Is technology bumping against its limits in baseball?

first_imgWhen I arrived, Latta was working with a major-league client; a few minutes later, another arrived. A minor league catcher followed. Another minor leaguer called Latta’s cell phone while the catcher was in the cage. After some college players floated through, the day ended with a 12-year-old taking some hacks. Latta does not lack for clients.He does lack for gizmos. There’s a pitching machine in the back of his cage, but that went unused while I watched. The facility holds nothing resembling wearable technology or bat sensors. Latta films his clients’ swings with a camera and will break down their mechanics frame-by-frame when they find it helpful. Some clients use a simple mirror as much as, or more than, the video.Too many gizmos collect too much useless information, Latta believes.“The data,” he said, “is going to make it worse.”Future generations of hitters might need some yet-to-emerge technology if they want to play baseball at the game’s highest level. For now, there are some very good major leaguers who require nothing more than a good coach, a mirror, a camera and a monitor to get their swing right. This was the preferred boundary for hitting technology on one afternoon, at one facility. Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error I’ve been thinking a lot about the limits of how technology is applied to baseball – where the limits exist today, where they might exist in the future, where they should exist.There’s an obvious reason to ask the big questions. Baseball is reeling from the fallout of sign-stealing investigations into the 2017 and 2018 World Series champions. On Monday, after being fined $5 million and ordered to forfeit four draft picks, the Astros fired their manager and general manager. The Red Sox fired their manager Tuesday, having already fired their general manager last September. This is already Major League Baseball’s most conspicuous scandal since 2005, when some of its best players were hauled before Congress to discuss performance-enhancing drugs. The league hasn’t even released its findings from the Red Sox investigation yet.Now, MLB is reportedly planning to examine video replay rooms as a realm for illegal sign stealing. The report by Yahoo! Sports specified that the league is studying how replay rooms are policed. But the magnitude of this scandal is so large, a bigger question must be asked: can teams’ use of live feeds be policed at all?A few days before Commissioner Rob Manfred disciplined the Astros, I was visiting Doug Latta’s batting cage in Northridge for a story. The private instructor has worked with Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner, retired first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and more recently was credited with reviving Hunter Pence’s career by helping reshape Pence’s swing.center_img The limits on which team employees should be privy to live in-game feeds, and the extent to which 21st-century technologies are needed to coach hitters, are grounds for debate. The answer lies in some gray area. Smart people can agree to disagree. That’s usually the case with debates that affect baseball, and sports, and the human condition in general.The same is not true for electronic balls and strikes. In the future, either the umpire will have the authority to make the final call or he will not. If he does, you will be watching the game of baseball as we know it today. If he does not – if the strike zone is determined by some electronic entity – the game will be dramatically different, if not unrecognizable.I didn’t reach that conclusion quickly. One of the featured speakers at this year’s American Baseball Coaches’ Association convention in Nashville was Ryan Sienko, the Dodgers’ catching coordinator. Sienko didn’t dedicate any portion of his presentation to electronic balls and strikes. But some of the coaches who heard Sienko’s talk – the audience numbered in the thousands by his own estimate – asked him about it afterward.If MLB moved to a system of automated balls and strikes, Sienko said, “it would just strip away so much.”Begin with base stealing. Catchers crouch behind home plate in order to present pitches to an umpire standing behind them. The crouch is useful to an umpire’s sightlines, but not ideal for throwing out attempted base-stealers. If the umpire doesn’t need to see each pitch as it crosses home plate, astute teams will position their catchers however they need to throw out runners. Goodbye, crouch.Coincidentally, when the independent Atlantic League tested an automated ball/strike system last season, it instituted a rule allowing the batter to run to first base after any passed ball or wild pitch – to “steal first base,” if you will.“If they don’t put that (rule) in there, you can basically have your (catchers) get out of the way,” Sienko said. “You don’t have to even catch (the baseball). If there’s no one on base, there’s no real reason for you to catch it. You’re just standing there retrieving the ball after each pitch. It can become a 100 percent offensive position.”In the Arizona Fall League last October, one batter was ejected for arguing after a pitch was caught inches above the ground and called a strike. The pitch was difficult to hit, or at least hit well, but a calibrated computer determined it passed through the batter’s strike zone. The Fall League is populated by minor leaguers. A typical major league pitcher has elite command and could be expected to exploit the limits of an electronic strike zone even further. That would ultimately have an adverse effect on offense. It’s another point in favor of allowing hitters to “steal” first base on any ball that gets past the catcher, regardless of the count. It could be a necessary avenue for game action, for allowing runners to reach base.Back to the Atlantic League. When it allowed hitters to steal first, a funny thing happened. Some of them chose to ignore the rule. They pretended it didn’t exist. “Most guys feel that it’s bush league,” journeyman catcher James Skelton told ESPN in August.Times change, and so do the accepted norms of a sport. Think about the de-emphasis on pitchers “brushing back” a hitter with inside pitches, or sliding hard into a fielder standing at second, third, or home plate. The norms guiding these behaviors changed over time. In some cases, the rules did too. In other cases, no rule change was needed. Maybe Atlantic League players will someday decide it’s OK to run to first base on any count; maybe they won’t.What does all of this mean for MLB? The league didn’t believe the first-base rule was a necessary companion to the automated strike zone when it tested both rules in the Atlantic League. Sienko believes it is. If he’s right, we can call it a secondary consequence of a rule (a computer has the final say over balls and strikes) that was the secondary consequence of a technological advancement (calibrating a radar to detect strike zones with greater accuracy than humans).This is the perfect example of why MLB needs to ask the big questions about who calls balls and strikes now, knowing teams and players will exploit every advantage a new system would create. What are the secondary consequences? What are the tertiary consequences? Sienko has thought of some. Certainly, there are others.We might ultimately learn, like Latta’s spartan batting cage and any replay room within earshot of a major league dugout, that in baseball less is sometimes more.last_img

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