As a general rule, sports fans aren’t good with change – at least not at first. We stomp our feet and throw tantrums about “the good old days” when things weren’t constantly in flux. Then after a few weeks, we forget the reason for our anger and realize change isn’t all bad.
To that end, some things – like the strike zone in baseball – should never be in flux. Which is exactly why an experiment in the Atlantic League, which includes the Sugar Land Skeeters, is a major step forward in making the professional game better.
The independent league, which is employing several experimental rules this year as part of an agreement with Major League Baseball, made history during its July 10 all-star game when it used an automated ball-strike system to help the home-plate umpire call pitches. A 3-Doppler radar screen directly behind home plate transmitted info to a TrackMan-integrated system, which then transmitted the ball/strike determination to the umpire to make the call.
As with all the experimental rules, MLB wants to see how it works and could adopt an automated ball-strike system in the coming years. It’s unclear what the Skeeters’ all-stars thought about the historic use of baseball technology, because they’re not talking about it.
The team declined comment on the four players’ behalf, with media relations manager Ryan Posner saying the team didn’t feel comfortable commenting on the system until it’s had a more extended run time.
As a fairly recent convert from “baseball purist” status when the Astros shifted from the National League to the American League in 2013, adjusting to the designated hitter didn’t take overnight. It took me a few years to come around to the idea that I didn’t pay to watch pitchers hit – I pay to watch hitters hit, and pitchers pitch. To that end, those players have fought an uphill battle to do their jobs due to one major factor – constantly fluctuating strike zones.
Despite the purist in me screaming to hold this notion in, there’s no way I can do so.
Yes, there’s the launch-angle revolution and the allegedly “juiced” baseballs. But here’s the thing: when something is constant, as the two aforementioned trends have been for several years now, players can adjust their approach and how they attack. Coming from a former baseball player, a wide or tight strike zone is irksome. However, consistency goes a long way – and that’s all that can be asked. Some umpires are naturally pitcher- or hitter-friendly. That’s fine. But how can you adjust to consistently inconsistent strike zones? Most hitters at any level – and vice versa with pitchers – are difficult enough to face without dealing with that extra opponent.
This an epidemic that has plagued baseball since the dawn of time, with no real effort to curb it. Only just recently did the idea of an automated strike zone catch on – and for the life of me, I cannot understand the opposition to it.
There are those who claim human error to be “part of the game.” And to an extent, that’s fair. Umpires are taking on the burden of making dozens (in the case of base umpires) or hundreds (in the case of home-plate umpires) of split-second decisions per night with athletes that are, in most cases, in peak physical condition. It’s a tough gig, which is why I typically try to stay away from criticizing those in blue every night.
On the flip side, if we have the technology to help make them better, why just sit on our hands instead of utilizing it? We’ve done so with instant replay and should do the same in this respect. Umpires shouldn’t decide baseball games; the players should. Further, the “pace of play” uproar – which seems to be all the rage for change nowadays – could also benefit from the change. Poorly called games and inconsistent zones lead to longer at-bats, and subsequently longer innings and games. If they’re serious about addressing the perceived issue, why not take action on something which would actually make a difference? So I think the Atlantic League is taking a step in the right direction and that the MLB could benefit by implementing this sooner rather than later. Once they conduct an extended run to work out the kinks, of course.
We’ve already seen instant replay phased in to varying degrees over the last several years. And despite the occasional hiccup, most feedback I’ve seen on the development is positive – even from those who staunchly opposed some forms of it at first. With as much responsibility as umpires shoulder each night, no matter what level of baseball, there are bound to be some missteps. Major league umpires have admitted to miss at least 4-5 ball/strike calls each night. There’s no shame in that – it’s actually quite impressive given the volume – but why not reduce that margin of error to zero if we have the means?
It may not seem like much, but a single ball or strike call can change the entire outlook of an at-bat and subsequently an inning and game. These men in blue do the best they can, but why not help them in every way possible?
Now, there might be some glitches or issues, which an article in The Athletic detailed after the game last week, where a pitch received near the dirt was called a strike by TrackMan due to it nicking the bottom of the zone on its way to the plate. That’s natural with any new experiment.
But there are so many things in the game of baseball that the players cannot control. Let’s not give them an extra opponent to contend with when a solution is so readily available and raring to go.