ESPN is running a series in the lead up to Rob Manfred’s one-year anniversary as MLB commissioner that asks various writers to discuss one innovation they would like to see the game implement. In his take, Dan Szymborski says that automated strike zones are a necessity if the game wants to retain viability among fans.
There are three sides to the debate. Those in Szymborski’s corner abide by the “technology is available” principle, which states it is ludicrous to discard appropriate high-tech methods in the name of preserving tradition. Then, you have the people who believe absolutely no technology should be used – these are the types who decry instant replay to this day, and who believe that baseball should be as pure and unburdened with buttons and gadgets as it was in 1876.
The third side, a position which I take, is somewhere in the middle. Technology is great and should be used, but there should be limits to its implementation. In essence, neither side is wrong. We just need to add a few tweaks here or there.
First, let’s talk about replay. It was a godsend when it was implemented. It took a while to catch on and there were some kinks to work out, but it has become a generally smooth and much-appreciated addition to the game, an addition that was sorely needed.
People who say replay killed baseball need to take a step back. People who think replay indicates the potential success of automated strike zones need to do the same.
Replay did not fundamentally change how baseball is played. It was a rule change that made competition more fair and eliminated an aspect of human error. At worst, it essentially spelled the end of manager-umpire confrontations, which traditionalists bemoan but which was really more of a sideshow than something that had any real impact on the outcome of a game. Consensus: replay is good.
Replay is also limited. Managers are allowed one challenge, and gifted another should the first end up correct. This is how it should be done. It takes a viable technology and makes it instantly useful while introducing new strategical quirks into the game that could determine whether a certain call is challenged or not. You could argue that replay implementation was about as perfect as it could have possibly been.
Automated strike zones: a literal game-changer
Fully automating strike zones would be the antithesis of limited replay. That isn’t to say they shouldn’t be implemented. I’ll get to that. But it should not be a universal change. I mentioned that replay did not fundamentally change the game; automated strike zones would do that and then some. It would change how pitchers attack the corners of the zone. It would impact the importance of a 2-1 count versus a 1-2 count. It would alter catcher mechanics and setups. Most of all, it would completely revolutionize how hitters select pitches to swing at knowing that the dimensions of the strike zone are consistent on every delivery.
These are not bad changes, but they are big changes. We’re talking Steroids Era-level changes here, not in the sense that it would increase power, but in the sense that it would completely alter stat lines for players across the board. In the same way the NFL has tarnished the record books by allowing receivers to run down the field untouched, so would an automated strike zone lead to statistical changes that could rewrite history. An extreme viewpoint? Perhaps, but there is no question that baseball would be forever changed.
Many say that that is the way it should be, that the only reason automated strike zones were not in play previously is because the technology wasn’t available. If baseball started today, they say, automation would be an obvious addition. And they’re not wrong. But that’s not baseball.
The umpire effect
More than any other sport, umpires are part of the game. They are involved on every play, every movement. The saying goes that people don’t pay to see the umps – sort of true, I suppose, but you actually are paying to see the umps because they’re not some sideline-occupying entity without a say. They are part of the game, literally part of it, they are on the field and interact with the players, and when an ump is behind the plate, he is actually influencing the game on every level. That’s not some sideshow, that’s part of the game, and that’s what is important.
Whether or not you believe umpires are awful, or they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread, you cannot deny as a fan that they are integral to what makes baseball baseball. Eliminating that aspect of the game would be like replacing managers with computers that make every call based on sabermetric guidelines. Sure, it would still work in theory, but it would do away with the very essence of baseball. Managers are as much a part of the game as umpires are. Hitters, fielders, pitchers, managers, and umpires do a dance every evening to present a product unlike any in sports.
As a Nationals fan, I’ve been on the wrong end of some bad calls. And no one can ever say this didn’t happen:
And something like that shouldn’t be allowed to happen in baseball. But fully automating the strike zone is too radical a change, a switch that would permeate the soul of the sport that millions around the country love. So we can’t have it both ways. What’s the solution?
Replay as a window into automated strike zones
I’ll come back to this point again: replay’s ultimate success came because it was and is limited. Those who want fully automated strike zones don’t exactly go around campaigning for unlimited manager challenges. Just because there are more balls and strikes in a game in comparison to close calls in the field and on the basepaths does not mean every single one of those pitches needs to be automatically assessed.
When a baserunner is called out on a close play and a manager has no challenges left, fans do not cry foul. They accept that the play must go on because of a logical limitation in the rule. This should be applied to automatic strike zones, but with a major difference that would make the game much more interesting: put the call in the hands of the hitter.
Here’s my solution: keep the umpires, but allow each hitter one ball/strike challenge in each at bat he has in the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings. If the game goes to extra innings, each batter has one challenge for the duration of extra play. Some may say it sounds dumb, but it could work very well.
The major argument against it would be that it would take too much time. I beg to differ. These aren’t calls that need to be scrutinized on video for minutes on end. The hitter simply has to call for a challenge, and have the automated view of the strike zone appear on the scoreboard or some other screen once the challenge is issued. That takes literally two seconds.
Another argument against this is that by limiting the challenges to the last three innings, you’re essentially scrapping the importance of the first six innings. My counter would be that the same principle applies to replay. Managers have shown constantly that they prefer to save challenges until later in the game, unless the play in question was so game-changing that it warranted immediate viewing. It’s just another example of introducing a new rule that also adds a new layer of strategy to the proceedings.
This will never happen
The dueling views of baseball – tradition versus technology – are much like the current political climate in America. It’s my way or the highway in most circles, and conceding only shows weakness. Baseball is the oldest sport in America, with the most tradition and history, so this debate rages on like no other debate in any sport. Because of this, a limited automation solution will likely never see the light of day. It’s either going to be all umps, all the time, or no umps, none of the time (interestingly enough, this year’s political climate will similarly decide if we have all Trump, all the time, or no Trump, none of the time).
The problem is that the issue is novel. Replay was revolutionary, but it had precedent in the three other major sports leagues in the U.S. Ball/strike calls are exclusive to baseball, meaning that there is no where to turn for reference.
Except for replay. You can turn to replay. It worked well, and the same principles can work well again.