Baseball Romanticism and Perfecting the Strike Zone

I do not follow any one particular Major League Baseball (MLB) team. Nor have I visited the United States or seen a baseball match live. But Godammit I adore baseball. One day my dream is to see a MLB game live.

There is something about the romanticism of Baseball that keeps pulling me in. Since coming to South America in 2009 from the other side of the world – Australia (where Sport is our Religion) I have had the privilege of getting closer to a whole new range of sports,  including Football (soccer) and the NFL (National Football League). But baseball….


Terence Mann: Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
Field of Dreams (1989)

Some of my favourite movies are about baseball – Moneyball, Field of Dreams, and Bull Durham. Many of the greatest sporting stories are about Baseball probably for all those reasons Terence Mann spoke about above. I enjoy watching baseball documentaries as well. The latest I saw was ‘Catching Hell‘ from ESPN’s 30 for 30 about the famous Steve Bartman incident.  Steve Bartman wasn’t even a player, he was a fan in the stands who tried to  catch a baseball during a Major League Baseball playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins on October 14, 2003, at Wrigley Field in Chicago.

I love just about all things about baseball, except how it is arbitrated.

Judging the Strike Zone

I am quite a strong proponent of the introduction of  an officiated digitised strike square to remove as much human error of umpiring out of the game. Don’t even get me started on World Football or Soccer as many of you folk like to call it, which I believe should be upgraded like the NFL to allow each coach the ability to challenge a maximum of 2 refereeing decisions by video review.  Football and baseball are so far behind other big sports with regards to making the game fairer. Tennis, cricket, AFL, rugby, Athletics, – just about any major sport you name it, have got it right, but the biggest stalwarts are Football International and Baseball. They both have the technology in place to make it almost seamless in judging, but the traditionalists, the purists of the sports are reluctant to see the umpiring of the game improved. We will come to their arguments shortly.

What doesn’t concern me  are the obvious legendary bad umpiring decisions which the newly implemented Instant replay may help to negate. What does concern me are the 1000’s upon 1000s of bad strike zone calls. We are not talking about the occasional bad call here. In baseball for every game, the Umpire will OFTEN call a strike or a ball when it should be the opposite according to strike zone technology. In fact it is such a regular occurrence that it gets embarrassing to watch. Umpires are known for having big strike zones or smaller zones.  The reason being a strike zone in baseball is a conceptual zone, which of course umpires will interpret very differently, but (excuse the pun) strikingly so. How can these men see the exact location in their imaginative strike zone of a curving fast fall at 97 mph and still come close to anything that resembles as being accurate in the real world? The point is they can’t. Many people bet according to the individual umpires imaginative strike zone and for good reason.

Lets look at this image:


The technology is currently in place to assess the given strike zone, like the prism image you see of the strike zone above. Most Baseball coverages show the position of the given ball according an Automatic baseball ball and strike indicator. In fact there are already patents on this technology. See one patent here which describes how an indicator is set up.   So I plead with MLB regulators now. Take the umpire’s interpretation out of it! There wouldn’t be any delay factor in the call, because the result would be relayed automatically from ‘Hawkeye’ (or whatever the approved technology is) and the umpire would signal as they always have.

Someone might say, ‘Why should sports be fair when the rest of life isn’t?‘ The WHOLE point of sports is that it takes people away from the chaos or the unfairness of life and rewards people for their athletic prowess, good hitting, hard work in a well regulated environment. Background, race, class isn’t a factor, only sporting prowess! To want to leave the calls in the hands of imperfect umpires, because it reflects the unfairness of life and not be aiming for perfecting the rules and regulation of the sport and rewarding sporting prowess is a very flawed argument indeed. What is not impossible is perfecting the judgement of strike zones. That is well within the realm of possibility, in fact it is in the here and now.

If the typical umpire is seen as a central character as many traditional supporters of the game recognise ‘him’ as being, then I’m afraid any real progress in leveling out the sport and making it fairer to its participants and fans alike will be almost impossible. The cleanest sports are always those with the umpires furthest away. People don’t want to see nuance in sport. They want to see reward paid where it’s due. If it is a ball, then it’s a ball. If it is a strike, then let it be a strike. For gawd sake, I’m sick to death watching an umpire’s call contrary to the reality of what actually occurred. I don’t understand how people would prefer unfairness to occur in their sport as opposed to fairness. Fairness is what makes sport better than watching life dish out its customary unfairness.
What even makes this more satisfying is knowing the subjective strike zone call is already a thing of the past. I had a vision of tomorrow’s papers – yes. That’s the one.

To recall those lovely words of Terence Mann:

It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.

Update 10 October 2014:

Yahoo sports reported the following alarming statistics about the regular season and umpires for the 2014 post season:

The median score in 2014 was 86.38 percent correct, so the typical umpire calling balls and strikes was wrong 13.62 percent of the time. Let’s say there are 300 total pitches thrown in a game (which can be light at times). That means there’s roughly 42 pitches that are called incorrectly. A lot can happen in 42 pitches. That’s two or three half-innings of inaccuracies. So that’s a bit alarming.

MLB presumably picks its postseason umpires based on merit, experience and some kind of rotation, so the same guys aren’t umpiring the World Series every season. There’s more to umpiring than calling balls and strikes, but it doesn’t appear the league has taken the criterion into much account.

Theoretically, the top 9 percent of major league players — 66 out of 750 — get picked for the All-Star game. Not one umpire among the top 10 percent in most-accurate strike zone is working the postseason. Two of the top 19 percent — Davis and Gibson — made the cut. Overall, MLB picked umpires among the best 61 percent or so. Not exactly a pool that produced elite results.

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Sport and Adventure

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