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Quest-ec for answers

More controversy awaits as MLB drags its feet on installing device

Updated: Wednesday February 11, 2004 8:57AM
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The QuesTec 10
Home pitchers in Questec parks vs. league avg.
Boston 4.29 741 756 74 216 541
N.Y. (AL) 4.05 745 762 76 190 571
Anaheim 3.76 746 743 84 245 529
Cleveland 3.60 756 718 72 247 518
Oakland 3.02 747 636 71 236 527
T.B. 4.74 744 735 96 322 469
AL avg. 4.38 800 812 97 269 552
N.Y. (NL) 4.31 726 757 78 300 486
Arizona 4.13 745 710 83 262 653
Milwaukee 5.07 753 800 124 303 537
Houston 3.86 733 667 89 252 575
NL avg. 4.06 792 770 91 287 601

QuesTec, the most controversial technological advance to hit baseball since Pascual Perez's hair gel, is rolling out at the pace of a Steve Sparks knuckleball.

Feb. 14 will mark three years since Major League Baseball signed a five-year agreement with QuesTec to implement the ball-tracking system intended to train and evaluate umpires. But after baseball officials suggested last year that QuesTec might be installed in every ballpark this season, more major league stadiums still are likely to be without QuesTec in 2004 than with it. So get ready for more bleatings about the inconsistencies between calls at QuesTec parks and non-QuesTec parks.

Sandy Alderson, baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations, said perhaps "a handful of ballparks" will get the system this year, adding to the total of 10 parks that featured QuesTec last season. No determinations have been made. A maximum of 15 ballparks in four seasons hardly qualifies as a rapid expansion, but then QuesTec continues to post 2- and 3-year-old press releases on its Web site as "Recent News." Alderson thinks QuesTec will be in every major league park in another "three or four years."

One of the complaints from pitchers such as Curt Schilling and Tom Glavine about QuesTec is its selective deployment, which they claim fosters inconsistencies in strike zones whether Big Brother QuesTec is watching or not. Schilling, in fact, hesitated before agreeing to accept a trade to the Red Sox because Boston's Fenway Park is QuesTec enabled. The other host teams for QuesTec last year were the Mets, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Astros, Yankees, Angels, Indians, Athletics and Devil Rays.

It's a legitimate question: If baseball really believes in the technology, why doesn't it use QuesTec in every park? "We can't ramp up that fast," Alderson said. Besides, Alderson said, QuesTec need not be in every park to work effectively. Alderson believes that the system helps umpires call a truer strike zone that becomes fixed whether QuesTec is watching or not.

As for pitchers' complaints that they get squeezed in QuesTec parks (Schilling has said umpires have admitted as much to him), Alderson noted that the ERA in parks with QuesTec was lower than in parks without it and that "the number of pitches thrown are lower and the percentage of pitches called strikes are higher in QuesTec parks than non-QuesTec parks. What that tells me is pitchers are making adjustments. The overall consistency that comes from the technology far exceeds whatever minimal, almost nonexistent inconsistency there might be because of having QuesTec and non-QuesTec parks."

In any case, QuesTec isn't going away. Alderson said baseball originally contracted for the system because advances in commercial technologies were foreshadowing such adaptions as ESPN's K-Zone. "We needed to get umpires prepared for the day that technology was at stadiums on a widespread basis," Alderson said, "and when it happened we wanted it to reflect how great they are, not how lousy. K-Zone came a lot sooner than we expected."

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Alderson, in fact, sees those commercial applications as supplemental to QuesTec, serving "a common purpose" -- a visual definition of the true strike zone rather than the traditional interpretation based on who is the umpire, who is the pitcher, and where a catcher sets up and receives the pitch. In that view, Alderson said, "then you don't need [QuesTec] in every ballpark." He estimated that "18 to 20 systems" -- QuesTec and other tracking mechanisms such as K-Zone -- would be used in ballparks this year.

I'd like to see QuesTec used in every venue as a matter of uniformity. People have come to expect more advanced visual coverage of sporting events, whether it's the virtual first-down line in football or the fabulous SpotShot technology in tennis that reveals in fascinating detail whether a ball was in or out. Thanks to technological advances (not to mention the graphics and details in video games) the sports viewer has become more demanding. A visual definition of the strike zone will become routine in baseball broadcasts, and that definition won't be flattened or wider than the width of the plate, as it was often called in the 1990s.

Wired umpires?

One of the ideas tossed around by the commissioner's 21st Century Committee (a think tank, if you will, of executives and players) is to equip umpires with NFL-style microphones. The microphone would not be used for routine calls like balls and strikes or safe or out, but to explain rules interpretations or to inform fans of lineup changes such as a double switch.

For instance, during that wacky AL Division Series Game 3 last year between Oakland and Boston, umpires could have explained to the crowd and the viewing audience why Miguel Tejada was called out after he stopped running on a pending obstruction call. (Umpire supervisor Steve Palermo, sitting in the stands, was put on TV to give viewers an explanation.)

"I'm not a proponent of it," said Alderson, who is concerned about slowing the pace of the game, training 68 umpires to use the microphones (the NFL has to teach only 15 referees) and the frequency in which explanations are even needed.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.