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June 04, 2003

MLB striking out on QuesTec
By Dan Patrick

For Major League Baseball's umpires, Big Brother is watching (as in George Orwell's classic "1984"). In MLB, Big Brother takes the form of QuesTec.

Curt Schilling
Curt Schilling isn't a fan of Questec either.
QuesTec is the new umpiring system MLB has decided to use to maintain a consistent strike zone. It's become much more than that, though. If an ump's calls don't meet QuesTec's at least 90 percent of the time, then the ump will be judged as not meeting standards.

But attempting to solve the problem by monitoring umpires with this system is an ill-advised move. The system uses cameras mounted in the rafters of each ballpark to "see" if a pitch is a ball or strike. That information is then put on a CD-ROM to be given to the umpire at the end of the game to view. The umpire can then view his calls next to QuesTec's and contrast where they differed. It sounds like a great idea on paper, but this is not the way to achieve ball-strike consistency.

Before I start dissecting QuesTec, I want to say that I believe that umpires have brought some scrutiny upon themselves with their lack of a consistent strike zone. The problem is that each umpire has his own particular strike zone and each differs slightly from another umpire. This causes a lack of consistency in ball-and-strike calls, which unduly influences the direction of the game. In one game the low corner is a strike and in another it's a ball. That's not right and it's confusing for the players, who just want a consistent strike zone. Ideally the umpires should get together and decide upon a universal strike zone and stick to it. But that seems highly unlikely since they haven't been able to accomplish that goal since baseball's inception. So I understand MLB's response to the lack of consistency.

But QuesTec is not the answer -- especially not in its current state.

First, the system is currently only in 13 of 32 ballparks in the majors. The notion that you can maintain a consistent strike zone by enforcing it in less than 50 percent of the ballparks is ludicrous. It goes against logic and only enforces one of the reasons why a uniform system is necessary in the first place.

What happens if the World Series features a QuesTec ballpark and a non-QuesTec ballpark? We'll be in the same predicament we find ourselves in now, only this time it could decide the outcome of the World Series. I don't think that's where MLB wants this to go.

Second, it creates a tentative state among umpires. MLB is basing its All-Star and postseason umpiring assignments on the results generated by this machine. So QuesTec's results directly affect the umpire's livelihood. The last thing we want are umpires second-guessing their decisions during games because of a fear of losing their jobs.

I hope that we're not headed toward a situation where there's a traffic light signaling a green light for strikes and a red light for balls. The human element is an integral part of baseball, and umpires are as much a part of baseball as hot dogs and beer. Taking the human element out erases a major part of the game.

Third, the QuesTec system itself seems flawed. During spring training there was a demonstration of the system for some ESPN broadcasters, and they walked away quite unimpressed. The system shown during spring training didn't have depth perception, so while it's able to show what the corners are, it isn't able to accurately show how high or low a pitch is. The demonstrators also said they realized that the machine would be wrong at times.

It's ridiculous to expect the umpires to be perfect when the machine that's deciding if they're worthy of future job assignments isn't even perfect.

Finally, on the QuesTec web site, QuesTec has posted the position of system operator for the QuesTec system. The qualifications are as follows: live within 50 miles of an MLB ballpark, have solid baseball knowledge and be computer literate. That's the equivalent of ESPN posting a job to be my boss with only these qualifications: live within 50 miles of Bristol and know how to turn on a TV!

MLB has good intentions with the QuesTec experiment, but the application and administration are not working. MLB officials should ditch the experiment before they strike out.

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