Better Living through Technology
A friend asked me what I thought about a recent article by Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, by which I assume my friend wanted to know what I thought about the idea of taking the ball-strike calls away from the home plate umpire and using a computerized, electronic device of some kind to determine whether pitches do on do not break the three dimensional rectangle of the strike zone.
Jenkins’ main objection to home plate umpires continuing to make the ball/strike calls, as they have done for the last 150+ years, is that each umpire calls his own strike zone, which leads to inconsistency in application. Also, of course, all umpires sometimes just miss pitches.
I think the main problem with replacing umpires with machines, is that I am uncertain whether machines would really be as infallible as some people think. For example, one obvious problem with using a machine is that a batter’s stance in the box often changes between the moment the pitch is released and the moment it arrives at home plate.
Further, even assuming the right computer would fix the batter’s stance at the moment it arrives at the plate, there are other issues. For example, Ricky Henderson batted out of a deep crouch. If he wanted to swing at a pitch, he came up out of the crouch. If he determined before the pitch reached home plate that it was not a pitch he would swing at, he sometimes stayed down in his crouch. Umpires were instructed to judge Henderson’s strike zone based on his batting stance, not when he was in the deep crouch. A machine would need a way to take these factors into account.
I also think it would be very difficult for a machine to determine the upper and lower limits of the strike zone, as opposed to the corners, which should be much easier to determine. Specifically, it isn’t always easy to tell exactly where the top and bottom of the strike zone exist for every plate and every at-bat.
The current MLB definition of the strike zone is from the bottom of the knees up to “a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants.” In either case, the actual determination of where a uniformed player’s knee bottom and midpoint between top of shoulder and the top of uniform pants is more subject to interpretation than you might think.
For a batter who stands upright in the box, it will be more difficult to determine exactly where the bottom of his knee, than a player who bends his knee. A computer applying the upper limit rule as written would result in more hitters wearing their baseball trousers lower on their hips. Bear in mind that if there are any exploitable flaws in an electronic ball/strike calling system, major league teams will quickly figure out how to exploit it to their advantage.
There is also the human element of umpires, rather than machines, calling balls and strikes. Finally, the MLB umpires’ union might well strike if ball/strike calls were taken away from the home plate umpire, because it would be an obvious threat to their livelihoods.
All of that said, if a proposed electronic system could take the potential glitches into account and produce a more consistent strike zone, it would create a more level playing field for everyone. It has long been the rule players and managers are not allowed to contest ball/strike calls, reflecting the fact that it is very difficult for a human to determine if a close pitch is a ball or a strike, leading to differences of opinion and occasional blown calls. If an electronic system had buy-in from players, managers and coaches, it would eliminate a lot of the hurt feelings and issues arising from disputed ball strike calls.
It would change the game fairly dramatically, however. Pitch framing by catchers would become a thing of the past, and veteran pitchers and hitters who command the strike zone from either side of the pitch and also know each human umpire’s tendencies, would not have the advantage they currently enjoy. On the other hand, rookie hitters and pitchers wouldn’t get squeezed on the strike zone the way they often do now.
I would also expect that use of an electronic strike zone would result in more high and more inside strikes and fewer low and fewer outside strikes being called than are called now, which could result in changes in offensive output and more hit batsmen, since pitchers would aim for the inside corner more often.