Punch Out: It’s time to go virtual on the balls and strikes
Former MLB wide receiver Gregg Zaun was a young player working behind plate in a 1980s game refereed by surly Ken Kaiser (who moonlighted as a wrestler for a time). Zaun was trying to help his pitcher on the Baltimore Orioles by coaching pitchers Kaiser might like.
On a call that Zaun and his pitcher both wanted to call a strike – but veteran ump Kaiser called a ball – the aspiring catcher, without looking back, asked, “Where was that pitch, Mr. Kaiser?”
Kaiser replied, “Son, I just called them. I do not describe them.
There is power in sport. And then there is the power of arbitrator. As we saw in the 2021 playoffs, the ability of a single umpire behind the house to shape a result is huge. This authority dates back to the century before high technology allowed broadcasters to show a virtual strike zone on screen.
If the arbitrator called it a strike, it was a strike. Despite the volcanic eruptions of feeders like Earl Weaver and generations of gamers letting off steam, there was no recourse. Eventually, the players were forced to put their sticks over their shoulders and return to the cover. Or at the clubhouse, if their crisis caused them to withdraw from the game.
Rarely has an arbitrator been fired in public. Unless it was Dave Pallone who was seemingly canned for being gay and upsetting Pete Rose when Rose was a big MLB player. Certainly none of them were held to any standard in terms of physical condition.
Now, however, the fan can see the virtual strike zone. And can see that a referee like Laz Diaz, who was behind the plate for the Astros’ 9-2 win over the Red Sox in ALCS Game 4, has to be a cashier. This allows the journalist / author Jeff Passan tweeting:
@jeffpassan Home plate umpire Laz Diaz missed 21 ball hitting calls tonight, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. That’s the most of any referee these playoffs. The green dot in the upper right corner is Eovaldi’s curved ball who would have finished first in ninth with the score 2-2.
The game was no exception for Diaz. As our friends at @umpscorecards show, Diaz has missed an average of almost ten percent of his ball / strike calls over the season (91.9%). A game he called only 87.6 percent of calls correctly.
Which is not to distinguish Diaz. For example, Angel Hernandez missed 356 of the 4,833 shots he’s called this season for 92.6 percent accuracy. Brian O’Nora (91.8% accuracy), Jerry Meals (93%), Rob Drake (92.1%), CB Buckner (92.7%), Doug Eddings (92.6%), Larry Vanover ( 92.5%), Ron Kulpa (91.8%) and legend Joe West (92.2%) are among those who leave something to be desired. (We strongly recommend that you follow this detailed site if you are a fan or a gambler.)
While the average ball / strike accuracy in the broadest range of umpires hovers between 92 and 95 percent, even the best umpires have simple games where their accuracy is between 80 and 80. these games decided places for the playoffs? Division titles? Do the pitchers / batsmen get bonuses? Why hasn’t MLB set a higher standard?
Look, 92-95% for the human eye in a stressful situation where 50,000 people are yelling at you, that’s an awesome statistic. And today’s arbitrage is under scrutiny by MLB for patterns that could produce betting scandals. There is no doubt that the ball / strike appeal has improved considerably since Kaiser’s days, when there were “pitchers’ umps” and “batting umps”.
(Aside: On a Blue Jays TV show this season, former MLB wide receiver Buck Martinez and his sidekick Pat Tabler, a former outfielder, appeared to be yearning for the days when the umps’ expanded hitting zones encouraged the players to “move the bat” and reduce batting work counts.)
But the virtual strike zone shows that MLB can have 100 percent accuracy against a defined strike zone. Not to put @umpscorecards out of work, but with a virtual strike zone, MLB has the power to dispel doubt about the strike zone, end arguments and conspiracies over some umps, and move games forward more quickly.
Just look at the Hawkeye system at work now in tennis to call the lines. The days of John McEnroe or Jimmy Connors launching into ballistics during a line call are magically ended as the computer unequivocally demonstrates that a bullet went in or out. The show of rage has now become a shrug of the shoulders as the affected player moves on to the next point, angry with himself, not the chair umpire or line official.
There are other advantages. Frankly, who is also not happy to give up the site of middle-aged tennis officials at Wimbledon or Roland Garros, crammed into tight pants and blouses that are sticky like sausage rolls, towering over the court like people waiting for the kettle to boil. Other than an advertisement for Weight Watchers, this is a spectacle that we can put in the past.
So why isn’t MLB using the technology they have? Some suggest they fear upsetting the influential arbitrators’ union who jealously guard their privileges, even in the face of completely useless colleagues. Others still hold on to the dinosaurs saying the virtual strike zone is inaccurate or may move around unexpectedly.
This just in: Even though the virtual hitting zone is an inch or two away, it’s the same standard for pitchers and all hitters. Nor is it necessary to put people out of work. The home plate umpire can always make calls on fouls, batting hits, plays at home plate and the flow of the game. Enough already.
While MLB is at it, also use the Hawkeye system for foul lines, foul posts, and outfield fencing. The technology is there. Forget the nostalgia for the 19th century.
Addendum: The overthrow of the Atlanta Braves against the mighty Dodgers is true MLB karma for Atlanta. You may remember Commissioner Rob Manfred nodded to the Woke crowd this summer when Georgia instituted tougher voter authenticity laws that require photo ID. In a panic to appear progressive, he pulled the All Star Game from Atlanta and awarded it to Denver.
It is above all another ploy by Hate Trump to curry favor with the Media Party which broadcasts his games. Now Atlanta gets the World Series. Hope they remind precious people everyday what those bastards did to them and rub it mercilessly. I hope Manfred gets asked for his ID everywhere he goes. Other than that, that’s fine with us.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the editor of Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). The best-selling author of Cap In Hand is also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time Gemini recipient for the best sports broadcaster on television in Canada, his new book with his son Evan is titled InExact Science : The six most compelling draft years in NHL history is now available at http://brucedowbigginbooks.ca/book-personalaccount.aspx