MLB Should Look to Tennis for Umpiring Solution

Does tennis have the answer to MLB's strike zone problem?

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred recently gave an in-depth interview to ESPN's Don Van Natta Jr. They discussed a wide range of topics, which included robot umps. Commissioner Manfred claimed he'd like to see some form of an automated strike zone implemented in Major League games by 2024, though this implementation could come in two different forms, both of which are being tested in the Minors.

  1. All balls and strikes are called based on advanced pitching-tracking technology. The results are relayed to the home plate umpire via an ear piece, after which he makes the strike or ball call.

  2. Home plate umpires are still responsible for calling balls and strikes based on their own judgment. However, each team is afforded a set number of challenges per game, which they may use to potentially reverse a call.

I think option #2 is the far better option. I think option #2 is the far better option by several million lightyears. Why? Because option #1 will unintentionally alter the game in ways fans and players will not enjoy, and because option #2 has already been successfully employed in a different sport.


That sport is tennis. Rob Manfred need only tune into Wimbledon this week to discover the solution to his umpiring problem.

 

Why Option #1 Sucks, Abridged Version


Robot umps would eliminate a key catching skill in the blink of an eye: framing. With automated strike zones there is no need to frame pitches near the corners of the strike zone. Catchers who are employed almost solely based on how they manipulate pitches with their gloves, thus getting calls for their pitchers, will be rendered useless. Doesn't matter how you receive the ball with a robot ump behind the plate. Hell, you don't have to catch it at all. Catchers will be glorified backstops with robot umps in play.


Catchers are brought up learning this skill. Scouts seek it out. It's valuable to a pitching staff. I highly doubt most college and high school programs will institute this pitch tracking system, meaning framing will still be a thing in nearly every level but MLB. So we're gonna have catchers work tirelessly to perfect this skill all the way until they get their big league promotion, then tell them it's worthless?


The End of Thievery


We're also potentially hurting the stolen base, which was finally making a bit of a comeback. Now that the catcher doesn't have to worry about sticking and holding pitches on the corners, he has two duties: block pitches and throw runners out. With robot umps calling games, a catcher can now set up in the perfect throwing position when waiting for the pitch, since he's not concerned with the manner in which he receives the ball. Good luck running on that.


That's a Strike Now???


Aaaand finally, once fans and Major League hitters see what constitutes a strike based on the official definition of the strike zone, they probably still won't be happy. Breaking balls can legitimately end up in the dirt and be called strikes, as they have been in the robot-umped Minor League levels. So can pitches that miss the catcher's target by two feet. These pitches clip the corners of the zone. They're strikes. Not by the standards we've grown accustomed to for the last century plus, but by the standards of an automated strike zone. So get used to that.

I could go on and on and on about how bad of an idea I think it is to fully rely on robot umps. Tennis though, could provide a happy medium.


Tennis's Challenge System


Hawk-Eye technology has been used to track tennis shots by the International Tennis Federation since 2006. It took them a few years, but by 2008, the powers that be came to an agreement as to how many times a player can challenge the line judge's ruling on if a ball landed in or out. A player gets an unlimited amount of challenges, but can only lose three challenges per set. The players get an extra one if the set goes to a tiebreaker.


The order of operations typically goes like this:

  1. The line judge makes a ruling on if a ball landed in or out.

  2. The player who hit the ball that was ruled out raises his or her hand to the judge or chair umpire, indicating a challenge. This can also be done by a receiving player who was just scored upon after the line judge ruled that a ball landed in.

  3. Everyone now waits around for about for about 5-10 seconds, after which Hawk-Eye determines if the call stands or is reversed. Us viewers get a graphic showing how close the call was.

And that's all. Little to no arguing. Each player gets a chance to rectify human error. If the player is the one who erred, well, there's a penalty for that, and rightfully so.


Baseball's Hybrid System


Pace of play has seemingly always been at the top of Commissioner Manfred's agenda. I wouldn't shy away from allowing for unlimited challenges. However, unlike tennis, which allows for three unsuccessful challenges per set (basically two-ish innings of baseball), I'd only allow for three bad pitch challenges per game.


Oh, and it has to be immediate and it has to be made by the hitter, pitcher, or catcher, not the managers or coaches. None of this stepping out of the box or off the mound nonsense, waiting for a manager to give them the green light to go for the challenge after they check the tape. Those tactics are reserved for more complex rulings, like out/safe calls on the bases. These have to be instant and from the player himself, just like in tennis. The pitch clock that Manfred also wants to implement will help with this, as it won't allow the pitcher or hitter to stall.

 

It seems robot umps, in some way, shape, or form, are inevitable in Major League Baseball. Going all-in (option #1), will require growing pains a sport like baseball can ill afford. The challenge system though, offers an effective blend of robotic precision and the human element that helps make baseball such a memorable game. We shouldn't abandon the human element. We should simply give it a boost. Challenges do just that.


While we're at it, let's get rid of the super-imposed strike zones on MLB broadcasts. They're an eye sore.


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