A hot topic all year has been the idea of computerizing the strike zone, the rise of the robot umpires. It’s drawn even more attention here in October — we’ve already seen a perfect example of a missed call when Marcell Ozuna was rung up in the ninth inning of Game 3 between the Cardinals and Braves.
It was obvious, according to the box on the TV screen, that the pitch was clearly inside. It was a pivotal call that could have altered the outcome.
Should the computer zone be perfected, that would never be the case.
It would change the game for the good, it would continue the effort to eliminate human deficiency. We have replay everywhere else in the game, like it or not, replay gets the call right.
Now we are looking at balls and strikes, where the umpires are ridiculously good. My experience would say home plate umpires miss less than 10 pitch calls a game, out of an average of 225.
When I saw replay become part of professional tennis, I immediately thought it could change baseball. In fact, I mentioned it many times during my travels in the early 2000s, but was never taken seriously. People would say I was crazy to think balls and strikes could be called electronically.
The technology for an electronic field over home plate is available. Technically, all that has to be done is create a communication process between the umpire and the source.
Here’s a shot at that. The electronic field sends a beep signal to the ump, whenever a pitch touches any part of the isosceles right pentagon (shape of home plate) extended upward, starting at the batter’s knees to the midpoint of the torso (I’d note that the actual strike zone as called by today’s umpires lacks about 6 inches on the top side). The beep is heard by the umpire through an earpiece, giving him time for a quick ball strike reaction.
Easy, huh? No beefs with hitters or pitchers, it gets the pitch right 100% of the time.
Who wouldn’t want that? Hitters!
My perception, both from a hitter’s and now a fan’s view, is that a high percentage of time the umpires favor the batter on ball/strike calls. Not intentionally, it just evolved. The zone has shrunk over time. More pitches that are strikes on the electronic box are called balls, making the human element favor the hitter. I’ve always equated the current strike zone to the size of a basketball.
Another point to understand: A pitch is a strike if it touches any part of the electronic field. Front, back, top. Imagine a sharp curveball breaking late and coming over the front side of the grid, caught outside and low. But that’s a strike because it brushed the front of the electronic field.
How would this affect baseball, the strike zone getting bigger, actually the rule book size?
First, the game would be faster because the larger zone would force hitters into the swing mindset. More swings, shorter periods between action, that’s good. More swings, fewer pitches per at-bat, bases on balls would decrease and pitch counts would increase at a slower rate. Starters to go deeper into games, 20-game winners would come back.
There are big hurdles to get over, such as approval of the players’ union and owners, technical issues, communication logistics and ways it would affect the game known only through testing.
The electronic strike zone is at least five years away in Major League Baseball. But it will be tested in lower affiliated leagues sooner than you might think.
A final thought, and this should not be taken as disrespectful to today’s umpires, who, a very high percentage of time, have the pitch call correct. Seldom is there a game where the home plate umpire is consistently wrong on ball strike calls.
But imagine a hitter being called out on a pitch he thought was outside. Then the umpire tells him, “it beeped.” Hitters say, “Bull! No way it beeped.”
“Have you had your ears tested?”
Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt was a three-time NL MVP. He drew 1,507 walks and struck out 1,883 times. He led the Philadelphia Phillies to their first World Series championship in 1980.
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