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June 29, 2000

From The Mailbag

The Strike Zone Revisited, September in Sydney

by Baseball Prospectus

The Strike Zone Revisited

Your response to the mailbag question on umpires included a thought I've been having regarding the use of technology in calling games.

I was actually getting ready to mention that to several friends when I saw your answer. It seems to me that some pitchers get the "close" calls near the plate because they are perceived as "good" pitchers while other, lesser-known or normally less effective players don't get the benefit of the doubt on the same pitch. I am growing tired of seeing my favorite team get bad calls at the plate because their pitchers don't have the reputations for accuracy that some others do.

Conversely, I've seen them benefit from and get hurt by calls at the outfield fence (home runs and ground rule doubles) because the umpires couldn't tell if the ball hit the railing or the top of the wall or didn't pay attention to the fan interfering with the ball.

Frankly, I'm growing tired of seeing the men in blue have such a subjective influence over the outcome of the game. Though I recognize and appreciate their increased hustle this year, I'm still bothered by the other things I mentioned.

With the plate situation, do you think that it's possible to integrate technology into calling balls and strikes the way tennis has done with line calls? It would be nice to know that a certain pitch location is a strike no matter who throws it, who catches it and who calls it. (Catchers can have a slight-but-important influence.) So often you see a ball called a strike and then the overhead camera shows the pitch fly by eight or 12 inches off the black part of the plate (which I'm not even sure is part of the plate).

Likewise, a quick replay can show where a fly ball hits or if a fan touches it on the bounce. I know it happened once last year during a game, and the umpire caught hell for it, but I'd rather have the right call than the quickest one. It's not like baseball is the model for efficiency anyhow.

I'd be interested in any thoughts you may have on this. Thanks for your attention. I look forward to reading more on this in the future.


I work as an engineer and have employed various vision systems to inspect parts and machines that I've designed and installed. Even without claiming to have intimate knowledge of the latest and greatest vision/software packages, I'm positive that the technology exists to call balls and strikes.

The main complexity that I see is that the strike zone changes from batter to batter, and can even change within the same batter from pitch to pitch (if he takes a deeper crouch, etc.). However, the concept certainly is still workable. Perhaps the strike zone could be set by the camera operator as the batter waits for the first pitch and verified thereafter. Or maybe something could be affixed to the players' uniforms that would define the zone automatically. I'm not saying that there wouldn't be issues to be dealt with that make it more difficult to implement than in than in tennis, which has fixed lines to monitor, but they could be overcome.

The replay system can be done fairly efficiently, in terms of time. Heck, most calls are so obvious that there's no need for an umpire, and a majority of the rest could be resolved with a single camera angle. However, there are situations where an instantaneous call is required (e.g., whether a player is tagged or not in a rundown, etc.), so a complete elimination of human umpires is unlikely. Maybe the best solution would be to allow a certain number of video appeals per game, similar to the NFL.

In any case, I see no reason not to use available technology to greatly reduce the number of inaccurate calls made. The biggest hurdle to overcome is more than a century of tradition and the feeling by some that mistakes made by the umpire are part of the charm of the game.

And, of course, the umpires' union.

--Jeff Bower

September in Sydney

As a fan, I am in total agreement with your comments about the dangerous absurdity in naming Tommy Lasorda as the manager of the U.S. Olympic baseball team. My only question is: why doesn't the Olympic Committee share our perception? Are there some "yes but" good qualities that would explain the appointment of Lasorda? I shudder at the thought that he was named because "he will help the marketing of U.S. Olympic baseball." My view is that Tommy Lasorda markets Tommy Lasorda, not Dodger Blue and not U.S. Olympic baseball.


I think that the U.S. Baseball forces believe that Tommy Lasorda is a nationally-known and respected coach who brings credibility and a long history of success to the effort to win this year. Lasorda's ties to baseball may also help them recruit prospects (especially considering Lasorda's trades during his brief GM stint; there are a lot of teams that owe him big) and maintain good relations with major-league organizations, who they're going to depend on in future years. Taken only in that sense, it's not a bad choice, but he could serve that role just as well as an executive officer in charge of baseball relations, or something. That he's been given actual power is disturbing.

--Derek Zumsteg

I basically agree with what what you're saying but I think you're missing the point. No one here in the United States has ever cared about baseball in the Olympics. In fact I doubt if they have ever showed any of the games on TV. Ballroom dancing (which is an actual event) makes it on TV but baseball doesn't. So the goal of the people in charge was to make people care about Olympic baseball. The best way to do that was to make Lasorda manager and to get players people are familiar with. It's not about winning. And if the US should lose (and they probably will) no one will be embarrassed because everyone knows the best players are in the major leagues. Now I think it would be great to see the major league players play in the Olympics or some kind of tournament in the off-season but because of timing I don't think it will ever happen.


I can see where you're coming from, certainly, but I have to disagree with you.

I care about baseball in the Olympics. I've cared about it since...shoot, 1984, when Will Clark was on the team.

And as to whether they're trying to win or just get on television, I realize you may well be right. But if it's not about winning, why keep score? Why not send the third-time-round retirement MLB tour of Tony Phillips, Wade Boggs and heck, Tom Brunansky? I really believe that if as a country the US is going to compete, that we should do just that, and do that to the best of our ability. The best way to television ratings is to compete with other countries and win, and I think other instances in the Olympics (soccer comes to mind, both in the 1984 Olympics and the World Cup too) prove that that's true. I do have a sinking feeling you're right about playing for ratings, though.

--Derek Zumsteg

I am a long-time supporter of your site and your annual publication, but I read with some great dismay your borderline xenophobic diatribe.

First, the U.S. is certainly the greatest nation on earth in terms of the size of its economy, but any balanced and broader rating of a nation's "greatness," taking into account its quality of life, treatment of minorities, health-care system and so on, would not rank the nation #1.

Secondly, if all major leaguers played for their home countries in the Olympics or a World Cup of Baseball, the U.S. would have its hands full trying to beat teams from the Dominican and Puerto Rico, let alone Cuba.


I'm afraid that you've misread my sense of humor. That first paragraph was intended to be funny: the references to laughing at smaller nations, spending obscene amounts of resources on baseball, the power of anti-trust exemptions, etc. I'm sorry if it came across badly for you, but please, be assured that my intent was to poke fun, not to write a xenophobic diatribe.

Second, your argument with respect to whether or not the U.S. is the greatest nation on earth is certainly a subjective question, and one I'm sure we could debate endlessly.

Last, you are certainly correct that the Dominican Republic will challenge the U.S. team, regardless of the player and coaching choices I wrote about. But major leaguers for those countries won't play, since the season will be in progress, just as U.S. players won't. It may be an interesting side issue to see if U.S. teams give all interested foreign-born prospects a chance to compete for their home countries against the U.S. team, or if there's "interference."

--Derek Zumsteg

Something Fishy

In discussing the issue of who should be the Brewers' all-star representative, you noted that Luis Castillo would probably have to be on the all-star team because the Marlins needed a representative. Leaving aside the issue of whether Castillo warrants a spot on the merits of his speed, don't the Marlins have at least one and perhaps two players who should make the team on their own merits. I speak primarily of Ryan Dempster, who has 8 wins with a 3.15 ERA. Given the state of starting pitching, I venture to say there are probably only three starters--Greg Maddux, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson--who you would clearly pick ahead of Dempster.


You've got me on this one. Dempster absolutely deserves to be an All-Star, and will probably be the only Marlin selected. With no fanfare, he's been one of the top five starters in the NL this season, and one of the best surprise stories in the game.

Looks like Luis Castillo won't get to set some kind of "fewest RBIs for an All-Star" record, after all.

--Joe Sheehan

Sammy Sosa

In your column today you said that a team (say, the Yankees), could benefit perhaps 3.5 to 4 games if they upgrade right field (say, Sammy Sosa) halfway through the year. Well, if the two suitors for this player are division rivals (say, the Red Sox), might the Red Sox's inability to acquire an upgrade cost them 3.5 to 4 games for the rest of the year? If so, wouldn't the Yankees then actually gain closer to nine games with the addition of Sosa simply by keeping their opponent from getting him? Or even so, wouldn't a 3.5- to 4-game push by good enough in a tight race?


You're double-counting the possible gain in one team adding a player, so no, not doing so would not cost the Red Sox over and above the gain the Yankees might achieve in acquiring Sammy Sosa.

I placed the gain at around 2.5 to 3.0 games, although Rob Neyer thinks the difference is closer to five games. Regardless--and you're not the first person to point this out--that could well make the difference in the AL East this season.

The problem is the cost. Do you trade two or three players and commit to a six-year contract just for the chance that Sosa comes in and makes that three-game difference? That's not guaranteed: he could play poorly for three months; he could get hurt; he could also have a 1998-style second half and be worth four or five games.

You can get part of the upgrade you would get in acquiring Sosa by acquiring, oh, Matt Stairs, at a small fraction of the cost.

--Joe Sheehan

We'd love to hear your thoughts on anything baseball-related at info@baseballprospectus.com. We'll publish the best of what we get weekly at www.baseballprospectus.com.

Related Content:  The Who,  Replay In Baseball,  Olympics,  Olympic Games

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