December 17, 2003
The UIS, which has been a topic of much controversy in its brief MLB lifespan, is a system of video cameras used to evaluate umpires' strike zone accuracy. Baseball Prospectus interviewed Santucci in a series of emails before and during the 2003 winter meetings.
Baseball Prospectus: How long has the system been in use in Major League Baseball?
Ivan Santucci: We installed Fenway in early 2001 and ran the first official UIS game out of there in June of the same year. We have operated the system for two full seasons plus the second half of 2001.
BP: My understanding is that the system was utilized in anywhere from 10 to 13 ballparks last season, depending on the account. An article by Gwen Knapp in the 6/15/03 SF Chronicle (in which you are mentioned) gave 10: Anaheim, Arizona, Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Milwaukee, N.Y. Mets, N.Y. Yankees, Oakland, and Tampa Bay. Can you verify a list of 2003 ballparks?
Santucci: Those are the 10 that we operated from in 2003. That is an accurate list.
BP: What is the status of the Umpire Information System for 2004? Will it be in these same parks? More? Where?
Santucci: We are sure we will be in more by Opening Day. I would estimate that we will add at least another five-to-eight for 2004 in addition to those mentioned above. We will be planning this with Sandy Alderson soon. It's not a definite list yet and I would rather not disclose it until speaking with club officials.
BP: What is the status of the umpires' grievance against MLB?
Santucci: It is an arbitration case filed with the National Labor Relations Board. Hearings have taken place in Baltimore and New York boardrooms in front of arbitrator Jerome Ross. I can't comment on the details themselves, but we are very pleased by what we have seen (or more specifically, haven't). We don't expect a negative result in any way, but we do expect the arbitration process to drag on for as long as people can push it. Just the nature of these things. As for additional information, I don't believe any of it will go public until everything is over, if at all.
BP: How is the Umpire Information System data currently used by Major League Baseball? I have read that MLB uses the data to allocate All-Star and postseason assignments. Is this correct?
Santucci: From what I have witnessed, home plate performance as rated by us is not the only criteria. I am not privy to what the weights of all the different criteria are. It should also be noted that we are not the final say on their home plate performance. Our scores are only an indicator by which the supervisors go. I would have to guess that other areas, such as field performance, seniority, etc. go into the final formula.
BP: The media has made a big ruckus about a few negative player reactions to the UIS, most notably when Curt Schilling took a bat to a QuesTec camera on May 24 in Phoenix. Of course, "99 Percent of All Players Think QuesTec is Good" would never make a headline, even if it were true. Behind the scenes, what has the player reaction really been?
Santucci: Behind the scenes, players are still trying to get to know the system, and those that have stopped by to see it in action have been satisfied. This has occurred most often at Shea and Yankee Stadiums, where our operation rooms are closest to the clubhouses. Curt Schilling has never seen the system in action and neither has Tom Glavine. They are simply overreacting to a campaign of misinformation that has been spread around.
An interesting story about Schilling: Our system was first installed in Arizona in late 2001. Our field cameras are located there right under where Schilling's own personal video cameras were installed. When he saw us installing cameras under his, he asked us what their use would be. We explained to him all about the UIS system and how umpires would be rated by it. His response was a definitively positive one and basically said that it was about time that umpires had some accountability. He said everyone else in the world had to be accountable at their jobs except for umpires, and that needed to be addressed. This opinion changed when it became convenient, of course.
BP: Similarly, the umpires' grievance has created the impression that all the men in blue are united against the system. Is this the case?
Santucci: Not from what I have seen. I know that there is a very tightly knit group at the top that feel threatened by us, but there is also a large group of umpires that are looking to do well at their jobs and know that the more they comply with the rulebook strike zone, the better their scores get. There are no politics involved, simply hard facts and figures.
BP: It seems as if critics' primary contention is the technician's designation of the top and bottom of the strike zone. My understanding is that currently the technician sees a photo of the first pitch to each batter and creates one boundary at the bottom of the knee and one at the top of the belt, which the computer then moves 2.5 balls up. Please fill in the blanks and let me know if I'm wrong on any details.
Santucci: If you were to see the operator in action, you would realize what a non-issue this is. The operator sets the top line at the top of the belt buckle. This eliminates any eye-balling he/she would have to do in order to set the top of the strike zone. The system then lifts the top of the zone to set it at 2.5 ball widths.
The bottom of the strike zone is set by the height of the hollow of the back knee (closest to the catcher).
Keep in mind that the height of the top and the bottom of the strike zone are measured by the hitter's stance, but the strike zone location transfers to the area on top of the plate. The batter may be at the back of the batter's box, but his strike zone begins and ends at the area over home plate. This is an often misconstrued fact. The system is carefully calibrated for complete accuracy of height and plate position.
Finally, to clarify one of your points, a batter's strike zone is set and adjusted for every called pitch he sees. If he has three at-bats in a game and saw a total of 10 called pitches, we will adjust the strike zone 10 times.
BP: A Sports Illustrated article from this year quoted the job requirements for a QuesTec ballpark technician as "Live within 50 miles of an MLB ballpark, have solid baseball knowledge and be computer literate." Are these still the requirements? Some have suggested that the operators should come from the umpiring ranks.
Santucci: Our website states that those are the job requirements because we welcome interest in each city from people within and outside of baseball. Those are NOT the only requirements, but the rest of the qualifications can be discussed after candidates apply. We need people who know the game very well and can basically follow the pitch-by-pitch course of events in a game accurately. In addition to this, we need people who know their way around Windows based computers very well. It's not a technical job, but it helps when the operators can navigate easily through the Windows operating system.
As for having come from the umpiring ranks, anyone who says this either doesn't know what the operator does or is simply trying to state a case based on erroneous facts.
Our operators will come into the stadium, turn on the computers and cameras and make sure that all video is functioning properly. During the game, all an operator has to do is follow the events of the game and input them into a database. Whatever the umpire calls, they write down. The operator is not making any judgment calls at all. After the game, there are some buttons to be pushed to clip video for each pitch and for the reports to generate themselves.
The only controversial aspect in the postgame would be the setting of each player's strike zone, but once again, there is no judgment being made here. The belt and the hollow of the knee are easily picked out by the operator and designated as the strike zone parameters we are looking for. MLB is very happy about the performance of the operators in this task, and if there is ever a question about a strike zone, a pitch can be either disregarded or reprocessed.
BP: How has the technology developed since you went into business?
Santucci: The database structure and the way we go about clipping video for each pitch is different since 2001. The calibration technique and the equipment we use is the same. The most crucial developments took place when Titan Systems, part of national defense contractor Titan Corp (a soon-to-be division of Martin Marietta), came into the fold several years ago.
The technology has been in use for missile tracking and other applications in the past and Titan perfected the calibration process by which we improved the system's accuracy. MLB was looking for a one-inch margin of error and Titan helped us improve it to less than half an inch.
BP: What further improvements can be made?
Santucci: At this point, simply how the data can be used. Right now, we simply give MLB a report stating an umpires' performance for a game including spray charts, video, snapshots and graphics.
We can improve how the data is categorized to show even further details and improvements in the umpires' performance based on inch-by-inch trends, etc.
BP: The umpires' biggest fear, I would suspect, is that the UIS could eventually develop into a system capable of replacing entirely their duties of calling balls and strikes. Do you see QuesTec as a permanent supplement to live umps calling balls and strikes, or can you envision a scenario where QuesTec will make the call?
Santucci: Never. Not only do we not want to (as everyone else), but since a lot of our data processing is postgame a real-time application that would satisfy the required pace of the game would be virtually impossible. The tracking of the pitches is real-time and can be used to demonstrate pitch locations immediately, but the strike zones would have to be standard and generic in order to make an immediate strike/ball call.
BP: Do you feel that the umpiring improved in 2003 as a result of the system?
Santucci: We have no comment on the quality of the umpiring. We are not judges over their performance. The final say is that of their supervisors. The data itself is confidential.
Nathan Fox is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.