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Will baseball feel the same if the umpire calling balls and strikes is a robot?


Thanks to resisting the metric system for over a hundred years, many baseball stats are lathered with beautiful-sounding round numbers - a 100-mile-an-hour fastball or a 400-foot home run. But lately, for a lot of fans, the game at the major league level has largely become a two-dimensional sport - pretty much just home runs or strikeouts - which has people complaining that it's boring. So Major League Baseball has been looking into tweaking some things, and two of the biggest are moving the pitcher's mound back a foot and using robotic umpires to call balls and strikes. Now, to test it out, they partnered with the independent Atlantic League, and Rick White is the president of that league. Rick, thanks for joining us.

RICK WHITE: My pleasure, A. Good to be with you today.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, these changes - or at least these proposed changes - came during what some would consider a rough time for the sport. What's your understanding on why Major League Baseball wanted to try this out?

WHITE: I think you nailed it in the intro, A, and that is Major League Baseball would like to increase the play values that draw people to the sport in the first place. It isn't necessarily offensive production, but it's offensive action. They'd like to see more running, more stolen bases, more doubles, more triples into a gap and some of those features that bring people to the sport in the first place.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, let's start with moving the mound back from 60 feet, 6 inches to 61 feet, 6 inches. What do pitchers and hitters tell you about how it felt?

WHITE: You know, it's interesting. Before it happened, there was a great deal of speculation. There was, in some quarters, a near revolt in clubhouses. But once we started the experiment, we were all surprised to see that pitchers acclimated to a one-foot-further distance very easily almost without any real preparation, the way you might think. You know, a guy who's throwing 96 miles an hour is still going to be throwing with the same velocity. And there wasn't really a material effect with the extra foot of pitching distance.

MARTÍNEZ: What about for the hitters? Because they get that extra split second to gauge what pitch is coming at them.

WHITE: You know, this is the material curiosity. One of the unexpected outcomes of the test was that our strikeout rate actually went up. Intuitively, people would have thought it would go down because of that extra foot of distance, but quite the opposite took place.

MARTÍNEZ: Did it lead to more action on the field, as you mentioned earlier - more balls in the gap, more getting the infielders and outfielders involved in the action?

WHITE: We didn't notice a material change in offensive statistics. While strikeouts went up, we didn't see a corresponding increase with any dynamic action relative to batted balls.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, let's get to the robotic umpires. How did that work?

WHITE: That one was something where there was a material, discernible, constructive change in terms of accuracy, consistency and answering the age-old on-field question of - it's OK to tell me where the strike zone is; just be consistent with your calls.

MARTÍNEZ: Were other umpires still used to call outs on the bases, or is it just balls and strikes for the robotic umpires?

WHITE: It was really binary, and it was only balls and strikes. And Major League Baseball made a terrific threshold decision - one, to allow umpires to continue to signal balls-and-strike calls. The other thing home plate umpires could do in this case was override the system in the case of incidents like hit by pitch, foul tipped, balls that might have bounced in front of the plate but bounced up through the strike zone. So the home plate umpires were actually more active and more alert than they might have been otherwise.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, you mentioned what pitchers and hitters felt about these two changes. The big question, Rick, is how did fans of the Atlantic League take those changes? Or did they even notice?

WHITE: That's the great curiosity, A. I go to many of our games, as you would imagine, and universally, even though intellectually many fans knew that an automated system was calling balls and strikes, they were still yelling at the umpire to call a better game.

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

WHITE: And every time that would happen, it would bring a smile to my face.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Rick White. He's president of the Atlantic League. Rick, thank you very much.

WHITE: A, it's been a pleasure. Be well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.