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An argument against robo umps

Colorado Rockies news and links for Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Let’s do something here. Here is the percentage of pitches thrown out of the zone across all of Major League Baseball that have been called as strikes, year by year since 2015:

Okay. Now here’s the percentage of all MLB pitches inside the zone that were called balls. Again, since 2015:

I’m sure you noticed something here, right? Umpires have gotten better in recent years, and very quickly. Yet, the automated strikezone keeps striding forward ruthlessly, contaminating baseball with its pragmatism. I’m here to argue against robo umps. Let’s do this.

Human Umpires Are Better Than You Think

My first point is simple: contrary to popular belief, the current group of umpires MLB has out there is actually pretty good, and they keep getting better. They’re striding towards nailing close to 95% of their calls, which is an excellent number, and as much as the average fan loves complaining about calls, the vast majority of the time umps simply don’t have much of an impact on the outcome of a ballgame. Also, MLB umpires are graded by internal measures now. The solution to improving even further lies in infusing the umpiring corps with a bit more youth (younger umps tend to be a bit better) and deploying the best umpires behind the plate.

It’s my opinion, by the way, that the fake holographic strikezone that every broadcast shows on top of home plate only contributes to the idea that umpires are bad at their job, which isn’t true. Craig Goldstein and Patrick Dubuque already dived deep into that broadcast K-zone and what it does and doesn’t do here, so I won’t say too much on top of that. Just know that the strikezone you see on the broadcast is not the actual zone, nor the zone the umpires are supposed to call. Get rid of it!

Keep Pragmatism Out Of Baseball

I’ll keep nice and simple here: as I’ve said before, the pragmatism that an automated zone would represent is something that should be kept far away from baseball, or we risk tainting the beautifully human, child-like game it truly at its core. Part of the beauty of the game is figuring out which side of the plate a pitcher might get an extra inch or two on, and which side might be a bit closed off. That’s art, folks, and it gives added depth to the batter-pitcher matchup on top of encouraging hitters to swing and protect with two strikes. This ties neatly into my next point:

An Automated Zone Would Drastically Change The Game

I think a lot of people don’t truly consider the effect robo umps would have on how the game is played. A perennially set zone would likely reduce a hitter’s willingness to swing on close pitches, leading to more pitches per PA, less action and more three true outcomes. You would also take away a major weapon for finesse pitchers and make the type of pitcher who can get outs even more homogeneous than now. If you thought the phrase “too close to take” has already disappeared from modern baseball vocabulary, just wait until an automated zone comes into play. It would also benefit hitters in the long run; as soon as they realize what’s a strike and what isn’t, that is. You know what else it would do? Reduce the defensive responsibility catchers face, which would likely allow them to be better with the bat, which would lead to even more offense. I know that’s not what I want!

All in all, I think an automated zone would only make the game worse. Human umpires are already very good, and they could be even better if they were more aggressively promoted or “punished” based on performance, as well as deployed in a better manner. Pragmatism doesn’t have a place in baseball by default, and the automated zone would have serious consequences on how the game is played. This is my (likely doomed) plea to stop this whole thing.

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Catchers ’22: The Changing Catcher Prospect Landscape | Fangraphs

With the automated strikezone (yuck) seemingly being an inevitability at this point, the way catcher prospects are being evaluated is already changing, since framing might not matter at all in a few years. What does that do for future backstops?

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An interesting note, by the way: the MLBPA told the owners a few days ago that if the season doesn’t start on time, they can forget about an expanded postseason. More postseason games (again, yuck) is one of the biggest things for the owners, so I suspect there won’t be a delay, contrary to popular belief.

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