The Atlantic League, the independent minor league that Major League Baseball has tapped to study rule changes, has seen another first.
A coach has been ejected for cursing at an umpire — about a computer-generated strike zone.
The eight-team league is installing radar-enabled strike zone technology in its ballparks this month. A panel bolted to the stadium facade looking down at home plate scans the flight of the ball and communicates either “ball” or “strike” to the umpire, who carries an iPhone in his back pocket and wears an Apple AirPod in one ear. He announces the call to the crowd just like any other baseball game.
But on Friday, one coach wasn’t too pleased with how the game was being called, by the human home plate umpire or the software system making the calls, and it didn’t take long for him to tell someone about it.
Dominic DeMasi, the starting pitcher for the High Point Rockers, had already allowed two runs to the York Revolution in the bottom of the first inning, and had just walked Ryan Dent to load the bases, when pitching coach Frank Viola had seen enough. As he hollered at home plate umpire Tim Detweiler about the strike zone from the dugout, Detweiler responded by pointing to his earpiece, relaying that the software, made by sports data firm TrackMan, was responsible for calling balls and strikes.
That seemed to upset Viola even more.
“Do your f------ job!” he bellowed at Detweiler, who promptly ejected him.
Players, coaches and umpires have agreed that TrackMan has changed the traditional strike zone. The league tested the software at ballparks in New Britain, Conn., and Bridgewater, N.J., before officially rolling out the program at the league’s All-Star Game in York, Pa., on July 10. High Point is set to begin using TrackMan at its home stadium Friday, according to team officials.
By the All-Star Game, nearly every team and many of the umpires had some experience with the software, and participants in the game said the radar sees the strike zone in a markedly different way than human umpires.
Where umpires traditionally have been trained to call a breaking pitch that bounces in the dirt or dives down away from the catcher a ball, TrackMan’s software will award a strike if the ball crossed the plate even with the 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,” York pitcher Mitch Atkins said at the All-Star Game.
“We’ve been trained not to call these strikes,” All-Star Game home plate umpire Brian deBrauwere said. “But it’s not surprising that the computer is going to call these pitches."
Consider Viola surprised, or at least a bit salty. He knows a thing or two about the strike zone after a 15-year major league career that included three All-Star Games, the 1988 American League Cy Young Award and MVP honors in the 1987 World Series. He spent the past eight years as an instructor with the New York Mets organization and was one of the coaches who helped develop 2018 Cy Young winner Jacob DeGrom.
Viola is not the first to protest the software’s borderline calls. During the All-Star Game, TrackMan rung up Lancaster Barnstormers designated hitter Joey Terdoslavich on a low, tailing fastball. The home plate umpire, deBrauwere, said after the game that he would have called the pitch a ball, if it were up to him.
Terdoslavich turned to deBrauwere to question the call, but the umpire simply pointed to his earpiece. Terdoslavich nodded and walked back to the dugout.
“Nothing’s perfect,” he said afterward. “Umpires aren’t perfect. TrackMan is not going to be perfect. I can live with that.”