Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Is calling balls and strikes an art or a science?

Rule 2.00 of the OBR defines a Strike and the Strike Zone

A STRIKE is a legal pitch when so called by the umpire, which—
(b) Is not struck at, if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone;

The STRIKE ZONE is 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, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

The OBR also provides this picture.

However, the picture is misleading. From the literal meaning of the rule the strike zone is (1) the area over home plate; (2) which passes any point from the midpoint of the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the hollow beneath the kneecap. That is a three-dimensional area that should been seen more like this:

According to the black letter reading of the rules, the roundhouse curve that passes through the strike zone at the midpoint line at the very back tip of the plate is a strike. Sometimes the catcher may stand up on that pitch.

According to the rule, the nasty splitter that passes through the strike zone at the hollow beneath the kneecap and over the front edge of the plate is a strike. That pitch likely bounces in the dirt.

While not a professional umpire myself, I have heard from major league umpires that they do not consider the above examples to be pitches that “pass through the strike zone” even though the rule specifies that it is a strike if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone. The reasons for this depend on who you ask and all are based on perception and custom.

The New York Times has recently reported that “[a]n improved camera system to monitor umpires’ calls of balls and strikes will be used in all 30 major league stadiums starting opening day.”

“The new system, called Zone Evaluation, relies on pitch-tracking data already collected by cameras in all 30 parks and distributed through applications on and iTunes. Zone Evaluation software will rate umpire performance more quickly and accurately than QuesTec, according to Mike Port, baseball’s vice president for umpiring.”

So will the strike zone change because of technology? There is no doubt. The real question is whether it will change for the better. And what about that high round house curve or the low splitter? Will these pitches become more widely used because umpires will be encouraged to call these “strikes?” How does this improve the game? It sure makes the calling of balls and strikes more controversial. I can't imagine this being a good thing.


Bugsy said...

Interesting how the rule book doesn't clarify the strike zone as it is actually called by properly trained umpires.
What they are missing is (and I like that you put up the 3 dimensional version): the pitch has to go through most of the batters zone. So if that nasty splitter that breaks down hard only goes through enough to get past the front knee only, than it's not a strike.

It has to at least come near the back knee too or the pitch has not gone through most of the zone. That's why there's so much controversy on T.V. with these announcers using the drawn box (they don't use a 3 dimensional box) as the only point of determination.

I think what MLB is doing is ridiculous. Let the umpire supervisors decide who's performing behind the plate right or not. There's no way, I believe, that video cameras can realistically see the zone as we do when we are behind the plate.

When I evaluate umpires I don't need a camera to see if the umpire is doing a good job on the plate.

Anonymous said...

I n response to Bugsy, I find it incredible that he thinks that a rule should be made according to how "properly trained" umpires are calling it. That is like saying that we should pass laws according to how the police decide to enforce them.
The umpires job is to enforce the rules as written. Nit write the rules as they see fit.
I am amazed everytime I hear someone say that a human being can do a better job at something than an infallible machine. Video cameras combined with radar or gps or other technologies can show the EXACT position of a ball at any point in it's flight. Why would anyone not want that?
I'm sorry, but with all due respect, according to the rules of the game, a ball that passes through any part of the strike zone is a strike. The phrase "most of the batter's zone" has been used. Where did you come up with that phrase? Is it in the rule book?