Between Innings: The time for automated umpires is now

"Between Innings" is a column featuring the topics fans of MLB (specifically the Cleveland Indians) are currently discussing between the innings and after the game. Today's topic is automated strike zones.

Robert Manfred promised to make MLB faster-paced, more fan-friendly experience, and to embrace technology. Small steps were taken with initiatives in pace of play, the near elimination of take-out slides at home plate and second base, and the extinction of the neighborhood play. Bigger changes are underway as well. Pitch clocks are being utilized in MiLB with an eventual call up to The Show. Instant replay continues to expand while becoming more efficient.

The biggest area of making the game better for the managers, players, and fans is being ignored, however. The strike zone continues to be an abstract idea rather than the geometrically engineered intersection of the portion of the home plate plane it is meant to be. Each umpire has a different interpretation. Each pitch might be called differently depending on how the catcher frames the pitch or how the glare from the sun catches the ball, not to mention the inning, game situation, and any prior interactions between a player, manager and umpire in question.

The answer to this problem with human limitation is out there. The automated strike zone is a real possibility, but it is one that has gained little traction in high-level MLB discussions. But, it is also an idea that should be pursued for the sake of the game.

The Prompt

During the Memorial Day game between the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, Josh Tomlin made what should have been a routine throw to first, but, as Scout's Hayden Grove has detailed, the play wound up far from routine when the throw glanced off Mitch Moreland and the umpire called him safe.

Terry Francona is still waiting for an explanation.

After he was ejected for arguing a call in which Mitch Moreland was ruled safe at first when Josh Tomlin (7-1) hit him with a throw, Francona asked plate umpire Manny Gonzalez why that was the call, albeit the wrong one.

Gonzalez, per Francona, didn't reply.

https://vine.co/v/iVjtO2lOF95

While the play above shows reason for even more expansion to the replay system, it demonstrates how umpires get calls wrong from time to time. MLB umpires are the best in the world at what they do, but it is an incredibly complex task for the human eye to determine exactly the point at which the ball crossed the plane of the plate. Particularly, given the number of different pitchers with different spin rates, growing repetoires of pitches, and team analysts determined to help their catchers "trick" the umpire into calling more balls as strikes.

Given the incredible difference of a borderline pitch being called a ball versus a strike, MLB owes it to everyone to ensure these calls are correct, consistent, and fair. Francona witnessed the inconsistencies of pitch-calling during the past weekend series with the Baltimore Orioles. On Saturday, the left-side of the strike zone (catcher's view) had an extra inch on it, and Danny Salazar took advantage. The Orioles must have noticed it late because it was not an area Ubaldo Jimenez was working, but Vance Worley immediately started pounding his pitches into that extra cushion once he took the mound.

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/pfxVB/cache/location.php-pitchSel=517593&g...

Cleveland Indians Danny Salazar's pitch map on May 28, 2016 versus the Baltimore Orioles courtesy of PITCH f/x via brooksbaseball.net

The technology

Manfred has promised to embrace the technological advances that will help the game. Statcast has now been installed in all 30 MLB ballparks, the Tampa Bay Rays have installed the Kinatrax camera system in Tropicana Field, and other complex videography systems are prevalent though many ballclubs prefer to keep quiet about the extent their usage.

Umpires have even been given video analysis to help reduce variance between games and help them achieve their highest potential in calling balls and strikes. But, while MLB continues work within their self-induced limits, other sports have raised the ceiling.

The WTA (World Tennis Association) has been using automated line-calls since 2003 using the Hawk Eye system, which combines high speed videography with statistical modeling. The once controversial subject has become the standard bearer for the sport. Gone are the days of John McEnroe meltdowns at perceived poor line calls.

However, despite the technological ability MLB has to create a fair system for the most basic call in the sport that has great effects on the game itself, an automated strike zone has barely registered on the list of issues for discussion of the impending CBA negotiations.

The Obstacles

The Major League Umpire Association is by far the biggest obstacle to overcome. The men in blue behind the plate do not want the meat-and-potato call being taken out of their control. Though they would still be needed on the field for judgement call plays and to ensure proper calibration and utilization of equipment, the fear is that the automation of the strike zone would undercut their value alongside a heavy dose of pride in being able to make those calls.

http://www.scout.com/cleveland-sports/story/1673911-mike-napoli-makes-in... MLB needs to take a strong stance, however, and the umpires need to conquer their pride for the sake of the game. Plus, with the ability to focus on less tasks, the umpires should be capable of even higher standards on the calls needed from them.

Additionally, while serves and volleys can have speeds of 140 miles per hour, tennis does have the advantage of having a static line to utilize for their calls. In MLB, the strike zone changes with the size of the batter as determined from their stance as noted on the mlb.com rule page.

The Strike Zone is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the bottom of the knees. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

So, MLB and MLBPA would need to come to an agreement about how to adjust the strike zone, which would likely need a MLB operator on-site to ensure each batter had a correct zoning.

Conclusions

Pitchers and hitters being able to rely on a static zone is a basic tenet of the game that hasn't been possible until recently. An automated strike zone will take time to employ in MiLB and root out issues before being ready to be implemented at the MLB level. And, there will be some who oppose it as pitch clocks still have MLB opposition despite the wide praise from their usage in MiLB. But, getting pitch-calls correct is even more important than speeding up the game. There will always be people who oppose change, but MLB needs to take a firm stance and make this change happen.

Once it is adopted, the automated strike zone will make people wonder why there was ever any resistance to it in the first place. But, we'll miss grown men losing their minds yelling at each other.

https://vine.co/v/iVjFDIYFHwe


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