitt — instead, the cameras stop tracking a few feet from home plate and algorithms predict the ball's final location. Those predictions are supposed to be accurate to within an inch, but for a pitcher trying to put the baseball exactly where he wants it to go, that margin of error could make a difference. Of course, we know umpires blow ball and strike calls multiple times throughout a game, so this is really just a different kind of inaccuracy.

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