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Robo umps? Not so fast. Here’s what MLB’s technology upgrade means

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Major League Baseball hopes to refresh its ball- and player-tracking technology with a new optical-based system that could add even more statistical bells and whistles to the game — but won’t necessarily bring the league any closer to replacing ball-and-strike umpires with an automated strike zone.

The league’s plan to switch from its current radar- and camera-based systems to a single device manufactured by Hawk-Eye — the company whose electronic line judge revolutionized tennis — was outlined in a memo sent to teams and first reported by The Athletic. While no signed contract for the Hawk-Eye system is complete, sources tell ESPN, MLB is aiming for all 30 major league stadiums to be fully outfitted with it by the All-Star Game.

The current technology, which marries TrackMan’s radar system following the ball with six cameras that track player movement, provides the backbone for the league’s Statcast system. Since its introduction in late 2014, Statcast has revolutionized the game and introduced into its lexicon the concepts of exit velocity, launch angle and spin rate.

Optical tracking uses cameras to capture movement, whether a ball or human beings, and the Hawk-Eye system will require up to 12 additional cameras to be installed around stadiums. Between the expected accuracy of its spin-rate data and tracking of both pitches and players, Statcast 3.0 using Hawk-Eye could deepen team and public understanding of the game being played — and do plenty more.

Track the kinematics, or movement patterns, of every player on the field, including pitchers, whose injuries could potentially be mitigated? Perhaps. Give greater insight into the path that bats take during swings and allow hitters superior control? Certainly.

Lead to robot-ump revolution? Probably not.

The calls for an automated strike zone have grown louder in recent years as technology helped turn fans into instantaneous umpiring ombudsmen. The Hawk-Eye system could be accurate to within a few millimeters, perhaps a centimeter, an improvement upon the current one. The far greater concern regards the concept of the zone itself and how certain calls could play publicly.

If the strike zone is three-dimensional – 17 inches wide, 17 inches deep, with the back corners cut at an angle, from the hollow of the knees to around the belly button – an automated zone runs the risk of rewarding pitches that simply don’t look like strikes. Such scenarios are not particularly common but could threaten the credibility of an automated zone with the public. Sliders can clip the front corner of the prism as they’re bending outside. High curveballs can drop into the zone at the back of the plate. There is, of course, a relatively easy fix for this: change the strike zone to a fixed plane, whether it’s the front of the plate, the middle of the plate or perhaps the area where the most strikes would be called.

While there are a number of proponents for an automated strike zone, sources said, currently it is not a high priority for MLB. There almost certainly would not be buy-in from players, either, and baseball is typically deliberate with such fundamental change. The solution could be a combination of humans and technology, which MLB plans to test in the independent Atlantic League this year by having automated strike-zone calls piped into earpieces worn by umpires, who then would use their judgment whether to overrule a call. Since home-plate umpires won’t be going away anytime soon – they’re still needed for plays at the plate, interference calls, check swings and more – the success of the human-tech combination would help the automated zone would receive increased consideration.

More important in the short term is keeping up with rapidly evolving technology. Because MLB prohibits teams from installing their own systems in stadiums, the onus is on the league to pursue bleeding-edge technology. Statcast was refreshed in 2017 with the introduction of the TrackMan radar, and MLB’s desire to upgrade again — almost like people do with their phones — led to the likely adoption of Hawk-Eye.

Technology in particular has evolved rapidly. Nearly every organization in MLB uses high-speed, slow-motion versions to capture pitch grips and frame-by-frame mechanical breakdowns. Others are tooling with machine-learning technology in hopes of unearthing the next great advantage.

And MLB anticipates the next version of Statcast being a literal and figurative game-changer likewise. The camera system is far likelier to capture every ball hit — the league says today’s tracks only nine of 10 batted balls — and will test that hypothesis and plenty more in the second half.

That’s when the Hawk-Eye system is expected to be functional. Teams will be given access to the data, according to sources, when it’s installed in all 30 stadiums. And if the data is solid and its fidelity confirmed, Hawk-Eye is expected take over in 2020 and offer the newest iteration of the technology that helped change the game.

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Under oath — Judge delivers on home run promise

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Aaron Judge is a man of his word.

The New York Yankees outfielder, while catching up with bullpen catching coach Jason Brown’s father, John, on the field prior to Sunday’s series finale at Dodger Stadium, told the elder Brown, “I’ll hit one for you tonight,” as he walked away.

Judge delivered on that pledge in his second at-bat, crushing a 1-1 curveball from Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw to deep center field in the top of the third inning.

“That’s Aaron Judge, yeah, that’s who he is,” Jason Brown said of the Yankee star’s exchange with his father, who lives in Southern California.

Judge described the encounter to ESPN after New York’s 5-1 win.

“I’ve seen [John Brown] all over the place, and I missed seeing him when we played in Anaheim this year, so I went over there and just said hello to him and said I’d get one for him, and I was able to do that today,” Judge explained. “Wind was blowing out, though, so that helped.”

Asked if he has ever promised a home run to a fan before and then delivered, Judge replied, “I think once or twice, but it doesn’t happen too often.”

Judge later joked that he needs John Brown, whom he has known for a couple of years, to come to “every single game,” calling his presence a “lucky charm.”

The promised homer was Judge’s 16th of the season and gave the Yankees a 2-1 lead. Judge also homered in the first two games against the Dodgers this weekend.



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Gregorius exits in 3rd after HBP; X-rays negative

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X-rays on Didi Gregorius‘ right shoulder were negative, and the New York Yankees shortstop’s status is day to day.

Gregorius left New York’s 5-1 victory at Dodger Stadium after being hit by a pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw.

Gregorius suffered a right shoulder contusion after being drilled in the first inning Sunday night. He left in the third and was replaced by pinch hitter Mike Ford, who stayed in the game at first base.

Gregorius said after the game the shoulder was sore, and that he expects the soreness to go away, sooner than later.

“Pain is still pain. I mean at the end of the day, maybe I think in a couple of days it will be alright,” he said. “Or one day…see how it wakes up tomorrow.”

Gregorius hit a grand slam in New York’s 10-2 victory over the Dodgers on Friday.

He is hitting .263 this season with 13 home runs and 44 RBIs in 58 games. His season started late as he recovered from Tommy John surgery.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Ortiz enlists ex-police commish to probe shooting

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Former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz has hired a firm headed by ex-Boston police commissioner Ed Davis to look into the details surrounding the June shooting of Ortiz in the Dominican Republic.

Davis was hired a few weeks after Ortiz returned to Boston, Joe Baerlein, a spokesperson for Ortiz and principal owner of The Edward Davis Co., told ABC News.

Baerlein said his company is “monitoring and analyzing information from various sources in the Dominican Republic around the motives for the shooting of Ortiz on June 9th,” as well as providing personal security to Ortiz and his family.

“He’s damn interested in finding out what really happened,” Baerlein told The Boston Globe.

Ortiz, 43, was shot in the back by a gunman while sitting and talking with a friend at a nightclub in Santo Domingo the night of June 9. He was flown back to Boston aboard a jet sent by the Red Sox the next day and spent seven weeks in a hospital, undergoing three surgeries for life-threatening injuries.

Ortiz has not spoken to Dominican authorities since the night of the incident, Baerlein told the Globe, and also has not spoken with any U.S. authorities about the shooting.

Dominican authorities initially said that Ortiz had been the target of a hit. But almost three weeks later, police held a news conference to say their investigation led them to believe Ortiz was not the intended target and that it was a case of mistaken identity. More than a dozen people have been arrested in connection with the case.

“David has been carefully monitoring the government and police investigation,” Baerlein told the Globe. “He had no basis for a long time to challenge their theory of mistaken identity. However, as new facts continue to come up, it lends some optimism that there may be some other conclusions that are drawn before it’s over about why David was shot.”

Ortiz, who was released from the hospital at the end of July, posted to Instagram on Sunday a photo of himself and daughter Alex as he dropped her off at college.



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