This past offseason, Brian Cashman continued his years-long quest to push a Yankees organization steeped in tradition closer to the cutting edge. He built a new training staff centered on biomechanics and exercise science, and hired a whiz-kid pitching coach aided by evermore sophisticated tools to collect and analyze data. But for all the innovation happening within the walls of Yankee Stadium, there are just as many external technological changes that are remaking the baseball world as we know it. Examining their impact could provide a clue to what lies ahead for the Yankees.
Instant replay, long-term consequences
Let’s deal with the elephant in the (video review) room. Major League Baseball introduced instant replay in 2011, and while they’ve been carefully monitoring and adjusting the system ever since, they clearly didn’t provide enough oversight in clubhouses to discourage illegal use of live feeds. There’s no need to rehash all the gruesome details of the recent sign stealing scandal here, but it’s worth noting the ripple effect of instant replay’s implementation and exploitation.
The use of electronic methods to steal signs since at least 2016 has reshaped the competitive landscape in the American League. The last two AL representatives in the World Series — the Astros in 2019 and 2017, and the Red Sox in 2018 — have fired their managers in connection with the scandal. Houston has already forfeited draft picks, and so too might Boston once they’re fully investigated. While the Yankees have been among the best teams in the AL for several years, they’re now the clear-cut favorites. Without question, the movement of players like Gerrit Cole and Mookie Betts has influenced the pecking order, but the fallout from this technology-fueled mess has acted as an accelerant. Now it’s up to the Yankees to make the most of their newfound status as favorites.
Recruiting the cord-cutters
Innovations in broadcasting have reached more folks than just team personnel hunched over clubhouse monitors — they’ve changed the way fans watch baseball, too. As more and more viewers cut the cord from cable, streaming services have become integral to the consumption of sports. The Yankees, for their part, seem to be leaning into the trend. Last December they announced a new partnership with Amazon in which the YES Network, reacquired by the team back in March of 2019, will allow online streaming for a limited number of Yankees games as early as the 2020 season. The eventual goal is to sell a full-season streaming package to fans, recapturing the many cord-cutters who stopped following on cable.
While the details and timetable for the service’s rollout are still developing, this was always a move with one eye on the future. For years, the Yankees’ investment in YES Network paid dividends. If their joint venture with Amazon can augment that traditional revenue source, it will help ensure the Yankees continue to have the financial muscle to spend big on players like Gerrit Cole. Andy Pettitte might have been the perfect salesman to land the new ace, but the $324 million offer the Yankees put on the table probably didn’t hurt, either. By embracing a new way to reach fans, the Bombers are setting themselves up to make similar splashes in the future.
The rise of “robot” umpires
To be clear, Aaron Boone won’t have to go toe-to-toe with an actual robot to defend the honor of his players this February. But camera-based, automated balls-and-strikes software (ABS), also known as the electronic strike zone (ESZ), will be introduced experimentally during spring training. According to the league, the system will run in the background for technology development and training purposes, while real, flesh and blood MLB umpires will still call the game. In the future, though, the automated system, which will be provided by Hawk-Eye of tennis fame, would determine whether a pitch was a ball or a strike, and then relay the call to an earpiece worn by the home plate umpire. The independent Atlantic League began using a similar system in the 2019 season to a generally positive response, despite some hiccups, and many within baseball believe the technology will eventually percolate to the game’s highest level.
It’s unlikely we’ll see this technology used as a regular season tool in the near future, and players and teams will of course seek ways to game the system. Its introduction could bode well for a guy with a difficult strike zone like Aaron Judge, who has regularly been victimized by strike calls below the knees. Might a consistent, automated umpire make him an even deadlier hitter as he ages? If so, the Yankees will undoubtedly welcome their new robot overlords, and the competitive advantages they might be able to leverage.
And leverage is really what the Yankees’ plans have been all about. Like the rest of the world, there’s no aspect of baseball that technology hasn’t transformed. From cheating to streaming to automation, the sport has suddenly found itself in the turbulent 21st century. How deftly the Yankees adapt to this changing environment could define their 2020 season and beyond.