We live in a sports culture that is completely obsessed with "getting it right." As a group, we've collectively decided we're willing to sacrifice the flow of a game for a few seconds if we can ensure that everything's fair.
Baseball joined the party last year by introducing a brand new set of replay guidelines. For the most part, it's been a massive success. The process is more streamlined than in football or basketball, and it really only took one season for most of the kinks to be worked out.
But there's still one aspect of the game that needs a massive overhaul -- an overhaul that would benefit the sport on so many different levels. And yet, it's one that the majority of baseball lifers cringe just thinking about.
Major League Baseball needs to automate the strike zone, taking called balls and strikes out of the hands of umpires and put it into the hands of technology.
At this point, I think I'm obligated to duck for cover for suggesting such an abomination. But the reality is, this really wouldn't be much of a change at all -- at least on the surface. Technology has advanced so far that we're now able to tell instantly whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.
And whatever your feelings about ESPN's new live strike zone, (personally I find it intrusive, but I'm sure I felt the same way about that weird yellow first-down line when it was introduced in the NFL) there's no denying it does a better job of calling balls and strikes than the guy behind the plate.
On ESPN's opening night telecast -- with every botched call now in plain sight -- the topics of pitch framing and "expanding the zone" took center stage. That's understandable. Curt Schilling made a living out of having pitches called strikes, even though they weren't. He even famously punched out a QuesTec camera because he thought it might take the subjectivity out of the strike zone.
But let's be clear about one thing: The strike zone is not subjective. The strike zone is not a "judgment call." The strike zone is the strike zone. More specifically …
RULE 2.00: The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
This, folks, is not a strike:
Umpires make mistakes, and that's the part of the game's human element, you say? Well, my first rebuttal would be that an automated strike zone doesn't make any such mistakes. And my second rebuttal would be that -- while the above call is clearly an anomaly -- too often umpires forget the strike zone altogether.
Remember Livan Hernandez in the 1997 NLCS? Take a look at the below video. Hernandez gets at least four called third strikes on balls at least half a foot off the plate. Perhaps more worrying are the swings you see late in the game from Chipper Jones and Keith Lockhart. They know those pitches are balls. They're swinging anyway, because home plate ump Eric Gregg is liable to call them strikes.
This is a game that decided the course of the entire 1997 season. Wouldn't it be nice if they had gotten it right?
Of course, back then we didn't have the technology. Now, we unquestionably do. All we'd need is a buzzer in the home-plate umpire's ear to let him know whether a pitch traveled through the zone. It wouldn't slow the game down at all, and we'd even still get to debate which umpire has the best punchout -- because, at surface-level, nothing has changed.
There are so many benefits to automating the strike zone. For one, offense would unquestionably go up, in a time where baseball could desperately use more runs. The data tells us that far more balls are turned into strikes than vice versa. If we forced pitchers to stay within the framework of the strikezone, we'd see a major uptick in offense.
We'd also gain a much greater appreciation for the hitters who can watch a pitch go by when it's only half an inch off the black. And in every one of those cases, we'd waste no time on players arguing with umpires -- meaning, at the same time, that no umpires would be embarrassed by their incorrect calls.
Automating the strike zone has countless benefits. But all those other factors pale in comparison to the main point here, and that's that we'd be getting it right. Trust me, no one appreciates the artistry of Rene Rivera more than me. But lauding a catcher for his pitch framing or lauding a pitcher for a pitch six inches off the plate is missing the greater point: The umpire got it wrong.
Baseball is a beautiful game. And as with all beautiful things, there's always an aversion to change. But if your only reason for preserving something is the "way-it's-always-been" argument, then it's probably time for a change, anyway.
In the past few years, we've all decided that replay technology is good for the game. Changing the means by which we call balls and strikes would be even better -- and at absolutely no cost to our viewing experience.
It's always been a bit confusing to me that we're willing to stop a game for a minute or two to confirm a foul ball. And yet, we have technology that tells us instantly whether a pitch is a strike, and we refuse to use it.
In this era of unprecedented progress within Major League Baseball, automating the strike zone should be the next thing to change.