On Automated Officiating Generally

As a follow up to my previous post regarding automation of ball and strike calls, some general thoughts on automated officiating.  I’ve consistently heard advocates for instant replay in limited situations – i.e. fair or foul balls and out calls on the bases – defend their view as if there’s some sort of limiting principle in play:  “It’s not like I’m asking that someone review ball and strike calls.”

I don’t see that there’s any way to craft principled limitations to instant replay or other forms of review in baseball. If we do it for home runs, why not plays at the plate?  If we do it for plays at the plate, why not plays at any base?  And from there, why not ball and strike calls?  In our merciless drive to take error out of the game – after all, we owe that to the players and to ourselves as fans – what is above scrutiny?

In that sense, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we’ve finally gone beyond simple review, in which umpires still perhaps have a meaningful role, to complete automation.  Zettel’s argument is important insofar as it illustrates that even review will not placate the perfectionists.

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The Elusive Strike Zone

Over at Bernie’s Crew,Nicholas Zettel argues, “Use the technology that is available to make the strike zone calls automatic.”  Apparently frustrated by bad calls during the past few series, Zettel appears ready to cast the umpire into the dustbins of obscurity, relegating him to largely ceremonial tasks like “keep[ing] the pace of the game … and lineup cards.”  At essence, Zettel’s argument is that “the strike zone is set in the rulebook according to certain standards, and the umpires cannot execute that aspect of the rules.”

The problem is that neither can technology.  And that is because the strike zone changes from pitch-to-pitch.  According to the official rules, “The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap.”  (See diagram)  But here’s the kicker:  “The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”

Zettel manages to devote an entire ten-paragraph post to his argument without ever acknowledging how the strike zone is established.  Although he correctly notes that the strike zone is set in the rulebook according to “certain standards” – which I’ve outlined above – he fails to recognize that according to those standards the strike zone is not set until seconds before the pitch is thrown.

Now, I’m not sure what kind of technology Zettel is talking about implementing to make the ball and strike determinations; he never specifies.  There may well be technology out there that is capable of rapidly drawing the necessary strike zone boundaries, but I haven’t seen it.  All those fancy FOXTRAX graphics you see on the game broadcasts are simply estimates of where the strike zone boundaries will be when the batter prepares to swing.

And in any event, even assuming there is technology available that can make the necessary calculations and call balls and strikes with unwavering precision, it may be a solution in search of a problem.  As Zettel observes, the strike zone is one of the most basic, foundational aspects of the game of baseball, which is precisely why we should avoid messing with it without good cause.  I’ve seen a few bad calls here and there, but I’d want to know how prevalent those errors are, and how likely it is they could be avoided, before endorsing a wholesale change in the way the game is officiated.