Every time I watch a Red Sox ball game on NESN, as every pitch crosses the plate, projected on the lower right corner of the screen is a graphic that shows the location of that pitch relative to the strike zone, defined as the area over the plate below the armpits and above the knees of the batter when in his natural stance. In fact, a very similar graphic appears in almost every MLB broadcast, be it on the MLB Network, FOX, ESPN, TBS, or otherwise.
In 2006, the league launched the use of PITCHf/x, a technology that tracked the velocity, position, and break of every pitch in real-time. Last year, PITCHf/x was phased out in favor of Statcast, which had initially been installed in all 30 major league stadiums in 2015. Though there have been questions about the pitch velocity being reported by the latter (data suggests that it’s about two MPH higher), the accuracy of the pitches, measured using Doppler radar and high-definition video, is nearly perfect.
With this technology in place over the past dozen years or so, baseball has been able to audit the effectiveness of its umpires, the arbitrators of the game. The results, which are nearly indisputable, are often used to help decide who amongst the 76 men in blue across 19 umpiring crews should be awarded with a post-season assignment.
But that’s about the extent to which, other than for statistical purposes, baseball uses this data. Even though we, the viewers at home, know immediately where the pitch is thrown, that data is not fed to the home plate umpire, who instead relies on his judgement as to whether or not the pitch traversed the strike zone.
While they don’t have to worry about pitches where the batter puts the ball in play, fouls off the pitch or swings and misses, statistics between 2008 and 2013 compiled using PITCHf/x show that umpires must make the ball on about 50% of all pitches thrown. From there, further data from that same time frame shows that the umpires correctly call pitches either inside the strike zone roughly 87% of the time and outside of the strike zone about 85% of the time, contrary to the more favorable 97% accuracy reported by MLB.
In the spirit of good sportsmanship, but also per Rule 9.02(a), players and managers are not allowed to challenge these calls, right or wrong; doing so may result in an ejection. Seasoned fans have been witness to such decisions, usually followed by umpires, managers, and players standing nose-to-nose with spit flying as the arguments continue while boos (or possibly cheers if it’s a member of the opposition) rain down from the stands.
But that’s the beauty of baseball, the traditionalists argue, a perfect game made more perfect with the inclusion of the “human element.” In their eyes, the man in blue behind the plate should be allowed to call the game as he sees it. So what if he misses a few here and there (going by the MLB estimate)? It’s what has been the standard for well over 100 years since Norm McLean became the first professional umpire in 1876; it’s “good enough.”
But is it really? Take what Bryant Gumbel reported on his HBO show in late 2016: in Game Seven of the 2011 World Series, 14 missed calls by home plate umpire Jerry Layne favored the home team St. Louis Cardinals, who won the game and the series, while only three missed calls favored the visiting Texas Rangers. While this will never be proven, did an apparent bias, perhaps swayed by the emotion of the crowd at Busch Stadium in a playoff atmosphere, make enough of a difference to influence who was crowned the world champions of baseball that fall?
Regardless of whether it’s Game Seven of the World Series, Opening Day at Fenway Park, or any one of 4,860 games played during the regular season, most would agree that variability exists between umpires in terms of what is called a strike, especially when it comes to the edges of the strike zone. While research does suggest that umpires are getting better at calling pitches correctly since the advent of PITCHf/x, especially with regards to pitches lower in the zone, there is still considerable difference between what the rule book states and umpire interpretation. Even more maddening is that the same research suggests that balls and strikes may be called differently depending on whether the batter is left-handed or right-handed.
In its infancy, using this technology to call balls and strikes may have seemed risky, perhaps even foolish, with data to suggest that umpires are doing a reasonable job. But in July 2015, with the San Rafael Pacifics hosting the Vallejo Admirals, former Athletics outfielder Eric Byrnes called balls and strikes from the stands using the PITCHf/x technology. The results were positive; calls were immediate, blind spots that trouble every umpire were eliminated, and few arguments arose from the players, the fans, or the home plate umpire who kept his arms by his side but still remained a necessary part of the game. In fact, the use of PITCHf/x as an arbitrator became almost a second thought the longer the game went, to the point where Byrnes went from emphatically calling each pitch to a more subdued tone.
Think back to before instant replay was finally allowed in baseball in 2014. Traditionalists argued that there was no need; most of the calls on the field were correct and its use would only hurt “the integrity of the game.” Now consider this: in 2017, 660 out of 1395 calls were overturned based on video replay. That’s 47.3%, or roughly half. In 2016, 50.4% of calls were overturned; in 2015 and 2014, 48.9% and 47.3% were overturned, respectively. So, in the four-plus years it’s been in use, nearly half of all calls are overturned, and that doesn’t include the calls that stand because video evidence is insufficient. Also don’t forget that managers get a maximum of two per game, and a second one is allowed only if they successfully challenge the first call.
Not ones to be swayed by evidence, traditionalists, including some NESN studio analysts, still argue that replay hurts the “integrity of the game,” which roughly translates to keeping the flow of the game moving. How does getting more calls correct hurt the integrity of the game? With instant replay truly being “instant” (no need to rewind tape as was the case during the NFL’s initial use of replay in 1986), umpires can convene and come to a conclusion in less than two minutes, far less than an on-field argument between manager and umpire in the tradition of Earl Weaver and Bill Burr. Using Statcast to call balls and strikes, as proven by Byrnes’ experience, would not interfere with the pace of play and mitigate nearly all discussion centered around the location of each pitch.
There is no longer any reason that, in 2018 and beyond, this facet of the game should continue to be a source of controversy. All 30 major league ballparks have the necessary technology installed and in use, and it would take almost no time to get a system in place. Like a Chris Sale pitch to the center of the strike zone, the call should be clear.