The greatest canard in all of baseball is that the participants are not allowed to argue balls and strikes.
Anyone who believes that hasn’t been watching the same game that has consumed me all these many years.
Baseball is a great game, maybe even the greatest. But it would be so much better if we didn’t ask humans to do the humanly impossible.
Just the other night while watching the Cubs play the Braves on television, I couldn’t miss the constant bickering from both batters and pitchers — not to mention managers barking from the dugout — at CB Bucknor, the home plate umpire. Who could? Players from both teams, time and again, begged to differ with Bucknor’s calls.
The constant wrangling became as annoying as it was familiar, especially with the super-imposed Pitchcast strike zone showing Bucknor missing one pitch after another. Bucknor’s worst moment of many came with Cubs’ pitcher John Lester at the plate.
A pitch from Julio Teheran sliced across the plate, only to be called a ball.
While Braves catcher Tyler Flowers complained back over his shoulder, the camera caught Lester — the beneficiary of Bucknor’s call — standing at the plate shaking his head in bewilderment.
Players may be conditioned to expect the worst from Bucknor, an alumnus of the Carolina League (1991 and 1992) who was ranked as the Major League’s worst umpire in two surveys conducted by Sports Illustrated (2003, 2006) and in one by ESPN (2010). Active players were polled in all three surveys.
But the problem is not one umpire having one bad game. The problem is this constant squabbling goes on all the time, and has as long as I’ve been watching baseball. The case can be made that a manager who has never been tossed for arguing a terrible call can be faulted for not taking up for his players, but I, for the life of me, can’t understand why it should come down to that.
No, the real problem is that a modern major league player can throw a pitch that not only explodes toward the plate at 100 miles per hour, but while doing so, slices and tumbles and dips and darts. And according to the rules of baseball, if any part of that baseball catches even the slightest sliver of the strike zone, it’s to be called a strike. If not, it’s a ball.
Good luck with that.
Personally I’ve seen too many games decided by the inability of humans to do the humanly impossible, and I’d rather not see anymore. I always hate to see players who have worked so hard at their craft and endeavor so hard to do their best get shafted by a pitch three inches out of the zone called a strike or one that catches a third of the plate called a ball. And I really hate to hear that each particular umpire has his own particular strike zone, and players just have to adjust.
The solution, as more and more people are beginning to realize, is the electronic strike zone. Let cameras and computers do what humans have proven they’re unable to do.
Let the home plate umpire stand behind home plate, run the game and make the on-the-field calls he’s required to make. And let him wear a little ear piece, and have the results of the pitch read on a monitor and instantaneously relayed to him. Better yet, wire the plate, and have it light up bright red for the whole stadium to see when a pitch catches the zone.
As might be expected, the umpires themselves hate the idea of relinquishing control. Joe West, the veteran from Elon College, bristled when asked his opinion.
“They’ve tried that, but that machine misses more pitches than we do,’’ West said. Obviously West hasn’t spent enough time watching baseball on television.
Commissioner Rob Manfred pooh-poohed the idea last summer during the All-Star break, saying the technology of the day is not refined enough. The strike zone, he noted, changes from player to player and that of 6-7 Aaron Judge is far more expansive than that of 5-6 Jose Altuve.
Sportsvision, the company that developed the three-camera tracking system used by MLB Advanced Media in ball parks since 2006, counters that height and stances are indeed taken into consideration. According to Ryan Zander, Sportsvision’s general manager of baseball products, a camera in center field calibrates the strike zone for each hitter to the specifications set by the MLB umpiring department.
The idea seems to be catching on. Manager Joe Maddon of the Cubs said he’s not quite there yet, but he’s warming to the idea. Marc Brady, the producer of WGN-TV’s broadcasts, is already aboard.
“Humans have bad days,” Brady said. “Computers don’t.”
Next time you watch a game marred by the constant carping and beefing over what is a strike and what isn’t, imagine what it would be like to eradicate all that rancor and acrimony from an otherwise beautiful game.
In the immortal words of John Lennon, it’s easy if you try.