Column Feature

PITCHf/x and the Rise of the Machines

Earlier this month, the Associated Press announced that they were partnering with a company called Automated Insights which produces a platform called Wordsmith. The brains behind Wordsmith is an algorithm, which can take in data from a game (of any sport, theoretically) and uses it to construct a recap that is supposed to feel natural, like it was written by a person.The AP plans to use Wordsmith to cover sports and events that they are unable to send reporters to, like lower division college baseball and football.

As a person who (somehow) manages to carve out a living by arranging words and letters into vaguely coherent sentences, I found the New Yorker’s article “The Sportswriting Machine” slightly disconcerting. Though the AP will continue to send reporters to cover many sporting events, it’s not a stretch to see this technology expand to larger contests as it becomes more refined. It is after all, as the article points out, faster and cheaper than sending a reporter, paying for the flight, the hotel room, and a meal at Denny’s.

Automation, mechanization, and technology have changed every industry, so it’s not a surprise to see it coming to journalism as well. Of some comfort is the fact that Wordsmith is just not very good. I have worked with similar tools in my day job, and the algorithms have a long way to go before they even sound natural, let alone enjoyable to read. And there is no tool (not yet anyway) that is able to detect nuance or do actual reporting. So I still breathe easy, but I do look over my shoulder for the Terminator a bit more now.

What this did make me think of however is where will the next wave of automation be in the sports themselves? And to me the answer is officiating.

My first job as a twelve year-old was umpiring Little League baseball games. On the weekends, I would schedule in umpiring gigs around my own playing schedule. My game would end, I’d grad a Capri Sun and some fruit snacks, then charge off to the restroom, change, and head back out to call a game on another field. I’ve always felt a sort of kinship to referees and umpires; we see games the same way that athletes do. Calls that you missed replay over and over again in your head, and the feeling after a good day behind the plate is the same one you get after playing a good game. But much like the players who play the games, officials are prone to human fallibility and those mistakes are magnified.

There have already been large advances when it comes to integrating technology with athletic contests in the past several years. After a series of controversies, FIFA adopted goal line technology for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and is also used in MLS and the Premier League. Hockey has used video replay to review goals for years, and replay is now extensively used in basketball, football, and most recently baseball.

To date, the sport that has most seamlessly integrated technology and replay into its contests is tennis and that has as much to do with the sport itself as the advancements in ball tracking. Tennis has very clear boundaries and simple rules. It’s not hard to imagine a tennis game where  only the umpire remains, cameras and sensors make all of the calls with 100% accuracy. A simple beep to indicate that the ball was out, and the ball kids start to fling the tennis balls up and down the lines then the next point would start.

So what comes next? Basketball and football are too free-flowing, with rules that are too subjective for an artificial solution at this point. But what if there was another sport, with clear boundaries, a slower pace, and close plays that can change the outcome of games and seasons alike?


Umpiring has changed drastically over the years, the four umpire system was implemented in 1909 for the World Series, but not until 1952 was it used for all regular season games as well. Today, MLB playoff games use six of the men in blue for better coverage of the foul lines.

Removing all umpires from the game is not a feasible solution, tag plays and other judgment calls like obstruction and interference will still require human interpretation but the place where technology may be of better use is perhaps the most subjective officiating area in all sports: the strike zone. (I’m saying this while trying not to think about boxing judges which… well let’s not open that awful can of worms).

Pitch tracking has evolved in leaps and bounds from the QuesTec days to what is now basically real-time processing (anyone who’s watched a game on Fox or ESPN lately has seen this technology incorporated into the broadcast). The latest system in use is called PITCHf/x and its camera system is currently installed in every MLB stadium.

Currently, the PITCHf/x results are consolidated into a “Zone Evaluation” report that is now used as part of the grading criteria that evaluates umpires. If the umpire calls too many strikes or balls that go against the PITCHf/x system, their Z-E score will suffer and affect their overall grade. But even as this improves umpiring, mistakes will still be made. There is still space for a better solution, an automated one that can call balls and strikes with complete accuracy and consistency.

Home plate umpires do bear a lot of responsibilities behind the plate beyond calling balls and strikes, such as determining if a batter swung, foul tips, if a batter is hit by a pitch, plays at the plate, keeping the dish clean, balks, etc. So a human would still have to be behind the plate to handle these jobs and as a redundancy for the technology.

But ultimately what everyone wants, umpires included, is to be better. MLB claims that their umpires are correct on fair/foul calls and plays at the bases 98-percent of the time, and that plate umpires call balls and strikes correctly 95-percent of the time. But as Ben Lindbergh cites in his examination of automated umpiring for Grantland, there are on average 156 called pitches each game (pitches without a swing). Even if the umpires are hitting at a 95-percent clip that means eight pitches will be missed each game.

A PITCHf/x system that also gave real-time feedback to umpires on the strike zone would go a long way towards greater accuracy and precision. It could use a display of some kind, or something similar to the watch used by soccer referees that buzzes if the ball has crossed the goal line.

Critics of the expanded use of technology, in baseball in particular, use nostalgia as a weapon. “We’ve always done it this way” is their motto, and “the human element” is their battlecry. But I simply ask this: Would it be good for the game?

Let’s ask Andres Galarraga what he thinks. More importantly ask Jim Joyce, because if there was replay, he would have called the challenge on himself.

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