Sports’ advancement in technology marks a sign of the times

Advancements in technology have presented a unique opportunity for use in the world of sports, as high-definition cameras and computer systems have enabled several sports to implement forms of new technology in its officiating.

The game of baseball is not ignorant to this fact. Major League Baseball’s replay system has made a splash in this field, and most everyone who has ever had a Cracker Jack has an opinion on it. While some may not like it, it’s here to stay, and it may not be alone.

Here are some forms of available technology that just might be used in our game sooner rather than later:

baseball foxtrax-0K-Zone

With big league pitchers throwing at higher velocities than ever before, the strike zone continues to be a point of contention for players, coaches, and fans alike. If it was a challenge for umpires to call balls and strikes before, it has become downright difficult in today’s game.

One technology that may alleviate some of the pressure on umpires are systems similar to ESPN’s K-Zone. The network committed to its virtual strike zone for every pitch of its MLB coverage this past year, and it’s not alone. K-Zone, FoxTrax and TBS’ PitchTrax are also used in broadcasts throughout the regular season and playoffs.

The technology has advanced to a three-camera system that triangulates the strike zone into a virtual graphic. No sooner than a pitch is received by the catcher, it is charted within or outside the ‘zone.’ In fact, its location can be determined “at the exact location of the ball at the moment it passes home plate,” according to ESPN MLB coordinating producer Phil Orlins.

“It tracks the ball, so you can really see it drop and curve with a visualized trail,” said Orlins in a Vice Sports interview earlier this year. “I have always wanted to see the strike zone from this three-dimensional look, but we were never able to do it, due to the size of the cameras. [The camera] has to hang on or near the [netting], so a camera as big as a conventional robotic would have some major challenges. It is really the improvement in camera technology that allowed this to happen. It’s very impactful in combination with the live centerfield-camera K-Zone as a full sequence,” he says. “The centerfield clarifies for you where the ball is in the strike zone, and, with this side view, you see how it passes through the strike zone and continues into the catcher’s glove.”

Adopting a strike zone using this technology would indeed be a big change for baseball. While a home plate umpire would still be necessary, their attention could shift solely to determining plays at the plate, fair/foul balls and check swings. This would alleviate any arguing balls and strikes throughout the game and while some may miss the banter, this change would streamline and shorten game length.

The Hawk-Eye System and baseball

Hawk-Eye is an advanced camera system that is used to determine boundaries in tennis and other sports. It’s not perfect but it’s pretty close, and as it pertains to baseball, it’s a reasonable option to consider for determining fair and foul balls.

This would not eliminate the need for umpires in the field; umpires down the lines would still be needed when determining whether a batted ball passes over first or third base in (or out of) fair territory. However the tall task of sprinting towards the outfield fence and having to watch to see if a ball is fair or foul more than 100 feet away would be eliminated.

This technology uses measurements that include velocity and angle to determine a detailed estimate and churn out a virtual image of where the ball in question landed. Its systems’ record of perfection is up for debate, as some potential weaknesses have surfaced. For example, cricket (which is already utilizing Hawk-Eye technology, by the way) admits to when its technology is uncertain, at which point its umpires determine the call. While it has had some issues (including some players allegedly trying to cheat by adding a second layer of tape to their bats), its usage is here to stay in what is largely considered to be the sport most comparable to baseball.

In addition to cricket, Hawk-Eye is used in an official capacity in tennis, badminton, hurling, and soccer. It has proven to be accurate to within 5 millimeters and while it may not be perfect, it is another tool that may be used to ease the ever-growing burden on umpires today.

The average speed of a batted baseball is right around 90 miles per hour. Some of the game’s elite have registered exit velocities that exceed 120 miles per hour. By comparison, cricket and tennis routinely see velocities above 100 miles per hour during play. Since those two sports have already adopted the Hawk-Eye system, could baseball do the same?

Is perfection a reality?

People love to complain, so those who are complaining about umpire gaffs and longer games are likely to take issue with the ~0.01% error rate of Hawk-Eye technology or the lack of the back-and-forth between an umpire and the rest of the world about the strike zone.

The MLB replay system now has pundits up in arms about how ‘sufficient evidence’ is defined. “I’d like someone to explain to me what sufficient and insufficient evidence is, because last year we had a pretty good idea what that was, and I can’t tell you what it is this year. I really can’t,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus after a 5-2 loss to the Reds on June 16.

Ausmus is just one of several managers, players and fans who have taken issue with how the MLB replay system is used. Some don’t like that replay reviews add precious time to the length of games in the major leagues, and others believe that having an off-site replay center is an inefficient way to make sure the calls on the field are correct. But that’s just the point, isn’t it worthwhile for baseball to ensure that its in-game rulings are correct as often as possible?

Plain and simple, technology advances don’t come without scrutiny, and adding an official K-Zone and/or Hawk-Eye system to help umpires out would surely have its doubters. But if it’s perfect you’re looking for, you should probably look outside sports to find it. After all, Felix Hernandez threw 36 balls in his 2012 ‘perfect’ game.

What do you think about the use of technology in sports today? Should the MLB look at additional ways to streamline its games on a day to day basis? Tweet your thoughts @InsidePitchMag and let us know!