Well, there’s been a lot of talk about whether automated strike zones will ever come to mlb the show 23 uniforms. My feeling is, it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon—and for good reason. The powers-that-be all seem to be in agreement that baseball’s rules of the game are and have been since its inception, a “live” sport, and I agree with that sentiment.
The reality is that there are too many variables associated with calling balls and strikes in real time for a solely automated system to accurately deal with. Instances like umpires adjusting to the game situation, where the ball and the bat are located, and of course, the subjective nature of “ball” versus “strike,” make automated systems pretty impractical.
Plus, automated systems just aren’t going to be able to pick up on the nuances that a human umpire will. Like a batter setting up traps during an at bat or a pitcher throwing grisly stuff out of the strike zone, or if a ball just barely clips a corner—no algorithm will pick up on stuff like that near as well as a human being.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally up for technological advances in the game—but automated strike zones simply don’t make a lot of sense. Even MLB Shop commissioner Rob Manfred has said that baseball is a game that needs a human touch, and I’m inclined to agree.
Nobody wants to sit there and watch twenty minutes of a robot crunch numbers, to arrive at an arbitrary solution that could be totally wrong anyways. Umpiring crews, for all their faults, have real reliability. It’s a natural part of the game, and one that shouldn’t be tampered with too much.
Realistically, no automated strike zone system will ever be more reliable than an umpire. The closest thing in today’s game is the use of cameras and computer tracking systems. Instead of calling balls and strikes, the technology helps the umpires make more accurate calls by virtue of the cameras and sensors tracking the speed and impact of the pitches.
This strikes a nice balance between the two, keeping the human element of the game intact, and still helping the umpires make better judgements. It’s mistakes are inevitable, and that’s just part of the game.
But there’s an even bigger issue here. Baseball has experimented with speed-up rules in the past with mixed results, and if any automated strike zone ever comes to baseball, it will only add to that. Keeping the duration of the average game short and sweet is one of the bigger debates in the sport right now, and an automated strike zone would only exacerbate the issue.
What if a team is pressing for a run or holding for a victory and the robot completely, and erroneously, screws them over? The robot can’t tell if the game is on the line or not, and it will call the same pitches correctly or incorrectly regardless.
I think even the most fervent supporters of an automated system knows that’s in issue, and that’s why they’ve been pretty hush-hush on the concept since all the talk of an automated strike zone started a few years ago.
Then of course there’s the potential revenue windfall that an automated system could generate. A lot of teams, vendors, and platforms could stand to make a lot of money if they had a piece of the automated strike zone pie. But the truth is, even if a system came to fruition, it would really be one more thing that they’d have to screw up.
With all the complexities of the game, the fact that robots are never going to be able to make the right call every time, and the potential to drastically change baseball’s rules structure, I think it’s highly unlikely that MLB will ever give the green light for an automated strike zone.
At least, however, technology can still help umpires and teams make the right calls. From pitch tracking to invisible strike zones, there are plenty of ways that tech can help without completely going rogue on one of baseball’s most essential and time-honored rules.
As more and more baseball teams jump on the high-tech bandwagon filled with data-tracking and analytics, I’d imagine most of us would rather see tech used to not replace umpires, but rather help them call a more accurate game. Count me in as one of those people!