I’ll start this column by referring you on to someone else’s. I had jotted down some notes on this topic a week ago, but didn’t have the chance to write up the article. Then Jayson Stark, one of my favourite baseball writers, published a column on The Athletic looking at what the 2020s might bring in MLB and included some of the points I was going to make.
This does mean that the column can serve two purposes: one in explaining my own thoughts on the issue of electronic strike zones and two in recommending The Athletic as a great value subscription website, which I planned to do anyway given the news this week that their baseball writing staff added ex-ESPN prospect expert Keith Law to the roster.
Anyway, I can bring another angle to the seemingly inevitable change in MLB that, at some point in the next few years, balls and strikes will cease to be called by the Home Plate Umpire and instead be left to a computer. That angle comes in the form of the scourge of the 2019/20 English Premier League season: VAR (Video Assistant Referee).
The basic element of offside, with a few caveats as explained in the laws on the FA’s website, is that an attacking player is ruled offside if “any part of the head, body [not including hands and arms] or feet is nearer to the opponents’ goal line than both the ball and the second-last opponent” at the precise moment a forward pass is played.
Whilst referring to someone as being “just” on or offside is commonplace, sticklers have always noted that this is not true. The ruling, as per the letter of the law, is absolute: you’re either onside or offside.
This is the same as baseball: we may refer to a high strike, a borderline strike, a pitch “just a bit outside”, but when it comes to the laws of the game it is a binary position: a strike or a ball.
The thing is, the application of what is a black-and-white decision when written in black-and-white has never been black-and-white in practice.
It is impossible to apply the offside law with exacting precision, not through a “human element” of mistakes but that the fluid nature of the game means the assistant referee is rarely able to be exactly in line with the defenders, that the act of the infraction (exactly when the pass is played) is in another part of the pitch (i.e. you can’t look at both at once) and that the assistant referee is usually in motion at the time too.
All of this has meant that whilst the law is absolute, its application and, most importantly, how it affects the game has always had a level of tolerance built into it. The practice in the EPL of applying the law exactly using VAR, pausing the footage at the precise moment the pass is played and then accurately plotting points on the bodies of the attacking player and the defender, has proved that this unwritten tolerance is an essential part of the law functioning as intended.
Consequently, it is probable that the law will be amended in the summer to correct this, either in amending the offside law overall or in defining what a “clear and obvious” mistake amounts to in the context of a review for a potential offside.
That brings us to the electronic strike zone and Jayson Stark’s comment that its ultimate introduction likely will be done in conjunction with a change to the definition of the strike zone.
Presently the zone is specified in the Definition of Terms section of MLB’s Official Baseball Rules (annoyingly published as a pdf) as follows:
“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”.
Right from the off, we should accept that the definition is more fluid than that of football’s offside, not least because the actual area changes based on each individual hitter’s height and batting stance. What we end up with, though, is a definition of a strike zone that, when you really consider it, doesn’t seem like the strike zone we are all used to. For example, the top of the zone is usually judged (not just by the umpire, but those playing and watching) as just a bit above the belt.
None of this is to rail against the use of technology: if it’s cost-effective and reliable then why not take advantage of that for things like the strike zone and offside which are ‘yes/no’ decisions rather than requiring an element of judgement?
The point is, applying the written rule with electronic precision will fundamentally change the strike zone as we have always known it. Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but, as Stark notes in his article in referring to the trials that have taken place so far, it should not be underestimated how significant the impact will be. Pitches that have never been called strikes, and what players and fans have never thought of as being a strike, will suddenly become so.
Just as we’ve seen with offside in the EPL, decisions are going to be ‘right’ but the effect they have will feel wrong. And whilst there are usually only a handful of significant offside decisions to review in a single football game, there are usually a couple hundred ball/strike calls (taking out fouls and swinging strikes) to make in a baseball game.
Even though pretty much everyone is unhappy with the way VAR is ruling on offsides, or how VAR is being used incorrectly in the eyes of the International Football Association Board (Ifab), it’s equally accepted by most that changing anything mid-season would be wrong. That’s a fair and logical position to take, although if you think of it that way in regard to an electronic strike zone it becomes painfully clear how disastrous it would be for MLB if they had to stick with a zone no one likes for a full season when it is introduced.
The lesson learned here for baseball is that full and effective testing is of paramount importance. In particular, they shouldn’t underestimate the potential need to adjust the strike zone definition as part of implementing the system so that the end result is something that looks and feels ‘right’.
They’ve got years of pitch data, the type that is already used to assess umpires, so that should be the first part of the process to determine how the average zone is called and how the current definition needs to be adjusted to make it match.
They should then ensure MLB players have ample opportunity to trial the zone, installing it in big league ballparks (if it doesn’t use technology already there) so it can be used in pitcher side-sessions and batting practice-type scenarios, and so that they can provide feedback. We all know there will be biases within that – pitchers wanting a bigger zone, hitters wanting a smaller one etc – but this would at least tease out where there’s broad consensus of anything that stands out.
It also needs to be trialled for fans and the media. As we’ve seen in the EPL, if the vast majority of people vehemently hate what they’re seeing, piously telling them the decisions are correct doesn’t solve the matter and, in fact, only means the benefits are wiped out and and leads to a clamour for the system to be scrapped entirely.
The best way to do that would be to use the system in the couple of exhibition games teams play in MLB stadiums in between Spring Training ending and the MLB regular season beginning. Ideally you’d do that the year before (e.g. exhibition games in 2023, refine it behind the scenes during 2023, then launch in 2024 – years chosen just as an example rather than an expected timeline).
And the final lesson MLB can learn from football is not to give the new system a name, like VAR. Sport is a great way to bring people together, but rival fans uniting to provide an expletive-ridden soundtrack to games about the new technology probably isn’t quite the way authorities would like to see that being demonstrated.