DURING THE SUMMER, San Rafael’s Albert Park baseball stadium typically draws around 450 people to watch the minor-league San Rafael Pacifics. On this Tuesday evening, though, there are close to 900 for an independent Pacific Association game against the Vallejo Admirals. There’s a handful of local broadcast news crews as well—but their cameras aren’t trained on the field. Instead, all eyes are on a small monitor at the right edge of the backstop, where Eric Byrnes is watching the game on television.
The Pacifics’ Wander Beras throws the game’s first pitch. It seems a little high, but the home plate umpire, a 40-year veteran named Dean Poteet, doesn’t react at all. Instead, back by the backstop, it’s Byrne, a former major league outfielder, who leans toward a microphone and lets out a loud “HYAHHHH!” that resounds through Albert Park. The first pitch in the first professional baseball game to be called by a computer instead a human umpire is a called strike.
Since retiring from the majors in 2010, Eric Byrnes has held various radio and television commentating gigs. But after playing some games with the San Rafael Pacifics last year, he came back to them with an idea to use PITCHf/x. The three-camera tracking system, designed by Sportvision, already collects pitch location, speed, and movement data in major league parks, but Byrnes wanted to use it to actually determine the game’s balls and strikes. Since the Pacific Association is an independent league, it’s outside of Major League Baseball’s purview, and so could move much faster than the organization’s traditional glacial pace.