(Image: AP/Richard Drew)
Last week, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced that team owners had approved funding for expanded replay. Although the details still need to be worked out and approved by the players and umpires unions, all indications are that expanded replay will be in place for the 2014 season. Surely there will be an adjustment period, and there are probably downsides that won’t be apparent until the system is in place. Even so, the expectation of significantly fewer blown calls is something we can all be excited about.
When MLB’s replay proposal was first announced in August, Braves president John Schuerholz – who helped develop the proposal – said, "Reviewable plays will cover 89 percent of those incorrect calls that were made in the past." The one category of umpiring that no one usually suggests be reviewed is the calling of balls and strikes. As long as we’re on the subject of expanding replay, there’s no reason we shouldn’t start pushing to use technology in the strike zone.
There’s an assumption that balls and strikes are off the table in terms of using technology to prevent blown calls. Using technology to review whether a line drive lands fair or foul makes sense to a lot of fans and officials, but using it to call balls and strikes seems like overreach. I would argue such a distinction is totally arbitrary.
Sportvision’s PITCHf/x is what fuels FoxTrax, MLB.com’s Gameday, TBS’s PitchTrax, and ESPN’s K-Zone. Sportvision claims the system is accurate within one-third of a baseball’s diameter. Like human umpires, PITCHf/x is not perfect, but its widespread use by organizations that broadcast MLB games speaks for itself.
It’s difficult to envision PITCHf/x replacing the umpire behind the plate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about how to incorporate it (or something like it). Viewers at home see the pitch on FoxTrax in seemingly real time. Perhaps that data can be transmitted to the home plate umpire somehow, and he could use it to help him on close calls. (When Google Glass came out, a lot of people couldn’t think of a productive use for it – well, here you go.) There might be a split-second delay before the call, but baseball is a game of delays.
To be fair, an idea that I just came up with off the top of my head isn’t necessarily the best way to use technology in the strike zone. Better ideas will certainly present themselves, but let’s start talking about it sooner rather than later. Once MLB is using replay to review 89% of calls, the lack of an accountability mechanism for calling balls and strikes will be that much more conspicuous. The decision to expand replay represented a huge change for MLB. Let’s build on that before the spirit of progress dissipates.
Fans, players, and baseball officials have always known that umpires have their own strike zones. While a tool like PITCHf/x would still be imperfect, at least it would be uniformly imperfect. As long as we’re trying to correct human errors with replay, let’s figure out how best to reduce errors in the strike zone while we’re at it.