Foolproof Umpire, The


Published: December 14, 2003

A baseball umpire's job behind the plate has long been considered more a matter of art than a science, which is one reason managers lose their tempers so often. According to the official rules, the strike zone is defined by the width of the plate, from the batter's knees to his chest. But in reality, no two umpires ever call it the same way -- some shave the corners, others expand them and almost nobody respects the upper reaches of the zone. Pitches just above the belt buckle are called balls pretty much all the time.

This year, Major League Baseball officials tried to turn those artists into scientists using the Umpire Information System, a technology made by a Deer Park, N.Y., company called QuesTec. With the help of four video cameras (two at field level, two in the upper deck), U.I.S. tracks the flight of each pitch, gauging its speed and curvature and pinpointing exactly where it crosses the plate (with a margin of error of 0.4 inches). The visual data are converted into a single computer image of the action, making it easy to tell which pitches sail through the strike zone and which fall outside.

While U.I.S. is not designed to call balls and strikes in the midst of a game, Major League Baseball is using the system to measure the overall reliability of its human umpires. Ten of the 30 major-league stadiums have installed QuesTec technology (the equipment costs about $40,000 per venue, or about a tenth of a senior umpire's salary), and in the games played there, baseball officials have informed the umpires that their ball-and-strike calls will be graded against the computer's. If an umpire's calls disagree with the computer's more than 10 percent of the time, his performance will be considered substandard and possibly held against him in future promotion considerations and when lucrative post-season assignments are made.

The umpires are, naturally, freaked out by QuesTec, no doubt sensing the kind of doom that New York subway-token clerks felt when the MetroCard was rolled out. Many sports columnists rallied to the umpires' cause this year, criticizing QuesTec for robbing the game of poetry. But Sandy Alderson, Major League Baseball's operations chief, recently confirmed that the system is ''not going away,'' and that because of U.I.S., ''umpires are getting better and better at calling the strike zone.'' The threat of automation seems to have done wonders for job performance. Hugo Lindgren