Finally, last night the jig was up. The curtain was lifted, and the shell game revealed. When Umpire Bill Miller rang up Toronto Blue Jays third baseman Brett Lawrie, on a pitch that was well out of the strike zone, we were all witnesses to something that is easily the biggest joke in professional sports – the “strike zone” in baseball.
The strike zone is an imaginary box above home plate, and the umpire judges whether or not a baseball has entered it. The dimensions of the strike zone vary according to the batter’s height and stance. The 2004 Official Rules of Major League Baseball defines it as “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 (of the batter), and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap.” That is the RULE. It is not meant to be altered, bargained, or influenced by anything. But Major League Baseball just does not get it. They allow the very powerful umpire union to decide what THEY feel a strike is. Each individual umpire has his own definition of what a strike is. Every game we hear about a certain umpire’s own strike zone, and how pitchers and batters will have to manage them. In today’s day and age, that should NOT happen.
When Brett Lawrie went into his furious tirade, throwing his helmet at the ground, causing it to ricochet and hit Miller in the leg, he was also unleashing years of frustration that batters have for umpires who make bad calls. Lawrie has been suspended for four games, and was fined an “undisclosed” amount. He and the team are appealing the suspension, basically to keep him in the lineup against the Yankees for the time being. His actions, and reactions were wrong, and he took his anger out the wrong way. However, there will be no discipline at all for Miller. After he incorrectly called strike two, Lawrie had already dropped his bat, and was headed to first for a walk. Shaking his head, he got back into the batter’s box. The following pitch was even further out of the zone and yet again, Lawrie started down to first, only to be rung up by Miller, who was obviously influenced by feeling slighted by Lawrie’s look back at him. Then the meltdown began.
Everyone watching the game at home could easily see the ball was out of the legal strike zone. They were able to see this, because of a little thing called “technology”. The MLB has a long history of avoiding any attempt to bring the game into the 21st century. They have the attitude of “Hey, we’ve been getting this wrong for over a hundred years. Why stop now?” It is referred to as the “nature of the game”. They refused to use TV’s instant replay for the longest time, but finally relented in the middle of the 2008 season. They allow it now for calling a ball fair or foul, and if a ball is a home run, or if there has been any spectator interference with the play. This is the limited extent to which MLB has allowed technology to sneak its way into the game, and take away the “human aspect” of its game.
This is no longer about the human aspect of anything. This is about getting very important calls correct. These should not be done by “the judgement of a human”. If the technology is available that will allow this to happen, it is incumbent upon the league to use it. This will prevent any argument, and diminishes the chance that the sport may be looked at as illegitimate, or the games as being fixed. There is such a simple solution: to finally invest in the Umpire Information System, designed by Questec. The UIS uses QuesTec’s proprietary measurement technology that analyzes video from cameras mounted in the rafters of each ballpark to precisely locate the ball throughout the pitch corridor. This information is then used to measure the speed, placement, and curvature of the pitch along its entire path. The UIS tracking system is a fully automated process that does not require changes to the ball, the field of play, or any other aspect of the game. Additional cameras are mounted at the field level to measure the strike zone for each individual batter, for each individual pitch, for each at bat. Done. Simple. No questions or arguments. There can be an “umpire” behind home plate who holds a little device that lights up and reads either “strike” or “ball”. It is an impartial system that does not rely on human faults of petty anger, shame, or revenge. We’re able to see the strike zone as we watch a game from our comfy chairs at home through the use of Pitchtrax. This technology was designed by Questec, and nightly we see how bad the umpires are at keeping a consistent, legal strike zone. Often, the broadcasters calling the game will refer to how bad the call was, and they will show the simple graphic proving the ball was, or was not a strike.
Even non-major sports like tennis have accepted the use of instant replay. While it was thought it would add time to an already long game, the use of the tennis challenge has worked out fantastically. The crowd gets very involved as the actual computer generated ball is shown on a big screen, and using physics and some other sciences, it is shown whether it was in or out on that play. There is no debate, no arguments, and the point is over, or replayed. There are no more John McEnroe meltdown moments, which while entertaining, actually led to the games lasting longer.
There is NO good excuse why Questec should not be used. It has been proven reliable to 0.5 of an inch. Soon enough, there will be a blown call that costs a team a World Series, Conference, or Division Title. It might prevent them from getting into the playoffs in the first place. At that point, the owner(s) of that team will possibly meltdown much worse than Lawrie on Tuesday. They may file a lawsuit against the Umpire’s Union for not doing the job in a proper and capable manner. Another lawsuit might be filed against MLB itself, for willingly disregarding the available equipment and technology that would have prevented the outcome from occurring. It will be at that point, Major League Baseball will find itself quickly transported to back to the future, and get knocked out of the park by a court of law. Ironically, they might even receive the decision by text message, not by carrier pigeon.