Should Major League Baseball Ever Bother with a Robotic Strike Zone?

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 30, 2014

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If scientists ever invent the T-800s from the Terminator movies in real life, they'd be perfect home plate umpires. They'd call balls and strikes with 100 percent accuracy, and no pitcher, hitter, coach or fan would ever dare cross them.

That possibility still belongs in the science-fiction category for the time being. The idea of some sort of robotic strike zone, however, really doesn't belong in that same category anymore. Since we're already living in an age where Major League Baseball not only has the right technology, but is finally willing to embrace technology, it could happen.

But the question we're here to ponder is whether MLB should ever bother. And lest you think we're headed towards an inevitable and emphatic "Yes!" answer, here's a spoiler: No.

Let's begin by acknowledging that MLB sort of already has a robotic strike zone: PITCHf/x. If you've ever been to FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus or Brooks Baseball, you've heard of it. If not, you've seen it at work in MLB's Gameday app. PITCHf/x is what shows you the pitch that was just thrown and where it was in relation to the strike zone.

PITCHf/x is pretty accurate, is already installed at every ballpark and basically works in real time. If MLB were to ever green-light an automated strike zone, adapting PITCHf/x to do the job would be the way to go.

But here's the thing about that: It wouldn't exactly be practical.

Baseball Prospectus' Ben Lindbergh tackled the notion of PITCHf/x one day calling balls and strikes in a Grantland article in November. In it, he highlighted the various obstacles that would have to be overcome to make it work, and these obstacles aren't small ones.

For one, PITCHf/x misses pitches here and there. It's typically due to hardware malfunctions but can occasionally be chalked up to glare or bad lighting.

The first problem seems a lot easier to fix than the second. Modifying hardware is one thing. Modifying ballparks to ensure that the lighting would always be perfect for PITCHf/x is another.

Secondly, PITCHf/x isn't a set-it-and-forget-it system. The equipment occasionally needs recalibrating, and right now that's done as needed. If MLB were to entrust balls and strikes to PITCHf/x, it would necessitate having technicians at every ballpark making sure everything is calibrated correctly on a daily basis.

There's  alsothe matter of the strike zone itself. Width is easy, as the width of the plate never changes. But top and bottom are vaguely defined as is, as the rulebook says it's "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" as of the moment "the batter is prepared to swing."

Pictured: a reminder that some strike zones are bigger than others.
Pictured: a reminder that some strike zones are bigger than others.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Having a machine adjust for this in real time would likely require sensors woven into the fabric of every uniform. And while keeping template strike zones for each individual hitter is more practical and already practiced, hitters occasionally change their stances and new hitters frequently pop up. 

Actual humans are already required to account for things like that. In all likelihood, more actual humans would still be needed to oversee other things. Even with a robotic strike zone, a human element would still be at work with the strike zone if PITCHf/x ever gets the job.

So if MLB ever decides that balls and strikes need to be freed from human influence, it would be a huge undertaking. "Huge" being another word for "expensive," of course. And even if MLB were to pull it off, balls and strikes still wouldn't be entirely free from human influence.

That's something to think about, as it calls into question whether it would all be worth it. 

Another thing to think about is how, even if an automated strike zone were to be something like 99.9 percent accurate, baseball wouldn't necessarily have taken a turn for the better. As annoying as the inaccuracy of human umpires calling balls and strikes can be, it also accounts for some of the game's more interesting wrinkles.

Implement an automated strike zone, and one thing you're doing away with is hitters earning smaller zones and pitchers earning bigger zones. That's the right thing to do in theory, but there is something to appreciate about how a guy like Barry Bonds can earn a strike zone the size of a postage stamp and about how a guy like Tom Glavine can earn an extra six inches off the outside corner.

Elsewhere, catcher framing would become a lost art, as surely an automated zone wouldn't be fooled by positioning and quick flicks of the wrist. That, too, is right in theory, but it would mean the end of maybe the most fascinating area of study in contemporary sabermetrics. Even Vin Scully picked up on it and was intrigued by it.

Let's also not forget how umpires manipulate the strike zone according to different situations, oftentimes for the better.

Genevieve Ross/Associated Press

For example, you've probably noticed that the zone tends to get bigger on 3-0 counts and smaller on 0-2 counts. FanGraphs' Matthew Carruth did some digging in 2012 and found that there's actually some truth to this, and that's not such a bad thing given that it theoretically allows for more competitive baseball.

Where a 3-0 count is a walk count, a 3-1 count is a hitting count. Walks are nice and all, but hits are certainly more fun. But at the same time, a free strike gets a pitcher right back into an at-bat, as he's just one pitch away from an anything-goes 3-2 count. Likewise, a 1-2 count gets a hitter back into an at-bat, as he's just one pitch away from the count evening.

Though I don't recall ever seeing an actual study on the topic, umpires also tend to increase the size of the strike zone in blowouts. This helps expedite the process of getting the game over with. Yet another thing that's for the best.

Consider things like this, and you're reminded that not all bad ball/strike calls are created equal. Some are unforgivable, but others add a layer of interest to the game. 

Besides which, let's give umpires some credit. They may not be robots, but it's not like they're getting worse with the passing of time. Quite the opposite, in fact.

FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan found last year that umpires are making fewer bad calls both in and out of the zone. Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times has a new piece out that notes, among many other things, that umpires have gotten particularly better about calling pitches on the inside corner.

Improvements such as these aren't happening accidentally, as MLB incorporated PITCHf/x into its umpire evaluation program several years ago. More so than ever before, umpires are being forced into having a better understanding of the strike zone and how to call it.

Bear in mind that PITCHf/x has only been in every ballpark since 2007. They're not machines, but in less than a decade the system has helped make umpires more machine-like. It stands to reason they'll be even more machine-like 10, 20 and so on years from now, all thanks to what's already in place.

As such, there's no rush to carry out what would be a very complex and very expensive operation to replace umpires' strike-zone duties with actual machines. If anything, what the league should be interested in is augmenting umpires' strike-zone duties with technology.

There are any number of fancy ideas for how to do so, but MLB can make it as simple as arming every umpire with a smartphone equipped with the MLB Gameday app. If an umpire witnesses a close pitch he isn't sure about, all he would have to do is take his phone out of his pocket and see where it was.

At one time or another, we've all taken a bad ball/strike call as an excuse to shout that an automated system is needed. It's not just fans either. Bobby Valentine lobbied for an automated system on more than one occasion when he was managing the Boston Red Sox in 2012. Former Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly is another who'd like to see an automated system.

This, however, is something of a "be careful what you wish for" scenario. Even if a robotic strike zone came to fruition, it wouldn't necessarily make the game better. And while such a thing is possible, right now it's neither a practical reality nor entirely necessary. Assuming umpires continue to improve, it's only going to be less necessary as time goes on.

So while I'm sure there will be times I think otherwise, right now I'm thinking that MLB is best served keeping the responsibility of calling balls and strikes in the hands of the umpires.

...Though I'm still open to the idea of T-800s if they ever come.


If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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