History will be made tonight.
There has been a lot of talk about the benefits and drawbacks of automated umpires for calling balls and strikes. Advocates and skeptics. But on Tuesday night in the independent Pacific Association in a game between the San Rafael Pacifics and Vallejo Admirals, everyone will get to see an automated strike zone in action in a professional game.
The two-game automated umpire trial is the brainchild of former big league outfielder Eric Byrnes, who will serve as the “Strike Zone Umpire" for the two games as a charity fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation.
Byrnes played for the Pacifics last year for the Pat Tillman Foundation. This year when discussing ideas for a return visit, Byrnes brought up the idea of doing something a little different. Among those ideas, he suggested an automated umpire to calls balls and strikes, something Byrnes has advocated for a while.
A few phone calls later and Pacifics general manager Mike Shapiro and assistant general manager Vinnie Longo had SportsVision outfitting the stadium to make Byrnes' vision a reality.
The technology is pretty widespread and understood at this point. Three cameras track the ball in three dimensions. Byrnes will be sitting with a monitor in front of him on press row. When the pitch crosses the plate, the pitching tracking software will show whether it's a strike or a ball. Byrnes will then immediately call ball or strike into the public address system. There will still be a home-plate umpire to handle any other calls that need to be made at the plate (such as check swings and plays at the plate). Longo said that the Pacific Association's umpires were consulted and are in favor of testing out the system.
Byrnes will donate $100 to the Pat Tillman foundation for every walk and every strikeout that occurs over the two games. He will donate an additional $10,000 if he ejects any player or manager for arguing balls and strikes.
The tech was tested out in a dry run on Friday, July 24. It tracked every pitch with no problems, giving the team confidence that it will work with no significant issues.
“We're not just putting on a promotion … we're doing something big for the game of baseball. I think this is going to work," Longo said.
The automated umpire nights is yet another innovative moment for the four-team, California-based independent league that has somehow managed to survive in a difficult market in small parks. The league as a whole is averaging 272 fans per game, according to official attendance figures. None of the four teams in the league are drawing more than 500 fans per game.
But the league has now survived into season three. The Sonoma County Stompers have the what is believed to be the first openly gay player in pro baseball in lefthander Sean Conroy. The Stompers' baseball operations department is run by Grantland's Ben Lindbergh and Baseball Prospectus' Sam Miller as they run the team by sabermetric principles to try to win a title and gather material for a book that is expected to come out next year.
And now the league will become the first to experiment with automated ball-strike calls. It may be a two-game experiment, but it might also be the start of something.
Not long ago the independent Atlantic League added some innovative initiatives to speed up the pace of play, many of which were later adopted by Major League Baseball. It would not be surprising if other independent leagues toyed with the idea of testing automated ball-strike calls. From there, the idea could grow.