Wednesday, February 27, 2019

MLB Taps Atlantic League for Reported Robot Ump Test

MLB is reportedly one step closer to robot umpires, signing an agreement with the independent Atlantic League to test rule changes, including robo-umps to call balls and strikes. Trackman radar devices will be installed at all eight stadiums of the independent Atlantic League in anticipation of the techno-umpire experiment, which is just one expected element of the Trackman incorporation.

Although Baseball America's report sounds quite progressive—as Atlantic League of Professional Baseball President Rick White said, "We kind of had this happy intersection of our intentions and [MLB's] initiatives where it is now formalized"—it's far from a finished product and does more for White's league than simply calling balls and strikes as the ALPB makes a deal with MLB it can hardly refuse.

Prepare for an increase in edge strike calls.
Trackman is the name of MLBAM Statcast's field-tracking component, of which PitchCast is the ball/strike module, and is the successor to SportVision's pitch f/x technology.

As such, Trackman itself helps White in his goal of getting his players seen by big league teams. Because Trackman keeps tabs on athletes, mainly in the pitching and hitting department, such as measuring spin rate or other pitch/hit metrics, it should give scouts a better chance at analyzing players as they already do with those in affiliated ball, who play at minor league stadiums with Trackman installed.

MLBAM is also set to take over the electronic scorekeeping function of the Atlantic League, meaning that all league stats will be transmitted to all 30 MLB teams, another boost for scouting athletes who play in the independent league. That alone should be good for business, another draw for athletes hoping to crack the MiLB barrier.

Most relevant, however, is the concept of impending MLB and MiLB expansion, which MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed in 2016, before more recently revisiting the issue in 2018, anticipating an expansion and naming several potential cities, including Portland (Oregon), Las Vegas, Charlotte (North Carolina), Nashville, Montreal, Vancouver, and even the country of Mexico.

PCL's Aviators (formerly 51s) plays in Vegas.
If baseball expands from 30 to 32 teams, its minor league feeder system will grow as well, leading to a cascading expansion draft that will turn to the independent leagues, as expansion outpaces scholastic-based matriculation (by comparison, the NFL has 32 teams, NHL has 31 [will be 32 in 2021], NBA has 30, and MLS has 24).

Accordingly, this could be ALPB's chance to set itself apart from the independent American Association, CanAm, and Pecos Leagues by cozying up to affiliated ball, further drawing in expansion-minded scouts.

Link: Introduction to UEFL f/x.
But for every give, there's also a take, and for Rob Manfred's MLB, that take is rules experimentation, including the expected regular use of Trackman's PitchCast module to call balls and strikes during live gameplay for the first time in professional baseball history.

As we've mentioned several times, problems arise when raw data from PitchCast, or Pitch f/x before it, are taken at face value. Simply put, there are too many variables prone to error—px, pz, sz_bot, sz_top—to, at this time, render a consistently accurate output.

In 2018, we rolled out UEFL f/x to address the shortcomings of the PitchCast technology when it comes to evaluating whether an umpire has properly officiated a ball or strike call based on the premise that an umpire cannot be deemed to have missed a call that evidence cannot conclusively prove was incorrect.
Related PostAsk UEFL - About Close Call Sports' Strike Zone QOC (8/1/18).

UEFL f/x incorporates our long-standing Kulpa and Miller Rules (UEFL Rule 6-2-b-1 and -2), which acknowledge the margin-of-error SportVision admitted was prevalent in its Pitch f/x product. MLBAM, on the other hand, has kept PitchCast's errors largely under wraps.
Related PostUEFL f/x vs K-Zone and the Player-Umpire Disconnect (10/4/18).

SMT SportVision sued Major League Baseball Advanced Media in May 2018, claiming that MLBAM stole its proprietary and patented PFX technology and incorporated the infringing information into Trackman's PitchCast, which powers BAM's Gameday data. Accordingly, we would understand the motivation to play PitchCast's inner-workings rather close to the vest.
Related PostPitch f/x SMT Sportvision Sues MLBAM for StatCast 'Theft' (5/21/18).

An exaggerated illustration of sz_bot/top error.
We have also detailed—several times over—baseball's habitual problem when it comes to calculating a batter's vertical strike zone (the sz_bot and sz_top values). Despite Commissioner Manfred's May 2018 comments regarding robot umpires, and his claim that PitchCast's accuracy is "way up—way better than what it was a year ago," the fundamental problem remains: Manfred refers to a pitch calling accuracy that, by its very definition, assumes that sz_bot and sz_top are accurate to begin with (when they most assuredly are not).

In other words, Manfred, when talking about accuracy, is referring to PitchCast variables such as px (horizontal pitch location) and pz (vertical location), and not sz_bot/sz_top, which we know are problematic.
Related PostManfred Talks Robot Umps - Tech is "Way Up" (5/30/18).

The two leagues will now have to work out a complex set of procedures and parameters for implementing Trackman PitchCast into live gameplay. For instance, what happens when the computer misses a pitch in the first inning and is then rendered useless for the remainder of the game? When will an umpire be authorized to overrule the technology?

In 2016, for instance, Pitch f/x malfunctioned ahead of an ejection, and the mistake wasn't corrected until well after the game's conclusion. If PitchCast is to call balls and strikes in real-time, these sorts of mistakes would prove catastrophic, and worse, undetectably so, if the pitcher were repeatedly peppering the same part of the zone.
Related PostDude, What Happened Last Night? About Pitch f/x Error (8/30/16).

MLB's agreement with the Atlantic League does not specify a timeframe as to the incorporation of the expected Trackman experiment, although the ALPB will begin introducing some of these changes at MLB's direction ahead of the 2019 season. The MLB-ALPB joint press release referred to the Arizona Fall League as an example of the type of experimental rule implementation methodology MLB plans to institute.


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