Instant replay for balls and strikes

I am a big advocate for instant replay in baseball and I have been long before the rash of dreadful calls in the 2009 postseason and the Armando Galarraga/Jim Joyce episode. And while I respect different opinions of any topic, I have yet to hear a logical argument against using instant replay in baseball.

I have heard every logical fallacy from the other side: Pleas to emotion. Pleas to tradition. Pleas to authority. Personal attacks. But nobody has given me a good, logical reason why, if we see a call is blown, it shouldn’t be corrected.

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Now instant replay is starting to be more and more accepted by fans, especially since it has been used to call home runs correctly. (I always wonder when a home run is correctly awarded or overturned by the umpire review if instant replay opponents get angry and yell “But that home run doesn’t have a human feel to it!”

But even the biggest supporters of instant replay tend to make one exception in using current technology to make sure calls are right and players are rewarded for what they actually did on the field. They almost all say “Except for balls and strikes. That still needs to be up to the umpire.”

And before this October, I probably would have agreed with that. But a funny thing happened this postseason. I was watching the TBS broadcasts and I saw the little graphic box they put next to the batter during the game. Instantly after each pitch, it showed where in the strike zone it was and where it crossed the plate. Not in 15 minutes. Not in two minutes. Not in 30 seconds. Instantly and often before the umpire yelled “Strike” or “Ball.” I was watching a game from my couch in Los Angeles that was being played in Philadelphia and in real time I saw if the pitch was a strike or not. And it hit me like a Randy Johnson pitch to the helmet: Baseball should use that technology!

Think about it. The strike zone is set for each batter and is called as it is written in the rule book. Which is:

“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 knee cap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.”

No more yelling “Where was that?” to the umpire. No more umpires not being consistent from inning to inning with the zone. No more hearing the announcer say “It looks like the umpire was fooled by that as well.” No more “make-up calls” to compensate for a previous blown call. No more batters stepping out of the box to jaw with the umpire. Just a strike zone that is consistent.

The most important thing it would eliminate is the asinine fact that each umpire has his own version of the strike zone. One umpire doesn’t call the high strike. Another umpire doesn’t call the inside strike. Dale Scott’s strike zone gets wider when the weather gets worse. He wants to go home. Phil Cuzzi’s strike zone in the 2010 Division Series defied all logic.

And of course the late Eric Gregg (who was a very cool guy when I worked with him on a TV show) had a strike zone that was 40 feet wide, 10 feet tall and four inches underground when he called Livan Hernandez‘s 1997 NLCS victory. Leslie Nielsen did a better job calling balls in strikes in “The Naked Gun.”

Isn’t it amazing how we have simply accepted that umpires call the game differently? I remember hearing an umpire say “I call it a strike if it is a ball off the plate.” Can you imagine that being said about ANY other rule in baseball?

“I call it a fair ball if it is just a few inches foul.”
“I don’t call it a homer if it hits the foul pole. I just don’t call that.”
“You have to beat the runner by three steps for me to call him out on a force play.”

And yet we allow an umpire to fudge the rule book on balls and strikes, arguably the most vital aspect to the flow of a game.

The changing strike zone isn’t seen just from game to game but sometimes batter to batter. And we have strangely taken for granted that the game’s top pitchers will get borderline pitches and the best hitters will get questionable calls in their favor. How exactly does this make the game better? If you are a hitter facing Roy Halladay or CC Sabathia, aren’t you already at a disadvantage without having to chase pitches out of the zone?

And why should a pitcher get squeezed when he is facing an All-Star hitter? This year some poor schmuck on the Orioles named Koji Uehara struck out Alex Rodriguez to give the Yankees a critical stretch run loss. The only problem was the umpire called the perfect pitch a ball. Everyone on the planet Earth and a few on Neptune saw it was a strike. Even A-Rod started giggling, knowing that he got away with one. So Uehara figured the only place where he could actually be credited for throwing a strike is right down the heart of the plate and that’s exactly where he put it. And A-Rod crushed the fat pitch for a game-winning homer.

I want no part of that in my baseball games. If a pitcher throws a strike according to the rules, he should be credited for a strike. It shouldn’t matter if the pitcher is a rookie facing Albert Pujols. If he sneaks a strike past him, then more power to him. And if a batter doesn’t swing at a ball out of the strike zone, guess what? He shouldn’t be penalized for that simply because the guy who threw the pitch has three Cy Young Awards.

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Now I can hear the criticism coming now. It is as predictable as Joe West making bad calls against the White Sox.
“But Sully, you are taking the human element out of the game! Why not just have robots play the game? Bad calls from the umpires are part of the game!”

Yeah, do you know what was also part of the game? Segregation. Gamblers interacting with the players. Fans running onto the field and causing a mini-riot at the end of the World Series. Poles in front of your seat. Players leaving their gloves on the field between innings. Do you miss any of those aspects of the game?

I want the human element of the game as well, but I want it from the players! If a player makes a great play, he should be credited with making a great play. If he makes an error that should go against him. If Armando Galarraga throws a perfect game, he should be credited for that. If Mark Langston throws a third strike past Tino Martinez in the 1998 World Series, then that’s how it should be marked in the record book. It is hard enough to make a great pitch or a fabulous play. They shouldn’t have to plead to have their play count like some poor singer asking Simon Cowell for another chance.

Not to go all Six Million Dollar Man on you dear readers, but we have the technology to do it. Why not use it? More calls will be correct. Games will move more quickly if the strike zone is consistent and impartial.

And baseball can do that by asking TBS “Hey, can we borrow that little graph thingee?” And setting it up on the big center field scoreboard for everyone to see. The second a manager is about to yell “Where was that?” and argue with the ump, slowing the game down, he can look up and say “Oooo. I guess it DID miss the corner.”

References & Resources
The Boston Globe, MLB.com, Chicago Tribune


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Ben
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Ben
Not to burst your bubble, the graphic used by tbs is not necessarily consistent. It provides a reasonable estimation of where the ball flew not a graphic representation of the balls actual flight path. You would also fall into a debate on the limits of the strikezone and end up requiring a definition down to the millimetre (sixteenth of an inch?) of the limits of the strikezone. There is also the issue of borderline calls. There is no perfect world, the human brain accounts for these things much better than a machine could, it also accomodates error with make up… Read more »
cass
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cass

How do you feel when the umpires get a home run call right the first time and then make the incorrect call after using instant replay? I’ve seen it happen on multiple occasions.

Thinking human umpires are part of the game is not a logical fallacy, nor is thinking instant replay drains the excitement out of a game and is way too slow.

Mikey
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Mikey

I’d like to add… what if it was the same in other sports?

Football: well he tipped it and was really close… touchdown!

Basketball: he was about to shoot when the clock ran out… so we’ll count the basket.

Hockey, Soccer: it hit the cross bar… GOAL!

Mikey
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Mikey

I hate to burst the “not a graphic representation of the balls actual flight path” bubble… but with an accelerometer from a basic smartphone and a Kinect you could track the actual flight path, monitor where it crosses the plate, and where it instantly place it in/out of a strikezone that changes from player to player. And imagine the accuracy if you use more expensive technology rather than what comes in $200 devices… far more accurate than the human eye.

laketrout
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laketrout

My thought would be to add a pager-like vibrator to the umpire’s counter. When the pitch f/x system registers a strike in the zone the umpire’s counter would vibrate. It would then be up to the umpire’s discretion as to whether or not he calls a strike or ball.

Francis
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Francis

I am against instant replay simply because I do not have confidence that it can be implemented in an efficient fashion. Nothing drives me more crazy than the 10 minutes it takes football refs to decide every blatantly obvious replay – is baseball really going to be any better?

If there was some guarantee that the replay call could be truly “instant” then I’d be all for it. But having all the umpires huddle under the stadium for ten minutes while everyone waits is not my idea of good entertainment. I’d rather have a bad call.

Ben
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Ben

Mikey, TBS doesn’t use a kinect and an acceloerometer. They provide a graphic representation based on their visual recording of the baseball. Also are you suggesting putting an accelerometer inside the ball? Doing so would tamper with the physical dynamics of the ball. There are an average of 45 balls used in every mlb game. Despite the budget of pro sports leagues I think that might get a little steep, especially compared to the cost of employing a human to do the job.

Ben
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Ben

i’m not saying it isn’t possible but the implementation of this technology would create just as many problems as it solves. Like I said, a pitcher who consistently paints the black on the outside corner could in theory throw a perfect pitch and have it called a strike and repeat the pitch a fraction of an inch farther out and have it called a ball to ruin his perfect game bid. Human umpires are a more elegant solution to the problem as they account for more than physically measurable factors albeit at the cost of occaisional human error

Mitch
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Mitch
Yes on instant replay, once the “graphic” is standardized and verified for accuracy. But Francis has a good point, the last thing this game needs is something slowing it down. I recently read a 10-year-old Bill James piece where he came up with five simple rule changes that would speed up the pace of the game and would barely be noticed by any spectator. I’ve never heard it mentioned anywhere else but combining some form of these should negate extra time spent reviewing replays. Baseball needs to pick up the pace, and needs instant replay. While I’m digressing, let’s go… Read more »
Harry Pavlidis
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Harry Pavlidis

This doesn’t do much to remove the human element. A human sets the top/bottom of the zone, a human verifies the calibration of the system. You’re just time shifting some of the problems, not solving them with a PITCHf/x approach. And there are published studies about systematic issues with some installations at some times.

Mikey
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Mikey
I’m suggesting that if a TV station puts a few bucks into a system for fun and casual comparison, imagine what could be done with technology with a purpose and a budget from MLB. Yea, you don’t even need an accelerometer.  Keep the ball the same.  Don’t mess with it’s specifications. But a Kinect-like device to the right and left (for left and right batters) and one below or above would track it exactly. Pitchers’ release of the ball would lock-in the batter box (or at some point defined the same way as umps do, so players can’t move as… Read more »
Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
Paul, assuming you’re writing about the September 17, 2010, home run that Alex Rodriguez hit off of Uehara in the 9th inning, the PITCHf/x data does not back up your view of the situation. Strike one was a generous strike call on the inside edge, should have been called a ball. (px=-1.0, pz=3.0) Ball one was well off the plate inside.  (px=-1.4, pz=3.2) Strike two was fouled off. Ball two was well off the plate inside. (px=-1.2, pz=2.4) Then the 2-2 pitch was hit for a home run. The closest call in that sequence was the generous strike call for… Read more »
Brian
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Brian
The trouble is that the strike zone is defined as if it were a plane (a flat two-dimensional surface). That’s even how they show it on TV (the “Fox Box” and others). The very “technology” you reference does the same thing. The plate is indeed 17” wide, but it is also 17” long. So, then, what do you call a pitch that is in the strike zone at the front of the plate, but drops or curves somewhere out of the strike zone further along? I’m not a “replay guy” but I am intrigued by this idea. First though, we… Read more »
DrDave
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DrDave
I never understand people like Ben who seem to think that an automated ball-and-strike system must for some reason be accurate to within a millimeter in order to be worth doing, even though the umpire it replaces can be wrong by 6 inches. It is easy with current technology to provide real-time remote sensing of the ball location that is much (much much) more accurate than human umpires.  It’s even cheap.  That should be the end of the debate. Oh, and while we’re at it, let’s dispense with the other dumb argument.  Yes, I know that the top and bottom… Read more »
Short Bus
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Short Bus

Preach it.  There really are no sound arguments against a computerizerd strike zone, except maybe cost.  I, for one, would welcome our new electronic overlords and gladly pay $1 more per ticket if it meant we would get a consistant (i.e. fair) strike zone.

And games would go sooooooo much faster.

Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
I believe there are ways to make progress here.  Doing so while satisfying the interests of the involved parties is a navigational exercise that is going to take some time and work and communication.  You have at a minimum the MLB ownership/management, the players, the umpires, the fans, and the technology providers. Most people who are proposing the implementation of a quick solution by fiat are not considering the needs of all the parties involved and how dismissing their needs will undermine the success of the eventual solution.  Yes, at some point, you will need to proceed over the objections… Read more »
Ben
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Ben
@Mikey, The vertical limits of the strike zone are not as well defined. Your method also favors batters with a crouch stance. I would digress and say that having communication devices on us at all times is a horrendous technological development but that is an aside. @Paul This technology would eliminate aspects of the game which allow skilled players to provide their teams an advantage. A catcher who receives the ball well earns more strike calls for their team than an unskilled receiver. A pitcher who hits his spots with consistency makes it easier for the umpire to call the… Read more »
Ben
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Ben

@DrDave

I don’t mean it has to be accurate within a millimeter to be worth doing. I mean that a binary system (ball/strike) inherently needs defined limits which would come down to that level if not a more specific limit.

Ben
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Ben

@Brian
the strike zone is currently defined as anywhere within the particular vertical limits of the batter that crosses any part of the face of the plate. The taper at the back of the plate is designed so a ball that comes over the width of the plate deeper(where it would cross the face a square plate) in the box does not count as a strike. I’m sure the xbox strike zone would be able to factor this 3rd dimension in.

Mikey
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Mikey
@Ben: Catchers framing the ball is a mild form of gamesmanship.  Get rid of it. Verticle limits: middle of letters/belt to the bottom of knee.  That’s is pretty well defined.  And umps do favor a crouch stance. If you crouch thru the whole swing the ump will interpret it as having a smaller batters box… if they don’t they they are not following the rules of the game. I’m not an ump, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it works. Translated to technology, the distance from chest to knee while in ready position and swing/plate-crossing position could be analyzed to… Read more »
Mark
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Mark

You don’t need accelerometers or anything added to the ball. For years tennis has been using an electronic system to track the ball and decide player line call challenges. It uses a system of 8 or 16 cameras depending on the system and the combination of images acurately tracks the ball as it moves thru space. There is no reason the same system couldn’t be used for baseball.
The technology exists. The only real obstacle is people who refuse to recognize it and would rather have some guy subject his opinion into the game instead of get the call correct.

Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
Baseball has also had the technology in place for years, with PITCHf/x, going back to 2006. People have legitimate concerns, though, about implementing changes to the strike zone, and it is counterproductive to belittle them and act as if this is a trivial change that is being proposed. Technology does not equate to magic.  It has its own set of challenges, probably not impossible to overcome, but not something to be dismissed with a wave of the hand, either.  It’s disappointing to see people assume that it is a silver bullet and act like anyone who disagrees is a Luddite… Read more »
Chris
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Chris

With any system in place you can measure how precise it is and decide whether that is within your tolerance.  Will a system be perfect?  No, but it will almost definitely be better than the human eye.  There was a study that the human eye cannot actually follow the ball for the last few feet and instead extrapolates where it will be according to the path the eye has already seen.

As for catchers framing the ball, is that a “skill” or a “cheat”.  That’s like saying OL in football who are good at holding have some secret skill.

Texan
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Texan

The technology could work in the Major Leagues when games are televised.  But not all games are televised.  In the minor leagues where few games are on television, the system would not work.  Players and umpires would be trained in one system until they get on the biggest stage and then have to change.  This could cause more problems than using the current system.

Mike Fast
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Mike Fast
Chris, that’s exactly what we need to do.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking at that data.  The PITCHf/x system is usually within an inch or so and almost always within two inches.  It’s very rare that it is off by three inches like it was in the playoffs at Texas. The vertical dimension is another matter.  It’s not unusual for operators to be off by six inches or more on where they set the vertical limits.  That part of the puzzle could certainly use some improvement.  I’m sure people would have some ideas to overcome that problem,… Read more »
Brian
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Brian

@Mikey: Right. My point is that the 3D reality of the strike zone is not accounted for in the rule as written. That is why umps apply judgment in cases like you cite.

ralf
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ralf
I don’t think you’ve fully thought out the implications of electronic ball/strike calls.  For one thing, umpires generally call a slightly lower and wider zone than is described in the rule book.  Whether that’s good or bad for the game can be debated, but we can be reasonably sure that there would be an offensive explosion if most of those borderline, “pitcher’s pitch” strikes were suddenly called balls.  It would change the game at least as much as the mound being lowered after the ‘68 season.  Baseball historians would talk about the Dead Ball Era, the DH Era, the Computerized… Read more »
DrDave
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DrDave
ralf said: “but we can be reasonably sure that there would be an offensive explosion if most of those borderline, “pitcher’s pitch” strikes were suddenly called balls.” Not necessarily.  Tom Glavine not getting called strikes on pitches that would have hit a LH batter would definitely benefit the hitter.  But Jonathan Papelbon getting called strikes at the letters would definitely NOT benefit the hitter.  The current strike zone does not uniformly benefit pitchers. To me, the more important fact is that the uncertainty and inaccuracy in the strike zone uniformly harms better players.  Pitchers who can hit the corner consistently,… Read more »
Micah
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Micah
Seems to me that you could solve some of the measurement problems by having rf-tags on uniforms to mark the knees and the the elbows, thus covering the vertical dimensions of the strike zone. I disagree with umps calling a low strike zone. My observance has been that umps can’t call pitches at the bottom of the zone worth a damn, especially if they have significant horizontal movement. I’m a big Felix Hernandez fan, and every game I’ve watched him pitch has been colored by umps inability to see a strike at the knees. If he gets those calls, he’d… Read more »
Mikey
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Mikey
@ralf Definite offensive explosion.  Not sure how that would make me feel. Of course nothing will always be fully automated and that difference between majors and even college use of technology will always have a gap.  And that would add issued in scouting as well. As a first (if not only) step I think there needs to be more repercussions toward awful umps… and not just QuesTech, because that process is atrocious. @Brian: The way I read the rules it states mentions a ball crossing the plate. Crossing at any point in all 3 dimensions of space is applicable. @Mark:… Read more »
Joe
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Joe

you need three camera angles. One straight above the plate to see if it crossed through, one on the side of the batter to see where in reference to the batter it crossed the plate, and the other on the other side because there’s lefties and righties. Have an official monitor and feed the ump to inform the batter and battery

Z
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Z

Someone mentioned the cost of putting an accelerometer (or similar device) in the ball.  I work in sensors and I promise the cost of doing so would NOT be prohibitive (~$2-$10 per ball depending on the device), at least not to MLB.  The minors, especially the low minors, might be another story.  The more dificult part would be to engineer the ball so that its characteristics don’t change, but again, I believe this is do-able.  Then again with current vision/ camera technology this isn’t really necessary.

Mikey
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Mikey

@Z: I didn’t even think of impact changes until now. Can the technology handle it?  If so it could be possible to not even use a video mode. Just have sensors on 2 points of the plate and triangulate the position of the ball.  Could even be more exact that a Kinect-like devise. Right?

John Ziccardi
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John Ziccardi
All the arguing is silly. Let the baseball people get together and decide what the strike zone should be. Use available technology to make much more consistent and correct calls and monitor and improve it over time. No more Greg Maddux strike zones that favor one type player or position based on an umpire’s preference. One look at the replay line calls in tennis tells you all you need to know. That’s what the strike zone compares to, not tipped balls in end zones or did his pants or his knee touch the ground. The strike zone is a pretty… Read more »
Kathy
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Kathy

Ahh, finally, someone agrees with me.  Using technology to call balls and strikes would be so easy.  The umpire could still call out “ball” or “strike” like always, but it would be a correct call.  We see all the mistaken calls that I don’t know how people can tolerate it.  The umpires still have to watch for balks, make sure the batter is in the box and the rest of the stuff they do.  It would speed the game along and we could focus more on the game instead of stupid mistakes.

Paul Francis Sullivan
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Paul Francis Sullivan

Wow. I love all the comments and I am loving that most of the arguments pro and con don’t devolve into insults. I guess that is the difference between The Hardball Times and my own blog where whenever I support instant replay, I am told that I am an idiot.

I very well may BE an idiot but that doesn’t change my stance.

Dave
Guest
Dave
ABSOLUTELY agree that balls and strikes should be automated.  As stated by Kathy, umps are still necessary for all the other reasons stated.  Foul tips, batter in the box, timeouts, balks, plays at the plate, yada-yada.  Won’t be losing any umpires in the process, so why would the ump’s union balk at this technology? (bad pun intended) Its faster and more accurate.  Will eliminate arguments over balls and strikes.  Simple.  Effective. Should also set actual vertical limits for strikes in the rule book.  Not some abstract limit based on the physique and posture of the batter.  I’m 6’5”… why should… Read more »
Dave
Guest
Dave

This technology will increase fairness, and _improve_ the pace of the game, at it’s most fundamental aspect… it’s core… the key battle between the pitcher and the batter.

Every day we wait, is one more day of potentially UNFAIR baseball.

How can you argue for INCREASED UNFAIRNESS???

Here is the Wiki for the “Hawk-Eye” technology which is used in tennis, and cricket.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hawk-Eye

Dave
Guest
Dave

Also… about any sudden explosion of offense once you have a predetermined, well defined strike zone… NO PROBLEM.

You can simply expand the strike zone vertically.

If the league loses offense… contract the strike zone vertically.

I think there will need to be some experimentation to set the upper and lower boundaries of the zone initially.  And you might need/want to change it occasionally.

The thing is… it’s changed equally, for everyone, all the time.  It’s fair.

l. m. gumby
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l. m. gumby
Technology is fine and all if that’s the only way to fix the problem, but I think it could be solved by just getting rid the umps that can’t or won’t call balls and strikes accurately.  Today there seems to be no accountability; incompetence in no way jeopardizes an umps job.  An ump that makes up his own strike zone or simply lacks the ability to make consistently fair calls has no right to stay on the field year after year, yet Joe West, Bucknor et. al. seem to have jobs for life. Replace these clowns with new guys, based… Read more »
Z
Guest
Z
Mikey: I believe what you are proposing would be a transmitted in the ball and then 3 sensors around the plate to triangulate position.  I think a solid state transmitter in the ball’s core may be able to withstand some impact; the bigger problem would be the power source.  A small battery with an accelerometer that could turn the device on (as not to drain the battery prematurely) would most likely work.  However, it might be tough to tuck a sensor/ transmitter and battery in the ball without affecting the properties of the ball.  The other option would be inductive… Read more »
Cranky Critter
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Cranky Critter
!00% agree. In fact I’ve been making this dame argument forcibly for over 5 years now. So I’ve been treated to an even longer parade of these same crappy, maudlin, unconvincing counter-arguments. Nice to see a number of folks plainly agree here. Error is not charming. Nor is superstar favoritism. Gumby’s right, the only counterarguments being mustered are aesthetic. Bottom line, real baseball fans DESERVE to see this method SERIOUSLY TRIED. At a minimum for a full season, in the minor leagues if necessary. I suspect we might even see some surprising results in terms of changes in performance once… Read more »
James C
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James C
you hit the nail right on the head. replay technology should be used for all matters, including balls and strikes. i wouldnt even care if using technology is measurably less accurate than umpires, just as long as its consistent. the idea that a ball is suddenly a strike because Mariano Rivera is the one who threw it is outrageous. its like saying an airball is a basket because it was shot by Dwayne Wade. the fact that umpires’ strike zones shrink and enlarge depending on whos on the mound and whos in the batters box ruins the credibility of the… Read more »
Tom Cavileer
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Tom Cavileer
The “Hawk-Eye” system used in tennis isn’t real-time (even though it only needs to make in/out calls in two dimensions).  Thus, it is only used for a handful of challenges each match.  Nor is it deterministic – it only shows the “most statistically likely” landing area of the ball.  And naturally – because there are always outliers – it has made obviously bad calls. Still, it seems to be generally accepted, but that may be because it is only used for a final appeal after two human judgments.  If the line judge, umpire, and Hawk-Eye all rule against her, the… Read more »
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