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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.

--MK

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.

--TM

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.

--JG

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.

--CB

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.

--ML

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?

--JB

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

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