The voice emanating from the headphone was fittingly robotic, a steely, monotone reminder of who — or what — was in command, and where baseball seems to be headed.
“Strike,” the voice said. “Strike. Ball. Strike.”
That voice, projected by a pair of Apple AirPods, will be in the ear of the Atlantic League’s home plate umpires in the second half of this season, as the league experiments with an Automated Ball Strike system, powered by TrackMan radar, as part of a three-year partnership with Major League Baseball.
Debuting in York at the Atlantic League’s All-Star game, the system redefines the stike zone, establishing a zone that is taller than the one called by most umpires, with added room at the top and bottom. Conversely, the ABS’s zone trims fat off the corners of the plate, working against hitters in one way and with them in the other.
The ABS is also reshaping borders that are more difficult to quantify, altering dynamics between umpires, catchers and batters that have existed in the game for over a hundred years.
“It’s uncharted territory,’ said umpire Brian deBrauwere of Hershey, who worked home plate for the system’s debut in York.
DeBrauwere was charged with mapping that land out in the bottom of the second inning that night in York, when Lancaster Barnstormer Joe Terdoslavich took a called third strike, as the first to take issue with the ABS’s zone.
Terdoslavich thought the pitch — a four-seam fastball from Mitch Atkins — was low. DeBrauwere did too. If the crowd’s groan was any indication, the 6,773 in attendance at the Atlantic League All-Star game shared the same opinion.
The ABS didn’t.
Incredulous after being rung up on a called third strike on a pitch he didn’t think was close to the strike zone, Terdoslavich turned to argue.
“I know it was a ball,” he said later. “I just know it was.”
Terdoslavich turned toward the umpire to tell the umpire as much, but he was quickly subdued. DeBrauwere shrugged and motioned to the AirPod in his ear. Just like that, Terdoslavich’s case was shattered.
“I just want these guys to know that’s what the system called, so I think that’s a simple way to do it,” DeBrauwere said. “There’s going to be instances this year where the system goes out and it’s back to my zone, and if that’s the case, I’ll handle it the way we always do — talk about it and move on. But if the system tells me that it’s a ball or a strike and they don’t like it, I’m just going to tell them, ‘Hey, the system called it.’ ”
There was no dirt kicked, no fingers pointed, no ejection made.
How do you argue with a machine?
Well, when working correctly, it seems like you don’t.
“You can’t,” Terdoslavich said. “That’s why I turned around, saw (the umpire), and went back to the dugout. I didn’t say nothing to him. There’s nothing you can say to him, because he’s going off what he’s hearing.”
Baseball is full of red-faced managers and players throwing adult temper tantrums before thousands of fans over what they perceive to be missed calls. From Bobby Cox to Earl Weaver to Aaron Boone, many a manager has earned an ejection for disagreeing with a home plate umpire’s strike zone.
When TrackMan is employed, baseball loses that human element.
“It’s an interesting question, because it’s kind of entertainment versus competition,” deBrauwere said. “From a competition sense, it might be better eventually. But from an entertainment sense, it might take a little bit away from what we’ve come to know from baseball.”
TrackMan mutes some of the more civil discussion that happens around home plate, too.
Sometimes, players like Barnstormer Caleb Gindl will depend on discourse with the umpires to help them get a feel for the strike zone that night. Now, with both players and umpires trying to get a feel for the new parameters, Gindl feels a bit blinded.
“The one thing I’m getting confused with is, I can’t look back and say, ‘Is that the corner?’ ” Gindl said after the All-Star Game in York. “... Tonight on those balls that felt in on me, I couldn’t look back and say, ‘Is that as far in as you’re going to go?’ ”
As the Atlantic League and Major League Baseball continue to make drastic changes to a game built on tradition, many fans would surely like to ask the same question.