May 23, 2019

Robot umpires are coming to baseball

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

An electronic radar system called TrackMan will soon be calling balls and strikes in the Atlantic League, an independent East Coast league that has emerged as MLB's testing ground for new rules and equipment initiatives.

Driving the news: The first step in this adventure began last Thursday at parks in Bridgewater, N.J. (Somerset Patriots) and New Britain, Conn. (New Britain Bees).

  • In a simple test to make sure that TrackMan data could be successfully transmitted and understood, home plate umpires were fitted with earpieces that relayed calls to them one-tenth of a second after the ball crossed the plate.
  • The umpires were told to still call "their" strike zone, leading to some confusion when their call didn't match Trackman's. When this goes live next month, they'll be going with whatever TrackMan says.

The intrigue: Major League Baseball will be watching this experiment closely. A few things they'll be looking for:

  • How will hitters react when a pitch they think is a ball is called a strike by TrackMan? And how will pitchers react when the opposite is true?
  • How easily can the zone can be adjusted so that it's accurate from batter to batter, depending on their height and batting stance?
  • And most importantly, will umpires be invested enough in each pitch to fill the still-important role of calling things like checked swings and managing the flow of the game?

The big picture: In a world of instant replays and booth reviews, it's not hard to imagine MLB eventually going this route. Should that day come, consider its impact on umpires and catchers, in particular:

  • Umpires: On one hand, they might be paid less as a result of their jobs becoming easier. Then again, maybe they wouldn't be — all while never having to be yelled at again.
  • Catchers: "Framing" (getting borderline pitches called for strikes) has become one of baseball's most highly coveted skills. TrackMan would make it a complete non-factor overnight.

Go deeper: Umpires get worse with age

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The next frontier for Big Science

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In 1945, engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush laid out a framework for support of science in the U.S. that drove prosperity and American dominance. That model isn't enough anymore, experts said at an event this week in Washington, D.C.

The big picture: With China threatening to overtake the U.S. in R&D spending even as research becomes more international, science must manage the tension between cooperation and competition.

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U.S. and Taliban sign peace deal

US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (L) and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar (R) sign a peace agreement during a ceremony in Qatar. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

The United States signed a peace deal with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on Saturday after over a year of off-and-on negotiations, The New York Times reports.

Why it matters: The signing of the deal officially begins the process to end the United States' longest war, which has spanned nearly two decades. The agreement sets a timetable to pull the remaining 13,000 American troops out of Afghanistan, per the Times, but is contingent on the Taliban's completion of commitments, including breaking ties with international terrorist groups, such as al Qaeda.

Biden bets it all on South Carolina

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Most Joe Biden admirers Axios interviewed in South Carolina, where he's vowed to win today's primary, said they're unfazed by his embarrassing losses in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Why it matters: Biden has bet it all on South Carolina to position himself as the best alternative to Bernie Sanders — his "good buddy," he tells voters before skewering Sanders' record and ideas.