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Baseball Team Experiments With Robot Umpires

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Getty Images

A recent experiment had computers doing the job of baseball umpires, and it may point to a future where arguing balls and strikes is futile.

The San Rafael Pacifics of the Pacific Association of Professional Baseball Clubs (a league not affiliated with MLB) used a digital pitch tracking system called Pitchf/x to call balls and strikes during a two-game series in July. The technology quickly analyzed the location of a pitch and transmitted it to an off-field official with a microphone who announced the call to the players and the crowd.

Pitchf/x has been used in Major League Baseball, but only for analytical reasons. Here’s a rundown from Smithsonian:

Pitchf/x was first used in the 2006 Major League Baseball playoffs to analyze pitchers, and the system is now installed in every MLB stadium in the country. It uses three cameras to track the ball’s trajectory and spin and to show where it passes through the strike zone. The tool is accurate within a third of a baseball, and major league teams have been using it for years to track statistics and show pitch trajectory during television broadcasts.

While MLB has never used Pitchf/x on an official basis for calling actual balls and strikes, some think the technology should have a future in the majors. Former big leaguer Eric Byrnes, who served as the voice of the "robo ump" during the San Rafael Pacifics' experiment, says the automated strike zone is "seamless" and doesn’t slow down or in any way hinder the game. "To know you're getting every single call right, it takes away all the injustices, in my opinion," Byrnes told the Associated Press.

Wayne Acerogiles, the home plate umpire, still set up in his customary position behind the catcher during the game, but he was there only to make calls other than balls and strikes, like close plays at home. Acerogiles suggested to the AP that, in the future, umpires could wear an ear piece that delivers the Pitchf/x data, allowing the umpire to still appear to make the call.

"Tempo was tricky, and tricky for the batters, too," fellow umpire Eric Thompson told the AP. He had some other complaints, as well. "We have fun being on the field. If we get replaced by robots, we're not on the field anymore, so we're not going to have fun. It's fun to argue."

Everything seemed to run smoothly in the Pacifics' games, but don’t expect to see Major League Baseball adopt a similar system anytime soon. The umpires' union has voiced concern over how it might affect jobs and MLB officials—often resistant to change—are reluctant to fully remove the human element from the game.

If you're someone who goes to the ballpark to vent at the umpires, this technology isn't for you. At one point during the Pacifics' experiment, the computer called strike three on San Rafael’s Jeremy Williams. After Byrnes yelled the call through the PA system, the small crowd booed Byrnes, prompting him to stand up and plead, "I’m just the messenger. I mean, yell at this! Blame the computer! Blame the computer!"

Carl Court, Getty Images
Is There a Limit to How Many Balls You Can Juggle?
Carl Court, Getty Images
Carl Court, Getty Images

In 2017, a juggler named Alex Barron broke a record when he tossed 14 balls into the air and caught them each once. The feat is fascinating to watch, and it becomes even more impressive once you understand the physics behind it.

As WIRED explains in a new video, juggling any more than 14 balls at once may be physically impossible. Researchers who study the limits of juggling have found that the success of a performance relies on a number of different components. Speed, a.k.a. the juggler's capacity to move their hands in time to catch each ball as it lands, is a big one, but it's not the most important factor.

What really determines how many balls one person can juggle is their accuracy. An accurate juggler knows how to keep their balls from colliding in midair and make them land within arm's reach. If they can't pull that off, their act falls apart in seconds.

Breaking a juggling world record isn't the same as breaking a record for sprinting or shot put. With each new ball that's added to the routine, jugglers need to toss higher and move their hands faster, which means their throws need to be significantly more accurate than what's needed with just one ball fewer. And skill and hours of practice aren't always enough; according to expert jugglers, the current world records were likely made possible by a decent amount of luck.

For a closer look at the physics of juggling, check out the video below.

Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
11 Timeless Yogi Berra Quotes
Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Bowman Gum - Heritage Auctions, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The great Yogi Berra—a 10-time World Series champion and three-time MVP—was one of baseball's best catchers, but he's remembered just as much for his wit and wisdom as his Hall of Fame career. Here are some of the quotes attributed to Yogi (who was born on May 12, 1925), even if he didn't always say them first.

1. "Always go to other people's funerals, otherwise they won't go to yours."

2. "The future ain't what it used to be." (Yogi later clarified, saying, "I just meant that times are different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.")

3. "A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."

4. "It ain't over 'til it's over."

5. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." (See Quote Investigator)

6. "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." (See Quote Investigator)

7. "We have a good time together, even when we're not together."

8. "It's déjà vu all over again." (See Quote Investigator)

9. "Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical."

10. "I really didn't say everything I said."

11. "Then again, I might have said 'em, but you never know."


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