Judging the Royals

Is it time for baseball to use automated strike zones?

The White Sox’s Adam Eaton (second from right) was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt on Friday night, then ejected for arguing.
The White Sox’s Adam Eaton (second from right) was called out on strikes by home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt on Friday night, then ejected for arguing. The Associated Press

The Royals played the White Sox on Friday and home plate umpire Hunter Wendelstedt had a rough night calling balls and strikes. On one pitch Royals catcher Salvador Perez set up on the outside corner and the pitch was right down the middle, but called a ball.

When a catcher has to reach outside the framework of his body — and that’s what Perez did on the pitch — it looks less like a strike. Some umpires won’t call a pitch like that a strike because even though it’s in the strike zone, the pitcher missed his target.

Strange, but true.

So how about when a pitch is outside the strike zone, but hits the catcher smack dab in the middle of the chest protector? Well, Friday night that happened as well, and that pitch was also called a ball. And that’s confusing to everyone: Was Wendelstedt using the strike zone to call balls and strikes or basing his calls on whether the pitcher hit his target?

Nobody (including Wendelstedt) seemed to know the answer and after Adam Eaton was called out on strikes to end the game, he apparently let Wendelstedt know just what he thought of the work Wendelstedt had done that night.

That’s when Eaton got ejected from a game that was already over, which seems kinda petty.

Should we take out the human element?

Ask Royals pitcher Chris Young this question and he starts by telling you what respect he has for umpires. Umpires have to make the call on hundreds of pitches (if I counted right, Friday night it was 280) and Young thinks umpires generally do a good job and admits he couldn’t do their job half so well.

But if the technology exists to make sure any pitch that nips the zone is called a strike and any pitch that misses the zone completely is called a ball, should we use it?

An automated strike zone would mean a consistent strike zone no matter who is at the plate or on the mound. Ballplayers believe All-Stars get calls that the peons don’t get, and the automated strike zone would cure that.

It would also take pitch “framing” out of the equation.

Catchers have a variety of tricks for making balls look more like strikes; swaying to one side or the other to keep the pitch between the shin guards, angling the catcher’s mitt to present the pitch in the best possible light, pulling the pitch in to the strike zone or “sticking the pitch” by holding it in place when it hits a corner.

With an automated strike zone, none of that would matter; the pitch either hit the zone or it didn’t and what the catcher does would be irrelevant.

It would speed up the game

Young brought up one reason for using an automated strike zone that I hadn’t considered; he believes it would speed up the game.

Players are not supposed to argue balls and strikes, but they do it anyway. They just do it in a way that won’t get them in trouble. If a hitter does not like a call he steps out of the box, heaves a sigh, looks to the heavens and makes sure the umpire sees him. The basic message is; “Why me, Lord?”

And when a pitcher doesn’t like a call he can do something similar; snatch at the ball when it’s thrown back to him, circle the mound and stare glumly into the outfield. Once again it sends a message: “Why do I have to put up with this idiot behind the plate?”

Neither player said a thing, but both of them were arguing balls and strikes. They’re showing their displeasure with the umpire’s call and are subtly (or not so subtly if you know what to look for) lobbying for the umpire to change his strike zone.

As Young points out, there would be no sense in lobbying against technology; the ball either passed through some part of the strike zone or it didn’t. So hitters and pitchers would be less likely to spend time wandering around, expressing their disgust between pitches.

Young also pointed out no jobs would be eliminated; you still need a catcher to catch the ball and throw runners out, you still need a home plate umpire to do things like make calls on check swings and hit by pitches.

So what’s the answer?

I’m not sure I have a dog in this fight, but I am pretty sure that even with the best technology in the world, we’d still find a way to screw things up.

Instant replay was supposed to make sure the umpires got calls right, but I still see calls missed and then go uncorrected despite visual evidence shown on a scoreboard in plain view of 30,000 people. “The call stands” is baseball-ese for: “We can’t tell and we don’t want to get involved.”

So before we change the fabric of the game — and as Young points out, nothing is more important than the strike zone — maybe we ought to think about unintended consequences; because there sure would be some.

On the other hand, Hunter Wendelstedt could have used a little help Friday night.