Man vs. Machine Pitchers are swinging away and umpires are crying foul, but QuesTec, baseball's high-tech strike zone evaluator, is good for the game

June 08, 2003

The suits who run the major leagues, the people who decided this
spring that uniforms should be worn, um, uniformly, are at it
again. They've come up with the outlandish idea that--get
this--pitches thrown over the plate should be strikes and those
that are not should be balls. Whoa.

Umpires and pitchers are having a hard time getting their heads
around this notion. A revolution has ensued, of which the first
shot was fired May 24 when frustrated Diamondbacks pitcher Curt
Schilling made like Sean Penn and smashed a $5,000 camera with a
bat after a 5-1 loss to the Padres in Phoenix. The camera was one
of two at the park used by the Umpire Information System, run by
a company called QuesTec. The system, said to be accurate to
within half an inch, uses technology developed by the military to
measure whether a pitch catches any part of the strike zone.
After the game the home plate umpire gets a CD showing how his
calls stood up to QuesTec's measurements. Baseball wants at least
90% of the calls to match the machine's.

Schilling, whose complaint was echoed by the Braves on Sunday,
said after his camera assault that an umpire urged him to "break
the other one" and that "multiple times" umps have told him
they're calling some pitches balls simply because of the QuesTec
factor. The umpires have filed a grievance with the league,
contending that the system isn't a "reasonable means to assess"
their performance. Hearings begin next month.

Pitchers and umps presumably want to return to the days when the
strike zone changed like blackboard specials at a seafood joint.
The strike du jour mostly depended on an umpire's personal zone
but also was influenced by how a catcher received the ball and
how good a pitcher was at stretching the edges like Silly Putty.
Such bastardization reached absurd proportions in Game 5 of the
1997 NLCS, when Florida's Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Braves
with the assistance of umpire Eric Gregg, whose abstract
rendering of the zone made De Kooning look like a master of
realism.

In 2001 baseball signed a five-year contract with QuesTec to use
its system as a training aid for umpires. The intent was good. If
an umpire has a habit of calling pitches two balls off the
outside corner as strikes, QuesTec can identify the pattern, just
as video can show a hitter he's pulling his head off a ball. But
the implementation has been flawed. Only 10 ballparks have
QuesTec, fostering a belief that umpires call games differently
if Big Brother is watching. Why, for instance, should Schilling
pitch to QuesTec's rule-book strike zone in Phoenix while
Seattle's Jamie Moyer gets the Silly Putty zone for his starts at
QuesTec-less Safeco Field?

Moreover, the umpires have an understandable concern about the
operators who monitor the system at each game. QuesTec says
candidates for the job, which pays $100 per game, should "live
within 50 miles of an MLB ballpark, have solid baseball knowledge
and be computer literate." To some this sounds like Wanted:
Roto-geeks and Internet shut-ins.

The good news is that baseball expects QuesTec to be in every
park next season, which should address questions of consistency.
Meanwhile, the league should hire operators with umpiring
backgrounds and make the system less punitive. (Scores below 90%
threaten an umpire's opportunity to work postseason games and
even his job security.)

Calling the strike zone as written in the rule book is a dandy,
if oddly novel, idea--one worth a few bruised egos and a battered
camera or two. --Tom Verducci

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"Roy was more than great. He was significant." --MONSIEUR
BUTTERFLY, PAGE 23

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)