Solving the Human Error in Calling Balls and Strikes

I have never been one to point out a problem without in turn coming up with a solution. That said, I feel that my recent post regarding the need for MLB to tighten up the low end of the strike zone was a bit ambiguous in terms of what should actually be done.

Implicit in my piece was the need for an amendment of the rules, but that’s not really what needs to happen. After all, the rules governing the current strike zone have been in place since 1996 and it’s only in the last 6 years or so that dramatic shifts have helped to reduce offensive output.

What MLB really needs is stricter enforcement of the rules that are already in place. But how do we do that? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here are a few suggestions for Commissioner Manfred and Co. to mull over as they decide what to do for 2016 and beyond.

Replace men with bots

This is a move that has received growing support over the past few years, even if much of that is rife with sarcasm. But even in the most acerbic assertion lies a hard kernel of stoicism, and I do believe there’s a not insignificant group that would be fine with a high degree of automation in the game.

After all, a robot doesn’t care about the history or pedigree of a given pitcher or batter. It doesn’t show bias based on the count (as seen in the sweet 3D heat maps in this Etan Green piece on FiveThirtyEight Sports). It doesn’t get tired in the second game of a double header and widen its zone in order to make it to the hotel bar a few minutes earlier.

A robot isn’t going to be very adept at determining whether someone was hit by a pitch or whether he fouled a ball off. Then again, a bot doesn’t get mad when you show it up and make people think the game is about the players and not the umpires.

But you lose an intrinsic part of the game by eliminating or marginalizing umpires. I know some are probably thinking, “Hell yeah, marginalize away!” but baseball is a game of imperfection. Part of what makes it so great is its subjective nature.

Then again, as advanced metrics and high definition broadcasts allow us to analyze each moment with previously unheard-of specificity, maybe a greater level of perfection is required of the officials. Perhaps men simply aren’t good enough to usher baseball into a new age.

I do think umpires can continue to be part of the game, though, even behind the plate. But something needs to change. Maybe…

Move the ump from behind the plate

Typically employed in Little League games when the area behind the plate takes on too much water, this would certainly be an interesting concept. Sure, you’d have quite a few aging fellas whose spry days are long gone dodging come-backers and obstructing plays, but you have to admit it’d add a sense of danger and adventure.

This is probably the most awful solution imaginable; not only would you maintain the inherent human error already in place, but you’d increase it tenfold by putting another ump in the field of play.

Perhaps you could…

Expand replay to called pitches

Yet another terrible idea that would only serve to increase game times, aggravate fans, and turn away potential new viewers.

Speaking of viewing the game, maybe MLB could design…

New masks with a heads-up display (HUD) of the zone

Sounds a little techie, but bear with me here because I think this could be the perfect solution to the problem. I mean, just look at how effective it’s been for Robocop, the Universal Soldiers, various iterations of Terminators, and, of course, Iron Man. J.A.R.V.I.S. might well be the future of umpire technology.

If I haven’t already lost you with that detour into action/sci-fi, let’s think about this. Is it really all that far-fetched to imagine installing some kind of virtual reality eyepiece or panel into an umpire’s facemask? Not at all. In fact, Recon Instruments already has a line of HUD eyewear for sports (take a moment to check out the Snow2 and Jet; they’re pretty cool).

Recon’s sunglasses and goggles are capable of displaying various performance metrics and GPS mapping and they even have Bluetooth connectivity. I have to believe it’d be easy enough to configure a similar device to display a strike zone model much like those used in television broadcasts to allow the ump to make a more accurate and unbiased call.

The display could also track the count, outs, even time between pitches, mound visits, etc. It’s a pitch clock without having a pitch clock. The data would be recordable and immediately available for audit. Not that there should be much of a need for remediation; when you have to call the actual zone, there’s less opportunity and desire to interpret it on your own.

Baseball’s got 99 problems, but a pitch ain’t one if they integrate this technology. Of course, MLB also has 99 umpires and equipping each with HUD-equipped eyewear wouldn’t be free. But at only $120,000 (assuming a $600 price tag and 200 units), it wouldn’t be cost-prohibitive in the least. And that’s without considering the possibility of a sponsorship deal.

Taking advantage of such tech probably wouldn’t stop pitchers and hitters from arguing calls that don’t go their way — Milt Pappas would still be pissed about a technologically-aided ball call — but they’d really have no basis to do so. Consistency would remove the infuriating changes from one ump to another or even one game or even inning to the next.

It’s also possible that the men tasked with officiating the game would balk at such a diminution of their innate abilities. After all, no one really likes to own up to his or her own subjectivity or to admit that they are flawed and could use help. You think “Cowboy” Joe West wants a damn computer telling him what to call?

But rather than replacing humans with computers, this would be a combination of the two in the interest of the greater good of the game. This is exactly the utopian baseball society Aldous Huxley and Isaac Asimov dreamed of all those years ago.

But what do you think, dear reader? How would you mitigate the human error in calling balls and strikes, or would you change anything at all?

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