No one was happy with how the Giants / Dodgers playoff series ended. Not Giants fans. Not Dodgers fans. Not baseball fans.
No one wants to see a team’s season end on a missed call.
The Giants’ Wilmer Flores checked a swing with two strikes, a checked swing that was incorrectly called a full swing by first base umpire Gabe Morales. The Giants left the field feeling like they were robbed of the little hope that remained in their season, while the Dodgers felt like their well-deserved win was given an unnecessary asterisk on a result that was already likely to occur.
In all likelihood, the call didn’t change the outcome of the game, but what it did do was highlight the subjectivity of the most fundamental part of baseball: balls and strikes.
Nearly all professional sports have slowly, but surely, been chipping away at subjectivity in officiating with the use of instant replay, and the MLB is no exception. In baseball a team can request to replay review just about anything except balls and strikes.
For those who don’t watch the sport, over the past half decade or so it has become commonplace for baseball broadcasts to insert a strike zone graphic on the screen for the ease of viewers. The more high-end broadcasts even have 3-D graphics that can swirl around the plate and show you the ball’s projection through the zone. While fans are reminded that the graphic is not official, it’s generally accepted that it is pretty damn close to the true zone. And regardless of if you feel the graphic on screen is representative of the true strike zone, at the very least it provides a reference point to measure the consistency of an umpire’s zone.
The result of the broadcast graphics is that the average joe shmoe drinking Bud Light on their couch can essentially call the balls and strikes as well, if not better, than the umpire doing it behind the plate. With the graphics, the bad umps stand out like sore thumbs.
Millions of people watching a game can know the correct call in an instant on the screen, yet the umpire can make a call to the contrary.
Doesn’t that just sound bad on paper?
I think for those of us that grew up in baseball cultures that accept the arbitrary calls of an umpire as the given, it’s important to take a step back and think about what that really looks like.
Baseball already has a few comical quirks that are tough to explain — players who chew tobacco while sprinting and fans who sing a universally known song in the 7th inning. But imagine explaining the nuances of balls and strikes to someone who has never heard of the sport before. Think about how hard it would be for them to wrap their mind around the fact that perhaps the most important decisions of officiating are left up to human error when there is, in fact, technology that can do it better.
How does that make any sense? The subjectivity of the sport is part of its history, but it can be laughable and frustrating. That is what we saw on Thursday night when an umpire made the wrong call to end a historic playoff series.
All sports ‘suffer’ from subjectivity — fouls in basketball, pass interference in American football, yellow cards in soccer (fútbol), — but one could argue that none of those calls are quite as simultaneously fundamental, consequential, and delicate as the strike zone in baseball.
Baseball, the USA’s oldest popular sport and great pastime, prides itself on its tradition and has historically been slow to change. But one can only wonder how long it will be before automated strikes zones are adopted. At the very least the home plate umpire could be looking at a screen, just as us fans do.
Relying on technology for such important calls is not a novel idea in sports. Running, swimming, and tennis don’t rely on the objectivity of an official to declare a winner — hell no. They use technology to assure that the victor is correctly crowned.
Would that not improve the quality of the game? Sure, it would take some getting used to, but imagine a world with a perfect, instantaneous strike zone. I don’t see how it would hurt the game at all.
I have no idea how accurate the balls and strikes technology that they show us on the broadcasts is. Perhaps the technology is not as advanced as they make it appear. However, it appears that the technology is getting very close to the big leagues and the MLB is preparing for its eventual arrival.
What I do know is that it’s in everyone’s collective best interests to find a solution to the subjectivity of balls and strikes, making sure that a team’s season isn’t ended by inevitable human error.