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‘Robot’ umpire calls first professional baseball game with one hitch and no controversy

Umpire Brian deBrauwere huddles behind York Revolution catcher James Skelton while wearing an earpiece during the first inning of the Atlantic League All-Star Game on Wednesday in York, Pa. (Julio Cortez/Associated Press)

YORK, Pa. — Professional baseball allowed a glimpse at its future Wednesday night for keen-eyed observers of the home plate umpire’s right ear and back pocket.

A computer officially called balls and strikes in regular competition for the first time in the game’s history in the United States at a minor league all-star game. Major League Baseball in February signed a three-year agreement with the independent, eight-team Atlantic League to install experimental rules in line with Commissioner Rob Manfred’s vision for a faster, more action-packed game.

Among the first changes discussed was an automated balls and strikes regime, run via a panel above home plate made by sports data firm TrackMan. After a half-season of testing, the system was ready for the league All-Star Game, debuting with great fanfare and an unambiguous strike.

“Take pictures. Take selfies. Tell people you were here,” the stadium’s emcee announced before the game, telling the crowd of 6,773 they were about to witness history.

Mitch Atkins of the York Revolution threw the first pitch, a belt-high fastball on the outer half of the plate for strike one, and then the ball was sent to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Baseball’s robot umpires are here. And you might not even notice the difference.

“The future is crazy,” Long Island Ducks second baseman L.J. Mazzilli said. “It’s cool to see the direction baseball is heading.”

The Atlantic League altered a number of rules to begin the season, including enlarging bases, banning mound visits and the defensive shift, and requiring pitchers to face at least three batters.

More rule changes are coming in the 140-game season’s second half. The league is set to roll out the automated balls and strikes system to each of its eight ballparks in the coming weeks. Officials also will ban pickoff moves in which a pitcher remains on the rubber, expand the dropped third strike rule to all counts, allow bunting players to foul off a two-strike pitch before striking out and command umpires to rule on check swings in a “batter friendly” manner.

The league originally announced plans to push the pitcher’s mound back two feet, but delayed the proposal at least a season after an uproar from players and coaches.

“One of the things we consider is how disruptive [rule changes] will be to how the game is played,” said Morgan Sword, MLB’s senior vice president for league economics and operations and the main go-between for Manfred’s office and the Atlantic League. “We’re looking for rules within the context of baseball history that could be easy to implement.”

Every affiliated minor league ballpark and major league park is outfitted with the same TrackMan technology, though it’s mainly used to calculate advanced metrics such as spin rate, exit velocity and launch angle. League officials also use TrackMan to grade umpires.

On Wednesday, home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere wore an Apple AirPod in his right ear that connected to an iPhone in his back pocket. A computer in the press box communicated to that device whether the pitch was in or out of the strike zone, and deBrauwere relayed the calls to the field as a normal umpire would.

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Officials calculated the strike zone — about a ball and a half’s length from the top of the belt buckle to the bottom of a batter’s knee — based on biometric information gathered during stops in affiliated baseball. All but one of the All-Star Game’s 47 players had at least some minor league experience; 13 had played in the major leagues. For players without available strike zone data, they hit against a zone measured for a 6-foot-2 batter.

Save for pronounced consternation over one pitch, a tailing fastball that rung up Lancaster Barnstormers designated hitter Joey Terdoslavich in the second inning, the digitally rendered strike zone was barely noticeable. As Terdoslavich discussed the markedly low pitch with deBrauwere, the umpire pointed to his earpiece.

“It’s uncharted territory,” said deBrauwere, who told reporters he would have called the pitch a ball. “I just want these guys to know that’s what the system called.

“I understand why it’s a strike. The top of the ball shaved the bottom of the strike zone. But it would be almost impossible to be consistent with [that pitch without TrackMan] because it’s at the bottom of the zone, but also because catcher’s influence is real.”

“If that was the one blunder,” Terdoslavich said, “I didn’t really hear any complaints from anyone.”

For several pitches early in the game, deBrauwere’s earpiece lost connection to the iPhone in his pocket, though the technology quickly recovered. The system cut out entirely for half of the fourth inning, he said. In between half innings, an MLB official seated by the third base dugout fiddled with the iPhone so the earpiece regained connection. During those periods, deBrauwere called balls and strikes as if it were a normal game.

Baseball purists have been bracing themselves for years for the digital strike zone, what opponents derisively call “robot umpires,” fearing it could open the door to more structural changes that quicken the game’s pace or at least inject more offense.

“When they started putting the strike zone on TV just to let the fans understand why the pitch was called a ball or a strike, that was the start of it all,” New Britain Bees Manager Mauro Gozzo said before the game.

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But players, managers and umpires in the Atlantic League have been quick to endorse the system in the name of consistency, even if the long-established boundaries of the strike zone change because of technology. The consensus among players and umpires who have tested it is that TrackMan squeezes the corners of the plate where human umpires might not and grants strikes higher and lower in the zone.

Where umpires traditionally have been trained to call a breaking pitch that bounces in the dirt or dives down away from a catcher a ball, TrackMan’s software will award a strike if the ball crossed the plate even with a hitter’s knee, no matter how ugly the offering looks. Similarly, the software will grant pitchers a high strike that umpires generally will not because the ball appears too high as they crouch behind the plate.

“This strike zone is different than what every player has known in the past,” said Atkins, the York pitcher.

“We’ve been trained not to call these strikes,” deBrauwere said. “But it’s not surprising that the computer is going to call these pitches."

Atlantic League and MLB officials called the night a success and heralded deBrauwere’s poise officiating the game and players’ willingness to take part in an experiment in baseball’s future. TrackMan, though, was not the most extraordinary aspect of the evening.

With the teams tied after nine innings, the league turned to an impromptu home run derby to decide the winner. The Freedom Division, composed of teams in southern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Texas, won with a single long ball.

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