Do Umpires Dream of Electronic Strikes?

The age of the robo ump is here, promising to eliminate all arguments over what's a ball and what's a strike, but a lot of MLB players are skeptical a laser-guided future would be good for the game.
photo of Scott MillerScott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 15, 2019

Like a bang-bang call at first base, there is much jawing and a whole lot of disagreement throughout baseball over an idea threatening to arrive soon at a ballpark near you: the electronic strike zone.

Dubbed "robo ump"—affectionately by some, not so much by others—it would be one of the most significant changes in the history of the game, an umpire standing behind home plate and calling balls and strikes based not on his own eyesight and judgment...but on the direction of a tiny voice in his earpiece. That voice would be the preprogrammed result of however the TrackMan system of highly calibrated lasers reads a pitch as it crosses the plate.

"It's hilarious how they're trying to change every single facet of this game now," veteran Arizona outfielder Adam Jones says in a voice and with an expression signaling the exact opposite of hilarious.

"Doesn't seem like baseball to me," San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford says. "It takes away the human element. Unless it's 100 percent accurate, it would be tough to implement in the big leagues."

New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia says: "If they can get it right and make sure it's accurate, I think guys would be all for it."

"I'm not in favor of it," J.A. Happ, Sabathia's Yankees teammate, says. "I don't know, I'll have to see how the tests go. I think it would change the zone and be an adjustment for both sides."

The tests are going full blast right now in the independent Atlantic League, which is acting as a sort of proving ground for MLB. After several delays, the league—with eight teams, from the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters to the New Britain (Connecticut) Bees—is hoping to implement it this month, early in the season's second half.

"Once we get this thing nailed, the issue isn't like adjusting an old-time stereo, like when turning a knob," Rick White, president of the Atlantic League, says. "This is all computer programming."

Already, the Atlantic League (which now is also allowing batters to steal first base on any pitch not caught cleanly by the catcher) has waded through myriad issues on the robo umpire experiment, all of which have contributed to the delays. It's more than just calibrating the strike zone. To start, decisions had to be made regarding such seemingly minute details as the volume level in the umpires' earpieces. It can't be so loud as to damage their hearing or be a distraction, but it certainly needs to be loud enough to overcome crowd noise. And the calls through the earpieces: Chimes? Bells? Whistles? A sound only for a strike, and silence for a ball? And the earpieces and masks must be compatible enough that, when an umpire removes their mask during a game, the earpiece doesn't go with it and fall to the ground.

The "robo umpire" system utilizes a network of calibrated lasers that adjust to each hitter's unique strike zone based on their size.
The "robo umpire" system utilizes a network of calibrated lasers that adjust to each hitter's unique strike zone based on their size.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

The league decided on a male voice in the ear that would say one of three things: "Strike," "Ball" or "No Track." In the last case, the umpire must make the call on their own, which illuminates another issue: The plate umpire must not become overly dependent on the system because if it fails, even for one pitch, they must be alert enough to call the pitch. Also, umpires must remain focused to make the call on check swings.

In early tests, the earpiece voice was dropping the first part of the call, and umpires were hearing "rike," "all" and "rack." The devil, as they say, is in the details.

Most crucial, obviously, is the accuracy of the calls. One common—and false—assumption is that the strike zone is a sort of rectangular box that is vertical, one-size-fits-all for every player, much like the strike zone box you see on telecasts. But that's not the case. Rather, using the rulebook strike zone, from just below the chest to the bottom of the knee caps, the lasers adjust for each player and then bank that into a central file system so that each player will have an assigned strike zone.

For example, if Aaron Judge, 6'7", and Jose Altuve, 5'6", were in the league, the standard inside-outside zone over the plate—17 inches across—would be the same, but Judge would have a far bigger top-to-bottom strike zone than Altuve.

MLB umpires, as you would expect, still need to be sold on the idea—and adding to the tension is the fact that MLB's working agreement with the umpires expires after this season and a new contract must be negotiated. A handful of umps contacted by B/R declined comment, per a directive from the umpires' union. Instead, the executive committee of the MLB Umpires Association provided a statement to B/R, which reads in part:

"We are graded by MLB's own system every single day. Although some seem to believe that a machine will get it right 100 percent of the time, that simply isn't the case. The machines are only as good as the people programming and running them because, remember, the strike zone changes based on the height of every batter. And, as both Major League Baseball and the MLBUA have noted, all ESZs [electronic strike zones] include a margin of error. Broadcast strike zone 'boxes' and recent studies use raw data without accounting for significant ESZ error margins. In fact, under MLB's own grading system, the entire MLB umpire staff averaged over 97 percent correct ball and strike calls over the 2018 season.

"It's also important to remember that umpiring involves game management and countless judgment calls requiring human experience and a deep knowledge of baseball's history and traditions. Our job is to protect the integrity of the game. Players, managers and fans have expectations about the way a baseball game will be called based on history and traditions we know. And everyone gets upset—and thinks it unfair—when those expectations are not met.

"There will always be a human element to umpiring this great game. Major League umpires are the very best in the world at consistently calling balls and strikes, and we believe there is no substitute for the judgment and experience we bring to the field."

An extensive Boston University study published in April refutes the claim by the union that umpires missed on only 3 percent of ball and strike calls last year, though MLB itself disagrees with the study and, via sources, agrees the "adjusted" umpire staff average was above the 97 percent mark (adjusted for margin of error and other variables).

As much as accuracy is a motivating factor to use the ESZ, so, too, is the style of the modern game.

"In my opinion, it is as difficult to catch as it's ever been, and I think it's as difficult to umpire as it's ever been," says Ed Lynch, a former MLB pitcher, Cubs general manager and longtime scout who was the pitching coach for the Atlantic League's Long Island Ducks this summer before back trouble forced him to resign. "Somebody won 3-1 the other day [in MLB] and used six pitchers. With a different pitcher coming in every inning, that umpire has to adjust to new stuff.

"It's like catching [and umpiring] an All-Star Game. Except guys in the All-Star Game have plus command."

With more pitchers than ever working an average MLB game over the past two seasons, velocities ranging from 70 to 100 mph, pitches arriving from different angles, television cameras revealing every single mistake...without question, umpiring has never been more difficult.

And the strike-zone boxes on telecasts cause nightly grief for home plate umpires.

"I think it's the worst thing they're doing," Happ says. "I don't think that's helping."

Jones echoes Lynch when he says: "The velocity's increased and so has the off-speed. You've got guys throwing five straight sliders, and then they throw 100. It's understandable how some calls can get missed."

Yet Jones is firmly in the anti-robo ump camp, and he has plenty of company.

"Here's the No. 1 problem I have with it: If you go to a robot umpire, then we completely eliminate catcher framing, throwing to a spot, having your catcher receive it," says Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. "And what's that do to the running game?

"If you have a guy on first, does now the catcher set up in a position in which he can deliver the ball to second base in a much more efficient setup? Instead of having to try to catch it—he doesn't have to worry about framing it anymore—he can just try to catch and throw."

Says Cleveland ace Corey Kluber, a two-time Cy Young winner: "I think there are a lot of pitches that, with human umpires, are not strikes that would be different if all of a sudden you go by a robotic or automated strike zone. You could literally have a guy that throws a 12-6 curveball that bounces on the plate that would catch that front corner that would be a strike. It's unrealistic for somebody to be able to hit that. Or you could have a ball that's off the plate and just nicks that edge and it's not a strike but the computer says it is.

"I think part of it also is having umpires and people who understand the game and not just computers or a robot that's running off of a formula and can't account for other stuff."

Veteran Jonathan Lucroy of the Los Angeles Angels is in a unique minority of players who, as catchers, want every possible strike call for their pitchers...but, when they hit, want a strike called a strike and a ball called a ball.

"This is their living," Lucroy says. "We've had umpires for over 100 years. It's important to me that the game maintain its traditions and not change too drastically because I don't want to look back in 20 years and see it's a completely different baseball game.

Umpire Brian deBrauwere (far left) told the AP before working with the electronic strike zone in the Atlantic League All-Star Game last week, "This is just another plate job and I just get a little help on this one so I feel very relaxed going into this one."
Umpire Brian deBrauwere (far left) told the AP before working with the electronic strike zone in the Atlantic League All-Star Game last week, "This is just another plate job and I just get a little help on this one so I feel very relaxed going into this one."Julio Cortez/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

"I don't think we're video game players. This isn't MLB The Show. This is MLB real life. I think the human element should continue."

Incorporate an electronic strike zone, Lucroy says, and: "Mark my words: Offense will go down. Pitchers are going to take advantage of it."

Scherzer and Kluber agree.

"On different pitches, strikes would be altered," Scherzer says. "It seems the hitters are more frustrated than anybody with the umpires. Be careful what you wish for, because you might see curveballs in the dirt called strikes, and now what are you going to do?"

Ben Zobrist, on a personal leave of absence with the Chicago Cubs, earned his first career ejection in a game when he went on an epic rant after striking out, at one point telling umpire Phil Cuzzi, "That's why we want an electronic strike zone."

"If they can get a system that works, I know a lot of guys would be in favor of it," San Diego first baseman Eric Hosmer says. "We respect the umpires. They're doing the best they can. But with pitch framing and other things, it's making it tough on certain guys.

"You look at the box on TV, it's no secret to baseball fans what's happening."

Sabathia, the 2007 American League Cy Young winner who'll be retiring at the end of this season, scoffs at the notion that it would favor pitchers or hitters.

"I think it would favor the game," he says. "I think it would be good for the game if they can get it right and balls and strikes were right every time."

Ducks manager and former New York Met Wally Backman saw it in action recently when the electronic strike zone was tested for five innings of a Long Island-Somerset Patriots game. The official public unveiling came at the Atlantic League All-Star Game last Wednesday.

Christian Yelich is among a number of major league players who worry that relying on computers to call balls and strikes could open the door to a host of unforeseen issues that complicate the game.
Christian Yelich is among a number of major league players who worry that relying on computers to call balls and strikes could open the door to a host of unforeseen issues that complicate the game.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

"I loved it," Backman says. "There's no missing. The inside and the outside is perfect. You're not getting that ball a couple inches off the plate, which a lot of umps will give to the opposing pitcher. The up and down part, hitters will adjust; they always have. I think it's fair to players and also a benefit to pitchers, too. I think all the players will adjust."

They usually do. And if the electronic strike zone continues to track, the debate over just how much humanity should remain in MLB figures to only get louder.

"I think the human element is part of the game and when you go the electronic route, you run into things you didn't anticipate," says Milwaukee's Christian Yelich, the 2018 National League MVP. "You start out with good intentions, and then it can get complicated as it goes down that road. I'm one of the guys that doesn't want to go down that road.

"I think the guys behind the plate do a really good job. Obviously, they make mistakes. Sometimes they have better nights than others. But that's just like us on the field, man. Sometimes we have good nights, sometimes we have bad nights. It's part of the game."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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