Rise of the machines? Automated strike zones a concept worth considering

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Technological advancements have seemingly been leading toward an automated strike zone since “The Jetsons.”

Amazingly, we’re not quite there yet.

Baseball continues to use human umpires, as it has from the first game in 1876, a few years before the invention of the light bulb. Players and managers continue to complain about balls and strikes, as they have since the teenage kid down the block umped their Little League games.

But now we’re in an age when TV viewers are accustomed to seeing whether the plate umpire was correct on every pitch, thanks to the Pitchcast graphic that appears on screens seconds after each pitch is delivered.

Three cameras, on the first- and third-base sides and in center field, are used to show the trajectory of every pitch to within an inch of accuracy.

Coincidentally, announcers have just enough time between pitches to talk about the location of the last pitch, which often happens if it conflicts with what the umpire just called.

“You’ve got to be bleeping me” is no longer just a Hawk Harrelson catchphrase but a common reaction from fans watching on TV or following on mobile devices with the MLB.com At Bat app.

Cubs Manager Joe Maddon complained about “tight zones” twice last week, Tuesday against the Phillies and Friday against the Yankees. In Maddon’s mind, they’re “ball zones” and not “strike zones.”

Whether it’s time to give way to automated umpires behind the plate is a question Maddon said he has vacillated on, but lately he has been leaning pro-computer.

“Be careful what you wish for, (the) unintended consequences if there actually is an electronically controlled zone, which I’ve been speaking more in favor of recently,” Maddon said. “Are the veteran umpires really good at understanding nuance of the game and what actually is a good pitch and what needs to be called a strike based on how the game is supposed to be played and run?

“Or does it have to be more exact — this is the strike zone against this guy (based on) how tall he is or however he stands, whatever that means? Is that going to be important?”

WGN-TV producer Marc Brady, who is in charge of the cameras and content viewers see during Cubs telecasts, said the technology is available to implement an automated zone. Like most teams, the Cubs and White Sox have been using the graphic for years.

“Some people hate stats, but a universal strike is a strike,” Brady said. “It’s always the same. Even if you change the strike zone, it’s still universal. It’s technology for 2017 instead of what we did when we started watching baseball. It takes out human error.

“Humans have bad days. Computers don’t. Maybe the sun angle affects the umpire’s view of a pitch, or he has a bias in favor of a great pitcher who throws a lot of strikes, like a Chris Sale. Or maybe he’s just freezing and wants to speed up the game and go home. A computer has nowhere to go. It’s either a ball or a strike.”

Veteran umpire Joe West, the president of the World Umpires Association who worked the plate at Wrigley Field for Sunday’s finale of the Cubs-Yankees series, doesn’t envision a day when the machines will take over from the umps.

“They’ve tried that, but that machine misses more pitches than we do,” West said with a laugh.

A common belief in clubhouses is the PITCHf/x technology MLB uses for the Pitchcast graphic forces umpires to make decisions based on what they believe the results will indicate, not their own eyes, because they’re graded on those results.

“Maybe some umpires are umpiring to get a good score, possibly based on how they’re being evaluated, whereas maybe a group is still umpiring the good, old-fashioned way,” Maddon said. “So there are still inconsistencies with that.”

Of course the strike zone is different for 6-foot-7 Aaron Judge than it is for 5-6 Jose Altuve, but the automated system adjusts to each batter. Humans standing behind the hitter can be affected by catchers who are better at framing pitches, effortlessly bringing the glove into the zone to make borderline pitches strikes. A computer would ignore that.

The human element would be missing if plate umps were removed, and the fun of watching players get heated at a missed call would theoretically disappear because there would be no one to gripe to.

“If John McEnroe was playing with the technology they use to make calls in tennis, he’d be a totally different player,” Brady said. “It takes the crybabies out of the picture.”

Umpiring supervisors use the PITCHf/x readings to see how umpires are faring in the most difficult part of their job, calling pitches in a zone without visual borders.

“The machines are put in as a teaching tool,” West said. “So if the umpire is struggling, he could watch his games and learn from them. Like replay, it’s a great teaching tool and that’s what it should be used for.”

But it’s not just a “teaching tool” if it is used to grade umpires’ accuracy.

“Yeah, but how can they grade you?” West asked. “Every one of us has scored over 95 (percent accuracy). I mean, the machine this month missed 500 pitches. It didn’t call anything.”

What?

“So figure it out,” he said. “The pitch comes in and the plate umpire says nothing. The hitter looks back, the catcher looks back, (but) he says nothing. That’s what happens if you put a machine in there. Even if an umpire calls it wrong, he says something.”

West laughed.

It’s true that a machine would say nothing, but maybe nothing is something worth looking into. Maddon said players just want to know an ump’s strike zone going in, and “most of the time guys can deal with that and make an adjustment.”

Now how an electronic umpire would deal with John Lackey’s complaints is another issue altogether.

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