Yankees: Here Comes the Computerized Strike Zone, Umpires Agree during Negotiations

New York Yankees, Edwin Encarnacion

No change in America’s pastime has been more controversial than the use of a computerized or electronic strike zone. It’s been talked about since the 1950s when in the Brooklyn Dodgers spring training, the first contraption to measure balls and strikes was tested.  The so-called “cross-eyed electronic umpire” introduced that day used mirrors, lenses, and photoelectric cells beneath home plate that would, after detecting a strike-through three slots around the plate, emit electric impulses that illuminated what The Brooklyn Eagle called a “saucy red eye” in a nearby cabinet.  Back in the ’50s, it was the atomic age, but sports never have been technologically advanced and have been reluctant to change anything about the game.

Since the 50’s things have changed in baseball, albeit reluctantly, it’s become a time of analytics, and how the game is managed has changed.   Although having no effect on the game, they first used slow-motion cameras to analyze plays.  Then came the instant replay.

Now just about everything in the game is open to challenge, except the calling of balls and strikes by the home plate umpire.  Now that the non-challenged aspect of the game is about to change.  The Associated Press has reported that umpires agreed to cooperate with Major League Baseball in the development and testing of an automated ball-strike system as part of a five-year labor contract, two people familiar with the deal told The Associated Press. The Major League Baseball Umpires Association also agreed to cooperate and assist if commissioner Rob Manfred decides to utilize the system at the significant league level. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because those details of the deal, which is subject to ratification by both sides, had not been announced.

On July 10 of this past season, the Independent Atlantic League became the first pro ball league to let a computer call balls and strikes at their All-Star game.  The TrackMan computer system is a far cry from the mirrors and lenses used back in the 50’s experiment.  This system uses Doppler radar, that doesn’t make mistakes.   The ball travels toward the umpire, the radar tracks where the ball does or doesn’t pass through the zone, it immediately sends the call to an iPhone in the Umps pocket and his earpiece, and the call is announced.  The system isn’t perfect, and you still need a home plate umpire.  For instance, the radar can’t recognize whether a hitter held up or not, and it can not determine if a ball hit the ground first and then traveled through the zone.

More tests will be done.  It looks like in the upcoming season, TrackMan will be tested in the Florida State League.   If all goes well there, the next step the MLB has planned is to try it in triple-A parks in 2021.  If that goes well, it seems inevitable that the computerized ball and strike zone will soon after becoming a reality in major league parks.  “It would change the game for the good. It would continue the effort to eliminate human deficiency,” Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt wrote in a story for The Associated Press in October.

“We have replay everywhere else in the game. Like it or not, replay gets the call right.”  Detractors will say it changes the game dramatically and takes the humanity out of it.  Those that like the move say it will be fairer and spot the numerous bad calls we have seen as recently as in this postseason play.  For years many Yankee fans have said that some major league umpires have it in for the Yankees and show that bias in a usual amount of bad calls against the Yankees.  The TrackMan would put an end to that, whether you feel there was a bias or not.  You can’t argue with radar!  Fewer mistakes, less fun, but it’s all good.