Should MLB Look Into an Automated Strike-Zone?

Al Messerschmidt

Major League Baseball is slowly, laboriously, painfully incorporating instant replay into its structure. Is an automated strike zone the logical conclusion to this process?

We are in the midst of a turbulent period in baseball history when it comes to technology. Major League Baseball is slowly, laboriously, painfully incorporating instant replay into its structure; at the moment, only for were-they-or-were-they-not home run calls, but that won't be the case for long. I predict that in the next few years we are going to see replay incorporated in safe/out calls at the bases and fair/foul calls down the lines. Reasonable people may disagree about how this should be implemented (concerns include pace of play, how call reversals should be handled, whether we need a "booth umpire"), but I think most fans want to see correct calls. This is all about improving the quality of the product on the field, and I think it is tough to argue that blown calls improve that product.

All of which got me thinking about the next logical step regarding the use of technology in MLB. Rockies fans are familiar with the Root Sports "Ford Strike Zone"; that box they put on the screen after borderline pitches that shows where the ball crossed the plate, indicating whether it was a ball or a strike. I don't know how accurate Root's graphic is, but with Pitchf/x data we have the technology to almost perfectly measure where the ball crosses the plate, and thus perfectly administer ball and strike calls. Right now we only use that data for after-the-fact analysis. But would it really be that big of a leap to use it for real-time ball and strike calls?

The question is: Is this a good idea?

Let's do a little thought experiment. Suppose Bud Selig's evil identical twin took over as commissioner of MLB, unbeknownst to the world at large. Typically, evil identical twins are complete personality inversions of their siblings; therefore, Wario Selig would be hell-bent on innovation, experimentation, and tinkering with the fabric of Major League Baseball. Let's imagine one of his first acts is to equip home plate umpires with invisible earphones, connected to an umpire upstairs. The upstairs umpire would be watching every pitch, paying close attention to the Jimmy John's Sandwich Delivery Strike Zone. He would then buzz the umpire down below with the correct call; that umpire would then signal ball or strike. In this scenario, let's say that the process is just as fast as the old strike calling process. And just like that, without anyone being the wiser*, we have now achieved strike-zone perfection.

*Of course, someone would catch on eventually. I'm sure it wouldn't take more than a week or two for someone at Fangraphs or Baseball Reference to wonder where all the bad strikes went. They'd probably freak out, actually.

But have we improved the product on the field?

In a strictly literal sense, of course we have. The baseball rulebook does not equivocate when it describes the dimensions of the strike-zone. Knees to letters, corner to corner. There is no provision allowing for the umpire to call a wide zone if the game is a blowout, or to give the veteran slugger the benefit of the doubt, or to reward a pitcher with the corners if he's been sharp all game. These are entirely arbitrary judgment calls that obscure the true purpose of the at bat: a contest of skill between the hitter and the pitcher. Why should the biases of the umpire, no matter how unintentional, enter into the equation?

However, and I say this with all seriousness, robot strike-zones would destroy a little piece of baseball's soul. There is something fundamentally different with strike/ball calls than with safe/out or fair/foul calls. The strike-zone is hotly contested real estate, with the actions of hitters, pitchers and catchers geared toward manipulating the zone in their favor. There is some serious psychological warfare going on in that dirt circle.

For example, Tom Glavine would famously pound the outside corner so methodically that by the seventh inning umpires would give him strikes four, five, even six inches outside the zone. That's the reward that a master control artist can achieve. Similarly, look at the skill-set of guys like Jose Molina; he can't run and he can't hit, but he can still bring a unique talent to a ball club: excellent pitch framing skills. Mike Fast estimated that Molina saved his teams 35 runs per 120 games during the five year stretch Fast studied. That's incredible! Meanwhile, guys like Ryan Doumit, while above average with the bat, give up bunches of runs over the course of the year due to an inability to get those borderline calls (for an excellent take on the subject, read this by Jeff Sullivan). It's a fascinating facet of the game that automated strike calls would utterly destroy.

I get as frustrated as the next fan when an umpire rings up a batter on a bad strike call. I might roll my eyes and briefly wish the balls and strikes were called by the operator of the Jumpin' Jack Flash Speedy Bail Bonds Strike Zone. But ultimately, it's not worth losing the cat-and-mouse game of controlling the zone. The rest of the game could use a good hard shove into the 21st century, but the robots should stay away from the strike-zone. There's skill involved. There's history. And there's a little bit of baseball's soul on those corners too.

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