Physics in the Atlantic League – or Not

This wasn’t a typical trip to see the Atlantic League. (via Ensign beedrill)

We were on Amtrak from New York to Boston. I was heading to the renowned analytics conference SaberSeminar. My wife, who is no less passionate about baseball than I, is less analytically inclined. So her goal for the weekend was to spend the maximum amount of time in the venerable Fenway Park.

When our train-bound conversation turned to baseball, the experiments in the Atlantic League came up. As a scientist, I hoped someday to see the system that got the Trackman radar information processed and sent to the home plate umpire in time to call the pitches – the first steps toward the Robo-ump. It would make a nice physics-oriented THT article. My spouse was more interested in some of the other experiments like extra fouls on bunts and stealing of first base.

I suspect it was her idea, but I’m going to take credit for it because she doesn’t read most of my articles. I proposed that we check to see if an Atlantic League game would fit into our already tight travel schedule. We had train tickets south to Washington, D.C., right after Boston. After two days in D.C. we needed to head toward Atlanta and be there in two days. It was essential to get to SunTrust Park so we could once again boast that we have seen a game in every major league ballpark.

A bit of internet browsing revealed one of the eight teams in the league was in North Carolina – perfect. Sadly, the High Point Rockers were on the road – but wait – the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs would be at home to take on the Sugar Land Skeeters. We soon realized this was the very ballpark where the first-ever steal of first base actually happened. That’s professional baseball history!

We had no idea where Waldorf, Maryland, was, but that’s why they invented Google Maps. The game was scheduled for 6:35 p.m. We figured we definitely needed shaded seats since the game-time temperature was predicted to be 90˚ with 60% humidity.

As we walked up to the box office at 6:15 p.m. and asked for something in the shade, we were told we had to plunk down the princely sum of $13 per ticket. Considering we paid that for a beer the previous night in Nationals Park, we were delighted. As we found our seats, we discovered we were in the first row directly behind home plate!  I would definitely have a great view of the umpire, Derek Moccia, and maybe even his earpiece.

Regency Furniture Stadium is a lovely ballpark with most of the common accouterments expected at a modern minor league baseball field. They have a kid’s zone filled with playground equipment, a picnic area, a grass berm in the outfield, and several suites. It was kind of strange to find a basketball court behind the batter’s eye in center field and a fenced-off swimming pool in left-center. My wife and I, having recently visited Fenway, shared a chuckle over the “Mini Monster” complete with a hand-operated scoreboard.

It is our tradition when visiting a new park to head right to the gift shop and buy a team/stadium ball. While my spouse was looking at the selections, I chatted with the clerk. I explained I was a physicist who writes for The Hardball Times and asked him who I should talk with to be allowed to see the system that calls balls and strikes. He very politely explained that in independent ball, employees wear many hats and in fact, he was the director of operations.

He told me to walk up to the press box door on the suite level about half an hour after the game started, and he would have someone escort me in to take a peek. So I headed to my seat for the start of the game. Indeed, right above my head was a Trackman radar unit, although it seemed to be smaller than the ones in big league parks. It could be that you can get away with a smaller unit when it is closer to the field or maybe it just seemed smaller because the park was smaller than in the bigs.

I should have realized something was amiss in the top of the first inning. With two outs, the clean-up hitter for the Skeeters, Denis Phipps, started arguing with the ump during his at-bat. I couldn’t hear much of it, but Phipps yelled something about “the new rule.”  It may have been the rule about being more generous to the hitter on check-swings, but I wasn’t sure. His at-bat ended with a strikeout, and he again started in on the ump. The ump tossed him. Since the between-inning noise had started, I couldn’t hear anything on the field. I assumed it was about balls and strikes since that’s what it’s usually about, but how could that be?  The computer called it, right?

When the game reached the middle of the second inning, I headed upstairs to the press box with the hope I would soon see and understand the robo-ump system. In my mind, I was already laying out the THT article. As promised, another member of the front office staff was waiting to escort me in to meet the folks who run the system. As we entered, the bottom of the second had begun, so we were quiet until the end of the inning.

As we waited, I got to view several other Blue Crabs employees doing their jobs in the press box in addition to the ones they had in the public areas of the park – the underbelly of unaffiliated baseball. The affiliated leagues would do well to seek out these folks as they seem able to perform two jobs at once with great skill. I overheard a debate between the official scorer and the scoreboard operator as to whether a play was an error or a hit.

As the inning ended, the front office person asked the official scorer where the guys were that do the robo-ump. He reported that tonight was the first night since the system has been used that they just didn’t show up. Damn! I would not get to ask them all the questions I had – lucky them. On the bright side, perhaps the argument in the first inning was actually over balls and strikes.

Another new rule is allowing a batter to foul off a third strike bunt attempt one time. In about the sixth inning, there was a bunt attempt, but not on the third strike. It landed about six rows behind us. I looked around and saw no fans nearby who were interested and no kids running for it, so I picked up the ball. What a surprise! Half the stitches were red and half were blue. This is apparently unique to the Atlantic League, and there is one of these balls in the Hall of Fame.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

It was a tight game, and in the bottom of the ninth with the score 4-3 for the home town Crabs, Mat Latos came in as the closer. Yes, that Mat Latos. The kid who came up with the Padres in 2009 and had his best years with the Reds in 2012 and 2013. The first batter he faced, Wynton Bernard, hit a dribbler in front of the plate, and catcher Charlie Valerio threw him out. That was the routine part of the play. 

On the swing, the bat sailed out of Bernard’s hands. Latos somehow managed to avoid the projectile as it landed near second base. When I glanced back at Latos, he was lying comfortably on his back in the grass in front of the mound with his hands behind his head. He had a wry grin on his face.

The next batter, Albert Cordero, knew he was doomed as he bravely entered the box. Latos fired a fastball that smacked into his thigh – good old country hardball. Juan Silverio then came up, promptly hitting into a double play to give Latos the save and the Blue Crabs the win.

Despite my disappointment regarding my ability to learn and write about the robo-ump, we got about as much baseball as anyone has a right to expect for a $13 ticket.

The author wishes to thank the staff of the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs for their kindness and hospitality.

David Kagan is a physics professor at CSU Chico, and the self-proclaimed "Einstein of the National Pastime." Visit his website, Major League Physics, and follow him on Twitter @DrBaseballPhD.
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Dennis Bedard
Dennis Bedard

A slice of Americana!


” The affiliated leagues would do well to seek out these folks as they seem able to perform two jobs at once with great skill”. I’d be wary of celebrating this fact in an era where so many jobs are being cut back and remaining employees are asked to take on more of the workload. Not saying this is the case with the Blue Crabs, but the above quote from the article struck a nerve with me. Apologies if I’m reading too much into it but, to me, the quote sounded very patronizing on first read. Am sure my own… Read more »