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Questioning QuesTec
2003-06-04 00:27
by Mike Carminati

Here are a couple of emails that I've received of late because of my anti-QuesTec stance. First...

Mike I have a question on the UIS.

Ther's a lot of complaining about the UIS and the ability to accurately call balls and strikes, but it seems to me that there was a whole lot of resistance to MLB's new(old) strike zone initiative from a year or 2 back. Isn't it fair to say that the system could merely be reflecting the new zone as deemed by MLB, albeit one that players and umps alike are neither used to nor in favor of ?

The most objective observation I have heard lately is the issue of consistency due to the abscence of the UIS in some ballparks. So then, if the UIS is installed in all ballparks to help ensure consistency as far as the umps' psychological state is concerned, then most of the issue should go away.

Consistency is a legitimate issue. But the strike zone is the strike zone, and it is determined by MLB, not by each of 50 different umpires depending on the numerous variables they admit to using (how late in the game, etc). The umps think they determine the strike zone, and perhaps for a long while they did, but in fact the rules of
the game belong to MLB, the umps are just there to make the calls. Perhaps that's a difficult pill to swallow for them.

Once UIS is in all 30 ballparks I would expect consistency of the strike zone - whether or not anyone likes that strike zone - should improve.

Russ Trommer

Towit I responded:

Hi Russell,
I agree that the QuesTec system has its uses. I just think that they don't outweigh its limitations when it comes to evaluating umps.
Now, don't get me wrong I think the umps had been doing a deplorable job of calling balls and strikes for years. The strike zone had shrunk vertically and expanding horizontally. And it varied from ump to ump and even from game to game and from call to call for an indivdual ump. The umps became arrogant and felt that the strike zone was their personal chattle and that the rule book could be igmored. That's what this is really about: it's a power struggle between MLB and the umps over control of the strike zone. The umps just don't get that they are the employees and that they can be replaced.
I also think it's well within MLB baseball's rights to do what is necessary (within reason) to get the umps to consistently call the strike zone in the rule book. I would have no problem using the QuesTec system if it were reliable, or at least as reliable as the human eye, which I do not believe it is.
I did some research on this last July, here
and here
The problem that I see is that the system apparently takes its reading at one spot, but the strike zone is three-dimensional space defined by the batter vertically and the plate horizonally and depth-wise. "The Physics of Baseball" showed that certain pitches such as a low curve can drop out of the strike zone and that certain pitches such as a high fastball can drop into it over the course of home plate. If QuesTec measures from the back of home, it favors fastballers; from the front, it favors junkballers. Harold Reynolds claims that the readings are made three feet in front of home, which would really screw things up royally. Besides, does the QuesTec system compensate for different size batters and different batting stances, bith of which would affect the strike zone? I doubt it unless it is intelligent enough to find the batters knee caps, belt and shoulders as the ball crosses home plate. That would be extremely difficult for it to do accurately. Also, are all these machines callibrated the same and are those callibrations checked on a regular basis weekly, daily, during a game, or only when Curt Schilling pounds it into oblivion?
I feel that with its limitations, the syetem would be a great training tool. However, MLB has positioned it to be basically a disciplinary tool to get the otherwise incorrigible umps in line. A) This is poor management: everyone knows who the worst umps are at calling balls and strikes according to the rules. Have those umpires retrain their eyes. If the cannot or will not do so, fire them thereby sending a message to the rest. It's basic staff management. B) It is an inappropriate use of technology. This is an industry that has yet to embrace OPS and relative ERAs, and they are going to install leading-edge technology and assume that it will cure all their problems?
A byproduct may be that the strike zone is called more accurately than in the past in QuesTec parks. And when they install QuesTec in every stadium, the strike zones will be more consistent throughout baseball, but will they be correct? No, but the pitchers who get squeezed by it will find other ways to exploit its shortcomings. Umps will be afraid to call the obvious balls that they consider a strike in their personal strike zone, so that will be an improvement.
I just think there are better ways to improve pitch calls through training, weeding out the poor umps, promoting minor-league umps who are deserving, and limiting home plate assignments (and attendant better pay) to those umps who display a better understanding of the strike zone, which can be ascertained from video as accurately and easily as from QuesTec.
That's my take.

Another reader sent me his open letter to Bud Selig and Bob Watson:

First, I'd like to offer these URLs as background and timeline:

and then there is this:

Dear Commissioner Selig and Bob Watson,

I've long admired Curt Shilling as a stand-up guy, but I hope he is disciplined by MLB for destroying QuesTec's umpire/strike zone analysis equipment. For the good of the game, this discipline should certainly exceed the cost of the equipment.
I'm a baseball guy, my son is a current collegiate pitcher, and for years it has been obvious to me that the existing strikes zones are not reliable, but instead liberally-customized interpretations. Most of my adult life, the in-game MLB strike zone has been a distortion compared to the MLB rule book. It was too wide, too short and for whatever reason, most MLB umpires felt compelled to have their "own zones".
There is no room for lose interpretation here. Rewarding pitchers for hitting out-of-the-strike-zone spots that are physically impossible to reach is unfair. It is wrong that "established pitchers" should get three fists on the outside corners. If, as the rules state, Home Plate is: Five-sided, 17 inches by 8 1/2 inches by 8 1/2 inches by 12 inches by 12 inches, cut to a point at rear, there are no exceptions. If MLB wants a functionally wider zone, to change the offensive/defensive balance, then make the wider zone official.
Watching my team (The Royals) play home games without QuesTec review, I observe extreme strike zone changes during nearly every series. Watching certain TV games, where the more consistent zones are higher-than-wide, its obvious when the QuesTec review system is already in place. There will always be real borderline calls, but just getting close to the strike zone is not a strike!
Of course there will be some rough spots. I'm sure Schilling, Smoltz, et al will continue to protest, because they have clearly benefited from the wide and short zone. Simply put, the rules are the rules. The strike zone should be a standard size, rather than changed daily like a golf course pin position.
Every regular Joe, has some form of employment performance review. To be effective, these reviews should be as impartial and objective as possible. Computer technology is a natural ally in this effort. We already trust computer systems with such critical life issues as bank accounts, medical analysis, air traffic control and national defense. We can certainly trust hardware and software as a component of a MLB umpire's performance review.
Please, don't be bullied by any person or group, especially those driven by selfish self-interests.
Do the right thing. Universally deploy the QuesTec system ASAP. Ten years from now the game will be better for it.


Anthony Mark McLean

Me lo respondi asi:

Hi Anthony,

Thanks for sending me a copy of your interesting letter. I'm not sure if you sent it to me because you disagreed with something I said re. the QuesTec system and wanted to present an opposing view or if you thought I was a horse's ass, one of the bullies trying to persuade the owners not to use QuesTec. Either way, the articles do provide an interesting declension of the issue and you present an informed view. (I do not agree with George Will's interpretation of things but that's beside the point.) I commend you for voicing your opinion in matters that you believe in strongly.

I agree that the strike zone had been deteriorating for many years. The zone that had been called more or less according to the rules when I was a child in the mid-Seventies morphed into an ever-changing flat rectangle that no longer bore any resemblance to that of the rule book. I agree that the owners are well within their rights to insight that their employees, the umps, perform their duties as told. I agree that many umps have been thumbing their noses at the rules and the owners for years, calling whatever strike zone they wanted on a given pitch--their strike zone as if it were their personal chattel. I agree that even though the strike zone had been redefined to be simpler the umps were still refusing to call it. I agree that many pitchers are against QuesTec because they benefit from the old system (especially veterans who get added leeway on outside pitches). I also agree that Curt Schilling should not be allowed to take out his frustrations on a piece of equipment owned by the owners to monitor their games.

I have to say that even though I agree with a number of your points, I do not agree with your conclusion that QuesTec's universal use will cure all of the problems with the strike zone. I work with computer systems and there's one thing that is apparent with any system: it can do certain things very well and other things not so well. For example, Microsoft Word is a good word processor, but it is a nasty HTML editor. Sure, we can trust computer systems with vital information but they can only with that information what we program it to do, nothing more, nothing less.

I believe that universal use of the QuesTec to evaluate umps would improve strike zone calling. However, I don't call replacing a C-minus system with a C-plus system much of an improvement.

Also, I do not believe that QuesTec is impartial as you indicate. As I have written, Robert K. Adair in "The Physics of Baseball" showed that a curveball may drop out of the strike zone as it travels over home plate. That means it is a strike even though when it crosses the back of the plate it is outside of the strike zone. The same is true of a 95-MPH fastball: it can travel from the front of the plate to the back and in the process drop into the strike zone. I do not have first-hand knowledge of the QuesTec (but would love to); however, the above indicates that to call balls and strikes, the system had better be monitoring the course of the ball as it travels above home. I seriously doubt that it does this.

Also, given that the strike zone is defined as:

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hallow beneath the knee cap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The QuesTec system would have to be able to determine where the batter's knee caps, belt, and shoulder are and to calculate the position of the horizontal line that defines the upper bound of the strike zone from these body parts. Consider that some of these measurements must be made from various angles. Not only that, the system must be able to determine when the batter is prepared to swing, even one who has a lot of motion while he is in the box, to make the measurements of the zone. I doubt that this system is making any of those calculations. Rather it is using a set of preset coordinates that are used whether it's David Eckstein or Randy Johnson at bat.

One final note, the umps state that a technician sets the coordinates of the system on the first pitch to the first batter. Given the size of that batter or the calibration method used, the strike zone may or may not be accurate. Also, the umps say that the calibration changes over the course of the game, which is definitely possible with a computer system that relies on certain conditions that may change over the course of the game.

Here are my two cents: The owners led the umps to the strike zone water but couldn't make them drink. They then brought in the QuesTec system as a disciplinary tool. The umps resent it, as well they should. The owners are outraged at the umps' recalcitrance, as well they should be.

But in the final assessment the owners dropped the ball. How's that? When they redefined the rules, they provided no re-education for the umps. In one of your articles, in spring training umps make reference to helping each other develop an eye. What if the owners had paid the umps to go to a camp to get in shape and develop their eye for the new zone prior to 2001 spring training instead of having to train on their own. Then they could have brought in the QuesTec system as a training tool to aid the umps not monitor them.

You speak of regular Joes, but that mentality can be accorded to the umps as well. Many umps over many years ruined the strike zone. The current umps had an edict from management, tried to comply but were given no assistance from management, finally said "Aw, screw it" and went back to their old ways, and then had management install what amounts to Big Brother to these scared umps right in their place of work. They're scared and angry. But management could have handled it another way and avoided this mess.

Also, and I've written extensively about this as well, if the following lines in the rule book were followed a number of these issues would be mitigated:

Definition: The BATTER'S BOX is the area within which the batter shall stand during his time at bat.


The batter's legal position shall be with both feet within the batter's box. APPROVED RULING: The lines defining the box are within the batter's box.


A batter is out for illegal action when (a) He hits a ball with one or both feet on the ground entirely outside the batter's box. If a batter hits a ball fair or foul while out of the batter's box, he shall be called out. Umpires should pay particular attention to the position of the batter's feet if he attempts to hit the ball while he is being intentionally passed. A batter cannot jump or step out of the batter's box and hit the ball.

If the batter's box were enforced in the first place, the umps wouldn't have had to given the pitchers an extra few inches on the outside of the plate. If they enforced the batter's box now, strike calling could go back to the old days. That's my opinion.

Please let me know what you think of my comments and if you got a response to your letter from the commissioner's office.

He wrote back with an interesting question that I am still mulling over:

So Mike,

I remember the peak era of distorted zones during the late 90s when Javy Lopez routinely set up outside the catchers box. Still, its clear that several conflicting issues are in play here.

My take: A complex power play is afoot. The umpires have effectively been in violation of their contact for 30+ years by not enforcing the rule book strike zone. MLB wants a more docile union that will actually enforce the rule book and generally behave.

I have no illusions about Questec's voracity. It is simply version 1.0. My notes indicate that Sandy Alderson psuedo-commissioned QuesTec, seeking any system that could effectively evaluate ball/strike decisions. Alderson's move has evoked fears of "Robbie the Robot" calling balls and strikes. Ultimately some other system, from some other vendor, may be used.

There may be problems with QuesTec, there may not be. I have no way to know. But no matter how this standardization of a regulation zone were to take place, MLB umpires would be howling in protest. MLB umps resisted a by-the-book zone every inch of the way. As such, their complaints ring of hollow self-interest. Its a turf war and they are loosing.

Finally, for whatever reason(s), MLB umpires seem to cling to a devine ordination to apply "signature zones".
Conventional reporting on this issue seems to accept the devolved/defacto horizontal zone like it was an immaculate conception. Clearly there were responsible umpires, and presumably causal events for twenty five years of ignoring the rule book. Still, I've yet to see an explanation as to how this came to pass, or why the MLB umps believed this was acceptable. Have you? I'd love to hear any sort of rationale, however weak.

btw: I'm certain I've before never quoted or referenced George Will before. (holding nose)

I'm still looking for a way to empirically investigate that one. I'll keep you posted.

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