Fans watching modern-day baseball are watching a different game compared to when legends like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson graced the field. Along with added safety precautions, the sport has since adapted to modern-day technology, especially with the introduction of Statcast and instant replay review over the last 10 years.
The instant replay review allows teams to challenge select calls made by umpires that can get overturned if deemed necessary. Already, this system questions the role of umpires in Major League Baseball.
Their role has come under further doubts with the proposed idea of an electronic strike zone. Though this idea should not be completely ignored, Major League Baseball should not disregard umpires altogether in the development of this software.
Seeing a favorite team get called out on strikes again and again because the umpire is not identifying the strike zone efficiently is a classic gripe for any baseball fan. Complaining about ball and strike calls has become a staple of the game.
Chicago Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist’s first career ejection on Aug. 14 reflects a recent and significant moment in which an umpire’s ability was questioned. After arguing some controversial calls from home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, Zobrist got thrown out of the game when he basically told Cuzzi his bad calls are why they need electronic strike zones, according to ESPN.
This ejection came almost a year after Zobrist expressed the need for a consistent strike zone to the press.
“If we want to change something like [bad calls], we’re going to have an electronic strike zone because human beings are going to make mistakes,” Zobrist said in 2017, according to ESPN.
To Zobrist’s point, an electronic strike zone would eliminate many of the human errors from umpires and provide more accurate readings for each pitch. Human error can cost players the game and their sanity, as portrayed by the incident with Zobrist.
The current instant replay function was implemented in 2014 to allow for a review of specific disputed calls, according to MLB.com. In 2017, 47.31 percent of the contested calls were overturned, according to USA Today.
Even if it is not a majority, the overturned calls illustrate how technology can increase call accuracy. An electronic strike zone therefore has its benefits in theory, but the idea is not as foolproof as one might hope.
Although he originally felt an electronic strike zone would help his team, Cubs manager Joe Maddon changed his mind on an electronic strike zone, according to The Chicago Tribune.
“One of the things I was convinced by a veteran umpire is that [with the technology] pitches that appear to be balls will be called strikes,” Maddon said. “That’s even more troublesome with that kind of technology. There’s something to be said for that. I just think it’s a continual process from MLB regarding umpire training and rehashing … I think that’s the one part I would prefer technology not being involved in the game.”
Maddon’s argument is valid in that the MLB should be stricter on the strike zone when it trains umpires. Yet, traditional sports like baseball cannot ignore the development of technology.
The introduction of an electronic strike zone, however, should not eradicate umpires from the diamond. Technology should not be used as a replacement for humans, but as an aid to them.
Former MLB outfielder Eric Byrnes used PITCHf/x data to call the strikes and balls for two independent league games in 2015, according to Bleacher Report. Byrnes used the opportunity to demonstrate how the technology that people use at home should be accessible to umpires.
The technology had some flaws, specifically a blind spot, according to Bleacher Report. This software, however, is out there and could be developed into a foolproof system in the coming years.
Technology helps close the gap between human errors and accuracy and the MLB should embrace it to allow games to depend on performance rather than a varied interpretation of the strike zone.
Technology should be used to reform, rather than revolutionize “America’s favorite pastime.” While this technology shouldn’t scare us, baseball—and sports in general—should stick to its roots: human achievement.