Sorry, Nana and Papaw: We Need an Automated Strike Zone
It’s a simple game. You throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball. At it’s heart is the confrontation between pitcher and hitter. One throws the ball. One tries to hit the ball. It’s simple. It’s beautiful. It’s awesome. And when we get out of the way and just let the game be the game it rewards us with astonishing moments like the sixth game of the World Series or the last day of the regular season.
And sometimes we screw it all up to a fare-thee-well.
On April 16, in the fourth game of a series against Tampa Bay, Boston’s Cody Ross took a called strike three to end the game.
Brooksbaseball.net records the plate appearance in this graphic:
Shown from the catcher’s perspective, the image depicts PitchFx data for pitches relative to the strike zone. In this case, it shows five pitches off the outside edge of the plate to a right-handed batter. The three orange ones were called strikes.
The point is not that the Red Sox lost a game they could have won. The point is that the number of games decided by inaccurate ball and strike calls is greater than the number of people surprised when it happens.
It is time for an automated strike zone.
The arguments for it are simple and the arguments against it are specious.
There are over two hundred pitches thrown in an average major league game, about half a million over all games over the course of the season. Even a 99% accuracy rate would result in five thousand incorrect calls over the course of a season and we don’t have 99% accuracy.
Pitchers like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are respected and admired for their ability to induce calls on pitches outside the zone. By constantly pounding the outside edge of the zone they are able to induce strike calls on pitches further and further off the plate. These calls are outside the established rules and they shouldn’t be tolerated let alone celebrated.
Inducing calls like that is a matter of taking advantage of the imperfections of a human arbiter to get calls that aren’t within the parameters of the rulebook. It’s akin to a pitcher applying a foreign substance to the ball when he thinks the umpire isn’t looking. It should be called cheating.
An automated strike zone wouldn’t be perfect but it would be much more consistent than human umpires. Cameras and computers aren’t subject to the same unconscious biases that humans are. While pitchers like Maddux and Glavine can slowly tug a human strike zone away from the hitter, they won’t be able to do that with an automated zone.
But don’t we want the human element in our games? Isn’t that why we watch, for the struggle to be better than the other guy? Isn’t automating the strike zone removing the human element and taking the game just one step closer to a cheesy sterile simulation?
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that we watch baseball for the players and not the umpires.
When a fairly pedestrian pitcher like Armando Galarraga throws a perfect game, it is the epitome of the human element. For that one day, he was as perfect as perfect gets in this game. And when Jim Joyce missed a very makeable call it was the epitome of the human element getting in the way.
We want our human element from the players. We want them doing everything within the rules to beat the other guy. We want them using every ounce of their intelligence, ingenuity, and athleticism to beat the other guy. When players get stretched to their limit in the most important of situations we get things like the sixth game of the World Series.
We know calls are being made incorrectly that are changing the outcome of games. We have the technology to change it and we’re not doing it. Why?
In part it’s because baseball is worse at innovation than anyone. For every move the owners try to make to improve the game there are millions of people inside and outside the game who tell tales full of sound and fury. “It can’t be done because we’ve never done it that way before.” It’s as if people are afraid changing something about the game means forsaking the memories of the mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers that collectively took us to our first games.
It’s nonsense. Automating the strike zone won’t make Nana and Papaw hate you.
The umpires are another matter. Whatever their public statements, their concerns are almost certainly about jobs. That’s what unions do. That’s why, in 1999 more than fifty umpires resigned en mass in an attempt to force Major League Baseball to change the then existing collective bargaining agreement between umpires and MLB.
Still, one cannot simply dictate terms. It would be worth it to me to not only guarantee that the home plate umpire doesn’t go away—we would, after all, still have a plethora of other calls made at the plate—but add umpires down the right and left field lines and they might go for it.
It would cost a ton of money, probably about as much as a bad utility infielder. It shouldn’t be hard for MLB to come up with the cash.
It will be infinitely harder to drum up the interest but the continued failure to put the game first is an embarrassment.