Game Changers: An electronic strike zone?
MLB pleased with current system, keeping tabs on new technology
Last July, left-hander Wander Beras of the San Rafael Pacifics threw the opening pitch of an independent league game against the Vallejo Admirals. Dean Poteet, the 40-year veteran umpire behind home plate, didn't even flinch. In fact, he'd been instructed to hook his strike-calling thumb into his belt loop. Milliseconds later, former big league outfielder and MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes, parked at the edge of the backstop with a computer monitor in front of him, leaned into a microphone and let out a "Hyahhh." It was the first pitch ever to be called by a computer in a professional baseball game.
Byrnes, who retired from Major League Baseball in 2010 but played a few games for the Pacifics in 2014, suggested the club try out PITCHf/x, the same Sportvision-designed, three-camera tracking system used by MLB Advanced Media in big league parks to collect data on pitch location, speed and movement since 2006. Byrnes advocates the use of the system to call balls and strikes at the Major League level.
It is a subject of much controversy in baseball, met with everything from curiosity and enthusiasm to skepticism and outrage. While nearly everyone agrees that umpires judging 100-mph fastballs simply can't always get it right, baseball purists strongly oppose the use -- or overuse, as it may be -- of technology in the game.
Now that the majority of baseball broadcasts include an on-screen graphic that shows viewers where each pitch lands in relation to the strike zone, it is usually possible to discern whether an umpire gets a call right or wrong.
In Byrnes' opinion, the automated strike zone could be used to assist, rather than replace, umpires, just as instant replay has been used. In fact, rather than eliminating umpiring jobs, it would add one; a fifth umpire would be needed to relay the computer's calls to the home-plate ump.
PITCHf/x uses three cameras -- one on the first-base line, midway between home and the base; one on the third-base line, also midway between home and the base; and one in center field, to triangulate "the full trajectory of live baseball pitches to within an inch of accuracy." That is, it follows the baseball from the moment it leaves the pitcher's hand to the point at which it crosses home plate, detecting and noting the location of the ball between 40 and 50 times throughout the duration of a pitch. It can be calibrated to follow the ball across the entire zone.
"With technology, there is always some noise or uncertainty, but our system is accurate to less than an inch," said Ryan Zander, Sportvision's general manager of baseball products. "More often than not, it is accurate to within half an inch."
Opponents of the system point to it as a virtual gulf; the black strip around the edge of home plate is only three-quarters of an inch, and is often pointed to as the difference between a ball and strike.
When asked about the potential use of the automated strike zone in MLB at the All-Star Game in Cincinnati last summer, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was against it, and expressed concerns about the technology.
"It's because of speed," he said. "It's because of technology limitations. It's because, quite frankly, the strike zone is different for every single guy."
Manfred's concern is a valid one, because hitters often shift up and down in stances even after setting up at the plate. Sportsvision assures allowances for height and stance differences are taken into consideration. According to Zander, the center-field camera is used to calibrate and set the strike zone for each individual hitter, using set guidelines provided by the MLB umpiring department. There is also a database for every hitter in MLB, and a rolling average of his strike zone is preloaded into the system each time he comes to bat.
"Still, the system operator is constantly readjusting the strike zone to make sure it is set properly for each batter," Zander said.
MLB says it is intrigued by the technology and is tracking its evolution, but it is pleased with its current umpiring situation.
"The Major League umpires have never been more consistent in calling balls and strikes, and during a time when they are subject to more scrutiny than ever before, they do an excellent job," an MLB spokesman said. "Technology is, and will remain, a significant part of how the performances of the umpires are evaluated after each and every plate assignment. The umpires have embraced many tools to help them achieve their fundamental purpose, which is to get as many calls correct as possible."
The concept, though, is intriguing, and would no doubt change the game as we know it. While the strike zone is clearly set by the MLB rulebook, good pitchers and catchers will work together to flirt with the edges of an umpire's strike zone, thereby expanding it over the course of the game. The automated strike zone would remove this nuance. The framing of pitches by skilled catchers would become irrelevant.
Some might see this as a virtue, but "gamesmanship" on the margins is ubiquitous across sports. You can't watch a basketball game without seeing big men box out a split-second early on free throws while avoiding what should be a lane violation, and NFL cornerbacks will regularly bump receivers more than five yards past the line of scrimmage, daring officials to call them for illegal contact.
If MLB isn't ready for total adoption of an electronic strike zone, Byrnes suggests a happy medium.
"Introduce the system by using it for challenge calls with two strikes," Byrnes said. "Make it available only on outcome pitches."
Players in that independent-league game last summer uniformly praised the consistency of the system, and even umpire Poteet said the experiment went smoother than he thought it would and actually called it "fun."
Of course, that's a sample size of one game, and we'll see this concept put through far more rigorous testing before it comes to a Major League ballpark.