Why Not Balls and Strikes?

To expand a tiny bit on something I tweeted the other day, I swear there’s a rule (perhaps part of the standard licensing agreement with MLB), that any time anyone on television mentions the idea of expanding instant replay (or “use of technology”) in baseball, they are required to qualify their statement by assuring the audience that they do not mean for balls and strikes.  But why not?  If any reason is given, it is usually some variation of the following: 1) Balls and strikes are inherently too subjective, 2) It would slow the game down too much, or 3) The role of the umpire is too important.  None of these seems persuasive to me, at least when applied to the strike zone’s horizontal axis — i.e., the plate:

1. The plate is not subjective.

In little league, we were taught that the strike zone was “elbows to knees and over the plate,” and surprisingly enough, the official major league baseball definition is not that much more complicated (from the Official Baseball Rules 2010, page 22):

A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which . . . is not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone. . . .
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.  The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

I can understand several reasons why there may be need for a human element in judging the vertical axis of the zone, such as to avoid gamesmanship like crouching or altering your stance while the ball is in the air, or to make reasonable exceptions in cases where someone has kneecaps on their stomach, etc.  But there is nothing subjective about “any part of the ball passes through any part of . . . the area over home plate.”

2. The plate is not hard to check.

I mean, if they can photograph lightning:


They should be able to tell whether a solid ball passes over a small irregular pentagon.  Yes, replay takes a while when you have to look at 15 different angles to find the right one, or when you have to cognitively construct a 3-dimensional image from several 2-dimensional videos.  It even takes a little while when you have to monitor a long perimeter to see if oddly shaped objects have crossed them (like tennis balls on impact or player’s shoes in basketball).  But checking whether a baseball crossed the plate takes no time at all: they already do it virtually without delay on television, and that process could be sped up at virtually no cost with one dedicated camera: let it take a long-exposure picture of the plate for each pitch, then instantly beam it to an iPhone strapped to the umpire’s wrist.  He can check it in the course of whatever his natural motion for signaling a ball or strike would have been, and he’ll probably save time by not having players and managers up in his face every other pitch.

3. The plate is a waste of the umpire’s time, but not ours.

Umpires are great, they make entertaining gesticulating motions, and maybe in some extremely slight sense, people actually do go to the game to boo and hiss at them — I’m not suggesting MLB puts HAL back there.  But as much as people love officiating controversies generally, umpires are so inconsistent and error-prone about the strike zone (which, you know, only matters like 300 times per game) that fans are too jaded to even care.  There are enough actually subjective calls for umpires to blow, they don’t need to be spending their time and attention on something so objective, so easy to check, and so important.

(Photo Credit: “Lightning on the Columbia River” by phatman.)

One Response to “Why Not Balls and Strikes?”

  1. Terry Wynn says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Inside outside is a no brainer.

    And I would argue why not simply standardize the strike zone vertically without regard to player height/stance.

    It would make pitching practice a whole lot easier.

    Put HAL behind the plate for balls and strikes.

    How embarrassing is the TV absolutely contridicting the Ump, over and over and over….

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