John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
If the so-called robot umpires are the future for baseball, and certainly the questionable home plate umpiring in the World Series has produced a new outcry toward that end, then Frank Viola figures he'll be remembered for something more than winning a World Series MVP and an American League Cy Young Award.
"I was the first guy thrown out of a robotic-umpire game," Viola says with a laugh over the phone. "I'm in the history books."
Viola earned that distinction back in July as the pitching coach of the High Point (N.C.) Rockers of the Atlantic League, the independent league that was used to test out potential changes for the MLB, including an automated strike zone.
As Viola, the former Met 20-game winner tells it now, his ejection was symbolic of the problems the league had with the TrackMan system, which uses doppler radar to detect whether a pitch was in the strike zone or not.
"If they ever do go to the robot umpires in the big leagues, they'll need a better system," Viola says. "There were too many bugs in this one."
Viola said there were all sorts of inconsistencies with the TrackMan system, which sends a one-word automated verbal cue -- either "ball" or "strike" -- to the earpiece of the home-plate umpire, who then makes the call for everyone to hear.
"The system could be affected by all kinds of things," Viola said. "Sometimes weather made it malfunction. Sometimes the individualized strike zone didn't match up to the height of the player at the plate, based on the data. Sometimes a pitch just wouldn't register."
The TrackMan umpiring system was unveiled at the Atlantic League All-Star Game in July, and had only been in operation for a couple of weeks when Viola reacted to what he saw as too many clearly missed calls.
"My pitcher was getting screwed because the system wasn't working right," he recalled. "The umpires were told that if they didn't hear anything (in their earpiece), the pitch was a ball.
"So the umpire is calling pitches that were right down the middle as balls. I finally got to the point where I yelled at him and asked, 'Are you calling them or is TrackMan calling them?'
"I think he didn't know what to say so he pointed at himself and that's when I went ballistic and got thrown out. But that's what we were dealing with some nights. We had a game where, when we went back and watched the tape, there were over 30 pitches missed by TrackMan."
Viola wasn't the only one who complained about the system.
When USA Today did an in-season story on the Atlantic League's experimentation, Maryland Southern Blue Crabs shortstop Kent Blackstone was quoted saying, "There have been times when the ball hits the ground and they're calling a strike."
And Blue Crabs' pitcher Daryl Thompson noted: "There were a couple of games where TrackMan malfunctioned. In the middle of the at-bat, the umpire would call over to our manager and say, 'This one's going to be on me. TrackMan's broke right now.'
"That to me says this isn't baseball if we're going to be doing that."
By season's end, Viola said he heard the TrackMan system was outdated, and perhaps as a result, there have been reports MLB will begin using the Hawk-Eye system, known for its use for in-or-out line calls in tennis, in the future.
Nevertheless, Viola doesn't see the Players Association signing off on such a radical change anytime soon, though you wonder about that after seeing the reactions to some crucial -- and seemingly missed -- calls by home plate umpire Lance Barksdale in Game 5 of the World Series Sunday night.
Barksdale was even heard, via a field microphone, essentially blaming Nationals' catcher Yan Gomes for moving too much on one particular pitch, causing him to miss an obvious strike.
"Oh, so it's my fault?" Gomes was heard replying sarcastically.
Ump doesn't call strike three. Tells Gomes he was taking off on him. Gomes replies 'Oh it's my fault?"- Jomboy (@Jomboy_) October 28, 2019
Then Martinez kindly asks the up to wake up because its the World Series. pic.twitter.com/iRUr349bQh
In any case, Barksdale's calls created a new outcry on social media for the so-called robot umpires to be adopted by MLB as soon as possible.
According to an MLB source, however, the robot umps are "down the list" of ways that commissioner Rob Manfred wants to improve baseball, as he is focused mostly on speeding up the pace of games, starting with a pitch clock, as well as creating more action, which could include banning shifts at least to some degree.
Manfred also believes in the importance of baseball's entertainment value. And as it is, the use of replay has mostly eliminated the time-honored -- and often highly entertaining -- tradition of managers arguing with umpires, except on the calling of balls and strikes.
Indeed, did anything the Yankees do this season get more media attention than Aaron Boone's famous "savages in the box" rant at a home plate umpire, as picked up by a field microphone?
With robot umps in use, Boone would presumably never have gone off like that, and a sport that needs more personality would have less of it.
With that in mind, count Viola as those opposed to robot umps, even if the bugs are worked out of a new system in coming years.
"I think you need the human interaction with the umpire," Viola said. "I got tossed out of that one game, but after that, I realized there was really nobody to argue with. I felt like I was in jail once the game started: we weren't allowed to have mound visits, and it didn't make sense to yell at the umpire.
"It got boring watching TrackMan make the calls, and baseball is too boring already, especially at the major league level with the long games and all the pitching changes and pitchers who won't attack the strike zone.
"So I'll put it this way: I'm not the biggest fan of umpires, but after getting to see what the robotic system looked like, I'd love to be able to argue with an umpire again."