America’s pastime, like the country herself, has always been a beacon for what we can be when we embrace change.
It is built into the very fabric of our Constitution so that it can be amended to reflect change. Some of our first collective words were a promise to forever strive to be more perfect.
One of the greatest embodiments of this idea came from the game of baseball on the first day Jackie Robinson stepped onto a Major League diamond on April 15, 1947.
That moment resonated throughout the baseball world while also possessing far-reaching consequences across the country and globe. Similarly and much later, Curt Flood ushered in a new era in a battle that eventually begat free agency and brought wide-sweeping change to workers rights that again did not stay confined to the hardball diamond.
If ever the game was going to collapse, it would have been during these turbulent and political times; however, nevermore has its resiliency been more clearly defined.
Since Flood’s fight in 1969, Major League Baseball has survived the following changes:
Lowering the mound; expansion to new cities; relocation of teams to new cities; teams switching leagues; the addition of the DH; the Wild Card; the second Wild Card; shifting; the impact of analytics on the field and markets; Interleague Play; multiple restructurings of stadium dimensions; new stadiums altogether; improvements made to the bats and other equipment; and, of course, the new baseballs.
Well, the jury may still be out on whether the game survives that last one.
Every single time those resistant to change cry out that the game of baseball will be ruined, it perseveres, reaches new audiences, and ultimately grows stronger.
And we are living on the cusp of yet another scary big change: the possible and altogether likely implementation of an electronic strike zone.
Though this conversation has been going on for years, it came into sharper focus earlier in 2019 when Mark T. Williams of Boston University did the necessary work of compiling the data that would allow us to begin having the conversation in earnest.
He and his team discovered that MLB umpires missed over 34,000 ball/strike calls in 2018… and that was somehow the good news because it was a 10-year low.
A few other notable, interesting, and troubling facts were revealed:
- 55 games ended on missed calls
- High strikes are less likely to be called than low ones
- There is a pronounced and significant two-strike bias in favor of pitchers
- Less experienced and younger umpires perform much better, but umpires with more tenure are selected for the most important games
And this is all the tip of the iceberg as the data can now be pored over to try to determine if there are even more biases we haven’t seen yet.
We dissected all of this further when Williams made an appearance on the BSN Rockies Podcast and discussed how this information has become far more prevalent for the men playing the game, specifically noting that Ian Desmond knew he held the inauspicious claim at the time of having had the most calls in MLB go against him this year.
A suddenly clear irony emerged. We are already using technology as the final arbiter to call balls and strikes; we are just doing so in the least efficient way possible.
Umpires, hitters, pitchers, managers, and even broadcasters are measured by a now-ubiquitous part of the baseball-viewing experience. “The box.”
There have been various iterations of it over the years, and there are those who still loathe its very existence for the precise reason that it gives people a sense of an absolute strike zone that they do not believe exists.
But the fact remains that it has now been accepted by even MLB who uses this data to assess whether or not “wrong” or “right” calls were made.
And, however reticent some players or managers may be to the proverbial robot umpire revolution, each one of them has checked it to see where a questionable borderline pitch was. If “the box” showed it going against them, they may curse it and think of all the shortcomings. When it shows them what they thought they’d see, justifying their frustrations, they feel vindicated.
This is a bad system. We posses technology capable of calling balls and strikes, but only use it after the fact, for the hopeful sake of the future, and with no ability to do anything tangible about clearly missed calls.
It has already dramatically changed the way the game is played and even strategized about by those in uniform.
Ongoing discussion between battery mates, managers, and the men in blue behind the plate have been a part of the game since the beginning. But the nature and exactness of those conversations is markedly different than it used to be.
Just ask someone who has pitched and then managed through this entire process of electronically modernizing the pitcher versus batter interface. We did.
“There’s definitely more talk about the strike zone than in my generation, for sure,” Colorado Rockies manager Bud Black told BSN Denver. “And there is more talk about the box. The box has become an everyday thing because it’s there, right?”
Begrudge it all you like, but Major League Baseball gave their audience and their workforce access to this information, so it isn’t going away. Like the DH; love it or hate it, we can’t go back.
As Williams said on our podcast, MLB themselves opened this up and the visualized strike zone has become such a ubiquitous part of the game that the Colorado Rockies now include hot and cold zones for umpires on digital display in the clubhouse before every single game.
All this does is force pitchers and hitters to engage in a kind of educated guesswork regime rather than trying to truly master the zone. This kind of guesswork has always been a part of the game and technology has already improved the dynamic even through a half-measure.
“Before, the conversation was about that day’s umpire’s strike zone. And you sorta knew your umpires and there were National League and American League umpires. And you knew their zone, good or bad,” Black says of the way it used to be.
“Now the talk is all about the box. It’s so visual. And it is referred to. It’s referred to in analytics. And there’s discussion that is strategic as it relates to the strike zone and as it relates to pitch charting. So the strike zone itself is all box-related now.”
Arguments are often made for those concerned about the consequences of cutting through this process and just letting “the box” make the call, pointing to the possibility that certain pitchers could take advantage by throwing breaking pitches that barely touch the zone.
Putting aside the fact that the data suggests a fairer strike zone will actually force more action and help the hitters and that all of this seems more like a new strategic wrinkle than a necessary problem, it is interesting to note that, again, the tech has already changed the way pitchers approach the game.
“It changed the way I pitched,” said Black who tossed his last ballgame back on July 9, 1995. “Because some guys you could get a bigger zone.”
Greg Maddux is the poster child for this concept, but Black too can recall a time when you could “earn” a much wider strike zone than was written in the rule book if you displayed excellent command and consistency.
As the Colorado manager admits, this was far more of an art than a science. Entire games could be won or lost not based on who executed the fundamentals of the game best but on who figured out that day’s ump quicker.
Who the umpire was on any given day could have a dramatic impact on the game. It still can, but the man often known as a baseball traditionalist admits that implementing the technology the way we already have has achieved at least a part of the intended result.
“I think we’re moving toward a more consistent zone,” he says. “It’s probably a better zone,” he admits even if it means throwing more pitches in the dangerous areas that favor hitters.
When we asked a year ago about whether or not he would welcome an electronic zone, Black gave as positive an answer on the subject as any MLB manager has publicly.
“The automated strike zone discussion is one that should be made,” he said. “I think it should be talked about with caution… but I think you should talk about it.”
He added, “The game has made great strides with technology, replay has proven to be a good thing. Let’s test it.”
Because, as he says, we are already using it. And as we have seen with the other advances, players and fans very quickly adapt to a new normal.
Beyond how it feels and whether or not it creates some new issues (there will always be kinks in the system to work out) the fact is that we simply can’t go back to a world where we ignore all the information that we now have.
And not just for fans to get emotional about and debate after the fact. Managers and ballplayers are often caught in an untenable position when it comes to these missed calls because MLB has spent more time thinking of ways to punish them for arguing facts with auto-ejections rather than implement the available solution to the much larger problem.
Not only must Bud Black stay mum about an unfair zone during the game, he has to navigate a strange and relatively new issue before and after games. He can’t overly critique a guy for walk totals in the modern world if the evidence we all have access to shows that he was throwing strikes and just not getting calls.
“No doubt,” he says of this dynamic. “I use it as a resource to critique a pitcher. And a handful of pitches can change the complexion of a game. First pitch of the game, he misses it? It’s one out of 100. Now, with the bases loaded in a 2-1 count a borderline strike is missed? That’s huge.”
With everyone now able to analyze these moments with precision, we basically have a system where we all know the right answer except the one person who has the power to do anything about it.
As much as some may want to make this about the “human element,” there is a qualitative difference between how the game is played and how the rules are enforced.
Across all pro sports, the premise has been upheld that the rules ought to be followed as closely as possible in order to maintain integrity. The biggest scandals in sports history, including baseball’s own Chicago Black Sox, happen when this integrity is called into question.
Ultimately, this is why a change will likely come after a nationally-witnessed blown call turns the fate of a big game in October.
Those who would take issue with the notion that a perfect strike zone even exits or that we should take necessary measures to perfect it technologically, don’t have an argument with me. Their issue is with the inventors of the game who clearly defined the strike zone as the space over the plate from the knees to the bottom of the letters.
It is also with MLB who is already using this tech to analyze umps and allowing managers and players and broadcasts and fans to do the same.
Either petition to change the rule book to say a strike is literally whatever an umpire says it is or enforce the rule as perfectly as possible.
Of course, almost no current players want to go on record in favor of change and risk having it taken out on them at the plate, which speaks to another issue that wouldn’t exist with a computer or robot.
But as many ballplayers have told us anonymously, and as Bud Black laid out pretty clearly in our conversation, we are already letting technology tell us which pitches are balls and which are strikes. Now, it’s time to let the umpires in on the action.
Just like all the other scary changes to the game over the past century, baseball will survive and be better for it.