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No One To Blame But Umpires Themselves For Automated Strike Zone

Updated on May 12, 2020

Former All-Star Frank Viola Opposes the Idea Of Computers Calling Balls And Strikes

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Social distancing has left us without baseball for much too long, but it will probably benefit the sport in the long run. The preceding adjective, obviously used as part of a metaphor, could be taken literally as well.

Long now must be the space between the catcher and the umpire, whose traditional proximity would never meet distancing requirements in any state. The arbiter will need to stand back by at least six feet, thankfully eliminating any chance he could make decisions on whether the pitch is a ball or a strike.

When the game resumes, hopefully at some point this summer, at long last computers will determine the designation of each pitch. The process has already been used in the independent Atlantic League and the prospect-driven Arizona Fall League, so now comes its transition to the Majors.

Most fans will welcome the change, in spite of the opposition recently expressed by one of the sport's most prominent broadcasters. In the latest issue of Baseball Digest, Bob Costas bemoans the idea of not having umpires call the balls and strikes.

Costas clearly opposed the idea in an article called "Out at the Plate," written by Mike Berardino for the June issue. Costas bemoaned the loss of "the human element" in the game, suggesting that using automated pitch calling would be a poor trade off from a tradition that has been crucial to baseball for over a century and a half.

Veteran pitching coach Frank Viola, a former MLB lefty, agrees wholeheartedly with Costas. He reasons that the displacement of the umpire in favor of the computer would hurt a lot of pitchers, especially guys who rely on the humans establishing the strike zone for any particular game.

"It's for guys who don't know how to pitch," Viola said in reference to the automated pitch idea. "It's just for guys who have good arms and want to watch 100-mph fastballs."

Isn't that what the game is about? People with the best arms should be in the Big Leagues, just like guys who are fastest or most powerful. If the defense for having the umpires call the ball and strikes is that it allows guys with so-so arms compete in the Majors, then by all means bring in the computers.

Viola mentions the pitchers, such as Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, who have relied on generous strike zones to forge Hall of Fame careers. His implication is that those guys would not have been as successful in the Majors were the strikes determined by automation.

That kind of logic could be applied to many aspects that have evolved in the history of America's pastime, especially in the decades since Glavine and Maddux pitched. Look at the position of shortstop for instance, where several slick glove men earned enshrinement in the Hall of Fame with paltry batting averages.

Ozzie Smith and Luis Aparaichio finished their careers with .262 batting averages. The typical shortstop in today's game hits at a .272 clip, meaning that neither Smith nor Aparichio would have been considered worthy of Cooperstown if they played in the current age of Javier Baez, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor.

According to Viola's logic, baseball should somehow prevent offensive juggernauts from becoming shortstops, so that smaller defensive-minded players would have a chance to become All-Stars. Most fans prefer to see the best, most talented guys out there, which is the very reason the ticket prices are twice as high for Big League games than for those in the Minors.

Because of the fluctuating strike zones that helped Maddux and Glavine succeed, the umpires have buried themselves. The concept of an automated strike zone has been contemplated for over a decade and, because the umps did nothing to enforce the one in the rule book, it should have arrived long before 2020.

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