Lindbergh: Rise of the robot umpires?

From SABR member Ben Lindbergh at on November 8, 2013:

In an interview with Baseball Prospectus almost 10 years ago, a project manager for QuesTec, the purveyors of the “Umpire Information System” that Major League Baseball used to evaluate umps from 2002 to 2008, was asked whether he could envision the system simply making the calls instead of serving as a supplement. His answer was emphatic: “Never.” “Not only do we not want to,” he explained, “but since a lot of our data processing is postgame, a real-time application that would satisfy the required pace of the game would be virtually impossible.”

That was then. A decade later, the QuesTec system is dead (though its website lives on, like an ugly Internet time capsule from 2004). In its place, MLB and its clubs rely upon more sophisticated and streamlined motion-tracking technologies, most prominently Sportvision’s PITCHf/x. Sportvision captures information on pitch speed and trajectory via two cameras installed in every big league park, then provides that information to both broadcasters and Major League Baseball Advanced Media. In turn, MLBAM distributes the data in XML format for free, which has created a cottage industry of online PITCHf/x analysts, many of whom have been hired by teams to continue their work out of the public eye.

PITCHf/x is what powers those strike zone overlays you see on your screens during baseball broadcasts — the ones that sometimes suggest that the plate umpire just cost your team a strike. Unlike QuesTec, PITCHf/x requires little turnaround time; according to Marv White, chief technologist for innovation at ESPN and Sportvision’s former CTO, “the data is real time.” Not only is it processed quickly, it’s precise: Alan Nathan, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois and an expert on the physics of baseball, has demonstrated that the system is accurate to within an inch, or about a third of a baseball diameter.

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Originally published: November 11, 2013. Last Updated: November 11, 2013.