MILWAUKEE–With the technology for electronic strike zones in place, Major League Baseball is beginning to explore the idea of “robot umps.”
In reality, the umps would still be human. The idea is that they’d have an ear piece in, and receive the ball/strike call just after the ball crossed home plate, after which they’d make the call. MLB is currently testing the technology in the Atlantic League, where umpires have the ability to override calls.
It’s easy to understand why many fans want this in place. Umpires vary widely in their zones, and with the zone visible during broadcasts, every viewer can see when an umpire misses a call. Managers, too, have access to this technology in-game. Perhaps the most upset Rocco Baldelli got all season was during the Twins’ epic 14-12 loss to the Yankees. In that game, Tyler Duffey clearly struck out Luke Voit on a 3-2 breaking ball, which would have preserved the Twins’ one-run lead in the 8th inning. Instead, home plate umpire Ramon De Jesus called it a ball, Didi Gregorious followed with a 2-run double, and Baldelli was ejected. Baldelli’s ejection paled in comparison to Aaron Boone’s epic rant (warning: graphic language) after a series of bad calls early in a game against the Rays.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, there wasn’t much support in the Twins’ clubhouse for instituting an electronic strike zone, for a variety of reasons.
“I think you take the human element out of the game, you change it, and I’m not sure you change it for the better,” said Zack Littell. “Obviously everybody wants to get the right call, but at the same time, the mistakes are kind of what makes the game what it is. I think for every call that doesn’t go your way there’s a call that does go your way. I don’t know that it’d be worth it.”
Jake Odorizzi echoed those sentiments, and argued that it would change the game more dramatically than most fans anticipate.
“There has to be a human element to it, because you’d see strikes that are curveballs that hit the bottom of the zone and end up in the dirt, so are you going to start calling dirt balls strikes?” he said. “I think players would start getting upset.”
“I think it’s something that’s going to take a lot of convincing, because it’s going to change the game so drastically. I think it would be harder on hitters than pitchers because it takes away the missed location aspect of it. You can be going for something, completely miss your spot, barely clip the zone and it’s a strike. So as a hitter it would really be tough to navigate. What are they going to be using as the zone? Is it going to vary from hitter to hitter like it’s supposed to? It’d be a tough sell. Do you get measured every year for your strike zone? There’d be so many things that would need to be considered before they ever considered bringing it to a game.”
Jason Castro has perhaps the best perspective on it. As a catcher, he’s navigating the strike zone with the umpire throughout the game, and using that information to inform his at-bats as a hitter. Castro doesn’t see an electronic strike zone as a feasible option, suggesting it would turn pitches that are technically strikes, but rarely called that way, into strikes, and in doing so alter hitters’ perceptions of the zone they’ve cultivated through years of at-bats.
“There are balls that you can argue technically clip parts of the strike zone but are not really hittable pitches, especially with the type of (velocity) and movement guys have,” he said. “You have to define what the zone actually is. The up and away corner, if you go by the letter of what the zone could potentially be, that clips the very edge at 97, that’s not really a hittable pitch. I think in practice hitters really wouldn’t like that.”
Castro, of course was signed in part because of his elite ability to frame pitches. That’s an important part of a catcher’s defensive value, and an electronic strike zone would effectively eliminate that aspect of the game.
“From a catching standpoint, that significantly affects a big job that a catcher has,” said Castro. “That’s something that, talking with Mitch [Garver] a little bit, is not something catchers would like.”
There’s also the entertainment factor. Balls and strikes get fans, players, and managers fired up, for better or worse. It creates interest and discussion in the game, even if much if it revolves around the umpire blowing a call.
“I kind of like the human element of it,” said Taylor Rogers. “What are you coming to the game to watch?”