The call for robo umps gained a high-profile ally when Ben Zobrist voiced his support for a change in baseball’s human element. The veteran was ejected for the first time in his career last week and later admitted to the media that it was because he told home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi that an incorrect called third strike was why players want an electronic strike zone.
While I’ve got to give Zobrist mad props for what was a pretty sick burn, especially coming from a dude for whom “Your mom” is probably considered a snarky clap-back, it’s going to be a while before we can realistically automate the zone. It seems really simple when watching games on television or online because the strike zone is right there (except for Friday’s Cubs/Pirates game), but making that a reality when it comes to calling the game is another story.
Rules would have to be amended and agreed upon. Every ballpark would have to implement and maintain uniform technology for delineating the zone and relaying real-time calls to umpires. Power would have to be pried from Joe West’s cold, dead hands. Anything can happen with the right combination of money and motivation, though, so it’s really just a question of whether MLB has enough of the latter.
I’ll leave the logistics of robo umps for another time and a more expert commentator, but what I’d like to discuss here is the fallout from such a seismic change. Calling for umpires to be abolished, or at least to be stripped of strike-calling responsibilities, is easy. Once you topple that first domino, however, you start to realize there are repercussions not previously considered.
Perhaps the most obvious fallout from automating the zone comes in the immediate obsolescence of catchers’ pitch-framing skills. The whole idea of framing is that a good receiver can fool an umpire by pulling a pitch back into the zone or by positioning his glove in such a way that he’s catching the ball as close to its perimeter as possible.
That latter tactic is particularly helpful with high pitches, since a large majority of the glove itself is in the zone even though the ball is not. You can bet more than one ump has worn a fastball because of this practice. Believe it or not, though, that’s not the primary area of impact here.
The inability to fool a computer means the elimination of a skillset that, while I think is afforded undue importance in some circles, is undoubtedly important for guys who’re managing pitching staffs. All of a sudden, you’re leveling the playing field by cutting out a big chunk of a catcher’s value. That’s good for the Cubs, since Willson Contreras is nowhere near the league’s elite framers.
It could also expose some serious flaws with pitchers who live around the corners of the zone and need to be shepherded by a crafty backstop. That could force those pitchers — maybe all pitchers — to work in the zone more, which would in turn lead to more offense.
That leads us to…
Pace of play
The whole problem with pace of play isn’t the actual length of games, it’s the action taking place over their course. After all, a 10-9 game that lasts four hours is going to be more exciting than a 3-1 snoozer that’s over in three hours. For most people, anyway.
In addition to potentially spurring offense, the elimination of the human element of balls and strikes cuts down on glaring pitchers and pouting batters. No managers are running out to kick dirt on the plate or get in the ump’s face after a few calls don’t go his team’s way.
Then again, the technology could give rise to all kinds of other issues. For instance…
Failure and fallback
I’m not talking about this in an overall conceptual sense, more like temporary blackouts or glitches. Say the tech drops out during the action, like the shot clock malfunctioning during a basketball game. What do you then, go back to human umps calling pitches?
Bear in mind that there’ll still be someone back there to serve as the arbiter of plays at the plate, so they can still resume their old roles in a pinch. But the whole move to the computerized zone is predicated on the idea that humans inherently suck at the job. That ain’t getting better from a lack of practice.
And if you think it’s bad to have to rely on actual umps again, imagine what happens if the tech screws up. Like if the Yankees are playing the Astros and the algorithm that drives the visualization of the zone doesn’t shift between Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve. A pitch in the former’s feet or the latter’s eyes could be called a strike.
Who do you appeal to then? Better yet, who do you bitch about? We’re going to have to…
Say bye to the bad guy
Face it, part of fun of the human element is that we get to blame someone else for our misfortunes. That’s all over the second Skynet or WOPR takes over. Not only can neither players nor fans boo or taunt or throw tantrums, but pissing off the machines could eventually lead to mutually assured destruction.
And if you think I’m going to far with this line of thinking, maybe go back and watch War Games or Terminator.
In all seriousness, there is a psychological shift that will take place as a result of the move away from human calls of balls and strikes. I know most or all of that will be outweighed by the knowledge that the correct calls are being made, but there’s something to be said for our comfort with the angst that comes along with fandom.
Removing any measure of that emotion, even if it’s uncomfortable, is going to create a void. It can’t stay empty forever, so what rushes in to fill it? Do we come up with other negative, conspiratorial thoughts (MLB is out to get my team!) or does something a little more productive take over?
Don’t get me wrong, I want very badly to see an electronic strike zone. Human element, schmuman element, I’m sick of seeing the sport’s officials acting as though people came to the park to see an ump show. But more than just bitterness toward Country Joe West or CB Bucknor or Angel Hernandez, all of whom have been lamented by legions of fans every game, it’s about the inherent inability of humans to correctly adjudicate pitch calls.
Velocity has increased and specialization has resulted in pitchers with nastier stuff and who are more fresh when they unleash it. As such, there’s simply no way a tired old man squatting behind the catcher has an appropriate vantage point from which to observe a pitch’s location. In fact, one could argue that there’s no one spot on the diamond from which a person with a finite visual field can correctly interpret a baseball’s location.
One of the best examples of this is ESPN’s strike zone rendering, which first displays the zone as a mere plane before rotating to show a 3D pentagon. An umpire can’t adequately visualize the zone in such a manner and is really operating on a sense, albeit well-developed in most cases, of what constitutes a ball or strike. But that sense could change based on conditions that include personal bias, fatigue, or a poorly timed blink.
Those influences aren’t present when we’re talking about cameras and computers.
As much as I want the zone to be made uniform and to have responsibility for its curation stripped from human hands, I also realize there’s a lot that needs to be considered before that happens. What we have now is far from perfect, but Angel is the devil we know. Or something like that. The system now might be deeply flawed, but it works. Rushing a robo zone out before its time could be disastrous.
Then again, maybe putting an awful product out there and getting overwhelming blowback would mean hasten Rob Manfred’s exit.