Ep. 4: Robot Umpires & Technology In Baseball with Kevin Millar
In each episode of The GameDay Playbook presented by FanFood, Rob Cressy discusses how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate gameday more efficiently.
Kevin Millar, who played 12 years in the MLB including winning the 2004 World Series with the Red Sox and is also the host of Intentional Talk on MLB Network, joins Rob Cressy to talk about how technology is changing the game of baseball.
How has technology changed the way that players prepare for a game from when he was playing until now? In the minor leagues they are testing out robot umpires who are automating the strike zone. Is he in favor of this? What can baseball do to make the fan experience better? What is his mindset for creating an engaging show with Intentional Talk?
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Rob Cressy: (00:04)
Welcome to the Gameday Playbook presented by FanFood — a discussion around how leaders are transforming the sports and live entertainment industry by leveraging technology to enhance the fan experience and operate game day more efficiently. I’m your host Rob Cressy and joining me today is Kevin Millar. He played 12 years in the big leagues including winning the world series with the 2004 Red Sox. He hit more home runs in his career than Pete Rose. He is also the host of Intentional Talk on MLB network. Kevin, super excited to have you on the show.
Kevin Millar: (00:43)
Rob that’s unbelievable. When you said the Pete Rose thing, I gotta go back and check those numbers again, but that sounds pretty amazing.
Rob Cressy: (00:50)
So I actually checked three times to make sure there wasn’t another Pete Rose that I didn’t see. I was actually shocked at the lack of home runs that he hit. He hit a 160 and I believe you hit 170.
Kevin Millar: (01:05)
Yeah, 170. Uh, but I do count the one in Saint Paul, Minnesota. That was about two years ago when I was 45 so I count that one now in my own thing. So I say 171.
Rob Cressy: (01:15)
So for those who don’t know, can you give a quick, what was that one home run? I know about it, but it’s a pretty awesome story.
Kevin Millar: (01:23)
Yeah. Two years ago. So they had a bobblehead day for Bill Murray, myself. Bill Murray is a part owner of the Saint Paul Saints, which is a Northern League where I came up and had my first chance in pro ball in 1993. Bottom line is they’re having a bobblehead night in June. They said, hey, we’d love to have you up. And I said, hey, only if I could play in a game. And I was joking at the time, but kind of serious like, that’d be cool. I haven’t played about seven years. Will they call me two weeks before say, Hey, by the way, we get it cleared, you’re going to play in the game. So I started getting nervous. I haven’t swung the bat in seven years. I’m like, oh no, what’s going on? So I took some soft toss and the night before with my son and we flew into Minnesota, went to the golf course, got to the field, took batting practice, hit a ball over the fence. I tried every pitch. I couldn’t roll into the yard. I mean to the, to the fence, you know, as first time you swung. So game started first at bat. First pitch was a ball, second pitch I swung and hit a home run. You can’t make it up — seven years I haven’t played. I couldn’t hit home runs when I was active, let alone seven year off. And that was pretty cool.
Rob Cressy: (02:26)
That is absolutely fantastic. What a way to cap off a fantastic career. So let’s talk a little bit about sports and technology. Technology has certainly changed from when you first started into in the league until now. From a player standpoint, how has technology changed the way that players prepare for a game?
Kevin Millar: (02:47)
Yeah, I’ll tell you what Rob, it’s an amazing thing. When I first came up to the big leagues, we had VHS. Since you know we were watching our backs, we have to go back and rewind it and get to your spot if you knew who you were. Six minutes and 27 seconds. Okay, you gotta fast forward. Then it came to the direct TV type — I mean the little disk type scenes. And those were a little easier because you could skip around. Well now you look at the devices and stuff that you can do to impact your swing, your arm strength, where your velocity is with a curve ball, your spin rate on your curve ball. All of this technology now has enhanced the game in all sports. And that’s why we see a lot of the records getting broken because players are bigger, stronger and if you can put a little smarts into us, pretty awesome.
Rob Cressy: (03:35)
And is that something that actually starts in the younger leagues now? So even if we were to think when you’re in little league baseball, you didn’t have the same exposure. We had Tom Emanski’s defensive drills. Now kids have been like, I didn’t know how to throw a curve ball because my only option was if I went to — I’m from Pittsburgh — so if I went down to like a Pirate’s players day and John Smiley or Doug Drabek there and say, here’s how you throw a curve ball. I had no idea. But kids now, they have access to unlimited technologies. So can we assume that records that we’ve seen in baseball and pretty much in any sports, players are going to get bigger, faster, stronger, and do things we’ve never seen because they have so much more technology available to them.
Kevin Millar: (04:19)
Yeah, you have specialists now. You know, you gotta know what you’re going to play at 12 years old. Why are you going to play baseball or football? Do you not want to play them all? You can’t because these kids are now specialized in select balls and year round. So the technology, because they could start almost home grit and grown, you as a 12-year-old kid like: you know what, you’re going to be six foot four, you’re going to throw 96 miles an hour. What sets the a hundred pitch mark in baseball? Who thought it up? It could have been 80 it could’ve been 120. Now we get to a hundred pitches. Like who said that technology? Because there’ll be a freak of nature at some point, like the Greg maximum pitch, you know,15 plus games for these straight years that’s never injured because we have impeccable mechanics, but from the technology they can know basically what we can actually do. Or where’s this ball going to go? Swing path. That guy like JD Martinez, that totally went behind-the-scenes to change his swing when the Astros’ released him and now he’s a top 10 player in the major leagues.
Rob Cressy: (05:32)
So let’s look into technology with umpires. Are you in favor of robots calling balls and strikes with an automated strike zone, which I know has been dabbled with in some of the minor leagues.
Kevin Millar: (05:44)
Yeah, I, I’m not personally in my opinion. I love the human factor of baseball. I love the gut feeling of baseball. I love when a manager might want to say, hey Millar, you’re hitting for x, y, z and it can be righty on righty. It doesn’t have to be righty, lefty, lefty, righty. Perfect. Cause that’s where I think we’ve become robots. We’re not robots. We’re all human beings. So I love the human factor of Major League baseball. I love the “You’re out!” and the coach coming out with the hat backwards: “What are you talking about?” That’s the human factor.
If we wanted every cookie we eat perfectly round, and now sometimes the one that’s come off the side a little bit burnt, you know, now you get too perfect. Do we want the game perfect? Of course everybody wants to know like the replay system that’s turned out to be a good thing. But the human factor behind the play to be able to interact with an umpire. If I thought that ball was a strike or he thought it was a ball, that’s the stuff that you don’t want to lose in baseball. Cause part of it’s like hockey without fights.
Rob Cressy: (06:42)
Yeah. And think about catchers who frame pitches all of a sudden, would that art be done?
Kevin Millar: (06:48)
Yeah, you’re right. How many times we see like he’s framing pitches or God, there’s so many different things, wherever they are. That’s part of it. Like when you’re going to contract and negotiation, “hey my guy over here, he got a 59% framed or ball rate.” You know, you’re like, what? No, you’ve been gifted because now boom, boom. You know you’re able to get some pitches.
Rob Cressy: (07:11)
What do you think that baseball can do to be more fan-friendly or make the fan experience better?
Kevin Millar: (07:20)
Well, you know, the big talk has been these nets. Obviously there’s been some devastating situations that go on with balls that are way harder than people think. You know on TV everything slows everything down. You can go catch it. We’ve had some tragedies so they put this netting up, you know that’s been the talk like how do you make it fan-friendly? Do we have a net that can drop down maybe for batting practice up to game time and then be able to raise the net up? Cause if you put that net in there all the way around, where’s the fan interaction? How are we going to do that? I love that stuff. I love when players are signing for the kids down the right field, left field lines. I love to hand them batting gloves and wristbands and cause you can remember that forever. Pedro Guerrero played for the Dodgers. I grew up in Los Angeles, big Dodgers fan. 10th grade he gave me one of his wristbands and said “Say no to drugs. Pedro Guerrero, the pitcher” and everything.
I had that my entire high school career — three years I think. It was the size of my arm. But those are the things like who’s my favorite player? Just from that wristband toss. So I just think the players need to be, you want to feel like you’re, all family. Whatever city you’re playing for and you want to be able to get out there amongst the people and see them at dinner or whatever it is. So players need to be more fan-friendly, you know, make it a point. Whether it’s five minutes a day you sign or half an hour a day, go sign some autographs. And uh, and I think that, you know, you just need to allow the players to be more accessible.
Rob Cressy: (09:01)
And for me, uh, Andy Van Slyke was the first player to ever sign my glove. And from that day I fell in love with Andy Van Slyke and actually did you know, you hit six more career home runs than Andy Van Slyke.
Kevin Millar: (09:17)
What?! He was an unbelievable player. I used to love this throw and then he’s flipped basically after he’s trying to throw somebody out from center field.
Rob Cressy: (09:24)
Of course, as an impressionable 10 year old, what’s cooler than seeing this center field flip while trying to throw somebody out at home?
Kevin Millar: (09:31)
That’s right. Exactly right.
Rob Cressy: (09:34)
So when you were player in now with part of the media, how did you think about interacting with fans?
Kevin Millar: (09:41)
Yeah, I’ve always been, you know, I’ve always been a guy that just loves to be out where I’m at, you know, being in the big league. So I was able to, I always had a good relationship with the media. Uh, accountability is a huge thing, right? If you suck, you suck. They listen. I made two errors. I struck out twice and I popped up with a guy on third base. You know, I’ve sucked. The fault’s on me. So you, when a player doesn’t have that, then there’s a little bit of an issue, right? Then you’re blaming something: The ball was wet, it was cold out. Now there’s a story, now we have a story and that’s when we developed this little friction, right? If you’re just accountable as a player. And I was always that, I felt. And I had a good relationship to media. I had no issues, and loved baseball and that’s all I knew. So when I was done, it was an easy transition to kinda be the guy I was.
Rob Cressy: (10:35)
Intentional Talk is my favorite baseball show because it’s relatable and entertaining and you get down as if I was chopping it up with my friends in a bar. Can you share a little bit about your mindset and how you approach it every day?
Kevin Millar: (10:50)
Yeah. You know, I was a baseball player my whole life. That’s all I do. It’s all I did and it stops. So at 38 years old, you’re a young man in life, but you’re old at sports. Like when Brett Farve retired, he was 40. He looked like he was Santa Claus. No, he’s a 40-year-old man. A young man in life. But you know, you develop that you’re old, but you have a whole life ahead of you. Here comes television. They asked me to do a show. Suit and tie. I barely knew how to tie a tie. I wasn’t very good when they talked about doing your own show. And I didn’t know anything about it, like if I could be myself, you know. Chris Rose, we knew each other from the best damn sports show. We’d kind of go on there.
But if he could be himself, I can be myself. They had this silly idea: you have two guys talking baseball and we tried it. I didn’t know what it was about. And here we are going our eighth year. It’s a really fun show. We have a player on every single day. That makes it fun. I don’t care what you’re hitting and I’m care how many wins you have. I want you to tell something about what the fans don’t know. What kind of planes do you guys fly on? Who’s the cheapest, who’s the worst dressed? You know, who’s the one guy that thinks he’s, you know, whatever. A fan of whoever. That’s the stuff that’s fun and I think we try to bring that form.
Rob Cressy: (12:07)
My favorite moment of the show was Josh Reddick on the A’s coming out as the ultimate warrior. And from that I was like, I love Josh Reddick. I love this show.
Kevin Millar: (12:18)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a perfect example. You guys had Steven Vogt and he came out and did the referee a I think a year later we had some great Oakland. These guys, cause Johnny Gomes played out there for a little bit. But that’s what I’m talking about. They have fun. They’re skits. Promote what you want, make fun of who you want. I always tell players: It’s your show. The show is going to go on. But this is your time to go.
Rob Cressy: (12:41)
So here with some quick question: what do you believe are the key elements to a winning culture?
Kevin Millar: (12:48)
Listen, I’m a fan of chemistry. I think everybody at that level can play, everybody in catch field run through alright. I think when you have teams and people that care about each other — it’s a big deal. Whether that’s eight games or 15 games a year, but that’s a big deal when you’re playing a 160-game schedule. So I think team chemistry is huge.
Rob Cressy: (13:09)
Do you have a piece of advice that you’ve been giving that really resonated with you throughout your career?
Kevin Millar: (13:16)
Have fun. I’m telling you, we get so caught up in jobs and we’re fast and we got devices and we’re going and we’re always available. Rarely are we enjoying the moment and having fun doing whatever that is. The grind becomes a grind, the fun times go. We’re so worried about the other stuff that we forget to have fun. So just have fun. Enjoy it every day and on TV, same thing. We have fun. I laugh every day. I’m laughing.
Rob Cressy: (13:46)
Kevin, I had a ton of fun talking with you right now. I continually enjoy your show. Where can people connect with you?
Twitter is @kmillar15 and then Instagram is @kevinmillar15. You find us over there.
Rob Cressy: (14:02)
And as always, I would love to hear from you about this episode. What are your thoughts on robot umpires? Do you want them? You can hit up FanFood on Twitter, @fanfoodondemand, on Instagram @fanfoodapp or on LinkedIn. And as always, you can hit me up on Linkedin by searching Rob Cressy.