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In baseball, balls and strikes still are in eye of the beholder

The strike zone has evolved over the years, but MLB has been working to make it uniform, improve umpire accuracy and reduce 'star treatment.' Still, even electronic tracking can't eliminate controversy.

October 08, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna

"Any time something that ridiculous happens," DiSarcina said, "things change."

Driving that change was Sandy Alderson, the former executive vice president of operations for Major League Baseball and now the New York Mets' general manager.

After a labor dispute led to the mass resignation of 22 umpires in 1999, Alderson hired new umps and brought them together under one banner in 2000, eliminating NL and AL designations.

In 2001, Alderson had QuesTec camera systems installed in about one-third of baseball's stadiums to begin tracking and evaluating umpire accuracy in pitch calling.

QuesTec was replaced in 2006 by the Pitch-f/x zone evaluation system, which uses digital cameras to take about 25 pictures of the ball in flight between the pitcher's mound and home plate.

The new system, designed by Chicago-based Sportvision, was installed in all 30 stadiums by 2008 and has tracked every pitch thrown since, the audited data going to MLB and its umpires.

"It's a grading tool, but we use it to help umpires improve," said Peter Woodfork, who just completed his first season as senior vice president of baseball operations.

"Umps don't always know where they're missing. If they're trending one way or another — say, they're missing the pitch down and away — they can see the data and make adjustments."

Sportvision customizes the zone for every batter, using the hollow of the kneecap — determined from the hitter's stance as he is prepared to swing at a pitched ball — for the bottom of the zone and roughly two baseball diameters above the belt for the top. The width of the plate — 17 inches — is the same for everyone.

"The accuracy rate," said Hank Adams, Sportvision CEO, "is extremely high, to within half an inch."

MLB doesn't release umpire report cards, "but our objective data shows they are extremely consistent in calling balls and strikes," Woodfork said.

Mike Port, former vice president of umpiring, told the New York Times in 2009 that when it comes to calling balls and strikes, umpires are about 95% accurate.

Not one of baseball's 68 major league umpires has been fired in the last 10 years because of poor ratings behind the plate.

"No two guys are going to call 320 pitches exactly the same — some strikes will be called balls, and some balls will be called strikes," Scioscia said. "But the uniformity has been more noticeable. I think umps are on the same page, for the most part, with what is a ball and what is a strike.

"If there's any variance, it's on the high strike, but I don't think it's so out of whack we need some kind of Inquisition."

Umpires don't like the feeling that Big Brother is watching — their union filed a grievance over QuesTec in 2003 (it was resolved in 2004) — but most managers, coaches and players agree the scrutiny has pushed them to become more consistent.

One challenge has been the discrepancies between an umpire's call, where a pitch appears to a viewer, and where it hits the pitch-zone graphic used for televised games.

"I watch a lot of games on TV, and the center-field camera is a skewed view," DiSarcina said. "You're not getting the true angle an ump is getting. It's not fair to the ump to put that box up during the game. It inflames situations."

DiSarcina is partially correct. The camera angle is skewed. But the pitch-zone graphic is not. All networks — national and regional— that televise baseball use the same pitch-tracking technology Sportvision provides to MLB.

A skewed view from a center-field camera can cause what's known as a "parallax," a displacement or difference in the apparent position of an object viewed along two different lines of sight.

"This system helps you understand how a pitch can look low and outside, but when you see the strike-zone graphic, it caught the corner, and the ump got it right," said Adams, the Sportvision CEO.

"Some people think the TV graphic is wrong. Their intuition tells them the pitch wasn't where the graphic showed it to be. But the graphic is right. Our intuition is wrong because we're off-center."

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