Message to Major League Baseball: Let Computers Call Balls and Strikes!

Last week I wrote an article favoring expanding instant replay that you can see here: Despite MLB’s reluctance, I do think it’s inevitable that it will expand instant replay beyond its current form to include calls on the bases. The Holy Grail, the untouchable, seems to be balls and strikes. Most baseball elites are on record stating that it can never be subject to instant replay. I agree. There should never be review of balls and strikes because machines should call balls and strikes in the first place!

I am sick and tired of hearing about a particular umpires personal strike zone. Or that it should take players a few innings to learn an umpire’s strike zone on a given day. Another argument broadcasters use to defend questionable umpiring is that it is okay if the ball and strike calls are bad just as long as they are consistent. I get the rationalization but that’s what it is, a rationalization defending a now correctable problem. Further if a bad call is made on one team’s number nine hitter and the other’s number three, who gets the better of that deal? This highlights another problem in that consistency goes by the wayside to accommodate the star system and the strike zone they get. When the Atlanta Braves were great in the 1990’s, there was the Atlanta Brave strike zone. Tom Glavine was a very good to excellent pitcher made even better by the extra inch and half off the outside corner he enjoyed during his career. Broadcasters would acknowledge and then say that he earned those calls. It works for hitters too: “If Barry Bonds didn’t swing at it, it must be a ball”. Conversely, when an average player who likes to take pitches, like a Brett Gardner, umps may call strikes on balls to speed up the game.

Further, How many times have you watched an at bat and saw a pitch called strike one on a three ball and no strike count and thought to yourself the ump is just calling that a strike to keep the at bat alive? Or the reverse, a ball called on a no-balls and two strike count to give the hitter another chance?

Lets talk impact and compare a bad call on a home run versus an umpire with a bad strike zone. If an umpire makes a mistake on a home run, no doubt it can affect the game’s outcome. But it is one call and if no one is on base or it is early enough in the game a team can come back.

An umpire with say an overly tight strike zone can cause your pitcher to give up more then one home run in a game, (by allowing multiple hitters to work favorable pitch counts.) It can knock your pitcher off his rhythm, and increase his pitch count and it can tax your bullpen. On the other hand, an ump can kill a rally with to wide of a strike zone by allowing the pitcher to get ahead in the counts. There are not going to be that many bad home run calls that affect games in a season. There are ball and strike calls that affect games everyday.

If you watch baseball with any sort of regularity you’ve heard over and over again from announcers that pitchers can’t pitch from behind in the count. That to do so is playing with fire. Or from the hitters perspective they comment on how they will try to work the at bat to a hitter’s count to get a pitch they can hit. The approach, rhythm, or timing by the pitcher or hitter can be thrown off by bad calls. Instead of a clutch hit resulting from a two ball and one strike count, you get an inning ending double play resulting from a one ball and two strike count because the batter swings at a pitch out of the strike zone because that same pitch was mistakenly called a strike on the previous pitch.

All of these subjectivities are unacceptable when there is a solution. Pitch tracking technology exists and works instantly. What is a strike on a three balls and no strike count should be a strike on no balls and two strike count. What is a ball when J.A. Happ throws it should be a ball when Cliff Lee throws it. Wicked movement that can sometimes fool the human eye will not or will be less likely to fool a computer. And we’ll never have to hear an announcer say, “so and so umpire doesn’t call the high strike” or “he’ll give you that inside or outside pitch”, again.

Every few years you hear about how spring training will be used to work out a consistent strike zone from the umpires. It hasn’t happened. It won’t happen. Because of ego, human error, bias, and physical abilities of how the eyes see. Machines now have the ability to give far greater consistently and accuracy than the human eye. And for those that like the emphatic personality of an ump calling strike three? Fine we can give the home plate ump an earpiece and let him make the call, and of course he will still be there for calls at the plate when runners try to score. This will not slow down the game and it will eliminate players and managers getting ejected for arguing balls and strikes, which may speed up the game.

So if it won’t slow down the game. And if it will bring more consistency, fairness and accuracy, why wouldn’t baseball institute it now versus say twenty years from now? It would suggest they are okay with bad calls, inconsistency and a less efficient way of calling games and of angering their fan base. Or they’re just dumb. After all it only took twenty three years after the Don Denkinger call soured the 1985 World Series to institute any kind of replay in 2008. I know, they don’t want to do anything rash or be hasty. At this rate I expect machines to be calling balls and strikes in the year 2034 , unless baseball accepts the inevitable and changes it sooner rather then later. They can always try it out in spring training to give it a test run.