It’s been a tough week, and it’s only Wednesday. Everyone had too much end-of-semester work to enjoy the nice weather over the weekend, 1968 Wharton graduate Donald Trump won the Pennsylvania primary and the Department of Justice launched a ludicrous and unconstitutional attempt to criminalize academic open expression.
If you, dear reader, read this column with any sort of regularity, you can likely guess that I could write angrily about any of these at length. I could take controversial stands, provoke online commenters and endanger my future job prospects.
But it’s late. The school year is almost over. Classes end today and finals are fast approaching. Nobody has the energy for meaningful controversy, least of all me. And anyway, you can probably imagine what I’d say about any of those topics without my even having to say it. Isn’t this job great?
So I’m going to do what center-right newspaper columnists do when they get sick of writing about things that matter — I’m going to muse grumpily about baseball.
Specifically, I’m going to complain about the fact that it’s 2016 and Major League Baseball is using 200,000-year-old technology to determine balls and strikes.
The human eye is a fallible thing even at the best of times — just Or try this experiment: Pick up any approximately fist-sized object and throw it at the wall. Now walk over and put your finger on the precise spot in the space 18 inches in front of the wall through which your object passed. Tough, right?
Now imagine that your object had been moving just shy of 100 miles per hour, as well as potentially deviating six inches or more from a standard arc trajectory. This is approximately what the home plate umpire in a professional baseball game does 292 times, on average, in the course of nine innings on the diamond.
As you’d guess, the results turn out to be significantly less than perfectly accurate. According to data from PITCHf/x, a motion-capture software which precisely maps baseball pitch flight paths, umpires between 2008 and 2013 blew a lot of calls. MLB umps called 13.2 percent of pitches that crossed home plate inside the strike zone balls and 15 percent of pitches that crossed the plate outside the zone strikes. And although data indicates that umpires have been getting more accurate every year since 2008, PITCHf/x still indicates that even the league’s most sharp-eyed ump, Lance Barksdale, still maintains a solid 10 percent error rate. For the average ump, it is more like 17 percent.
And yes, you read that right. There’s a motion-capture software which precisely maps pitch flight paths in real time, and it’s already installed and operational in every major league ballpark. A number of broadcasters display the pitch-tracking graphic alongside instant replays of borderline pitches, generously allowing fans the chance to groan in agony as they watch their star hitters called out on pitches well outside the zone. The acute sting of injustice is, believe me, not mitigated by the knowledge that the error is completely and utterly avoidable.
Let me just say this again, for effect. There is a fully-functional, pre-installed, ready-to-go technology which is capable of calling balls and strikes with 100 percent accuracy. Instead, balls and strikes are called by human beings whose error margin is, at minimum, 10 percent. This, quite simply, is ludicrous.
Defenders of the human-eye strike zone like to wax poetic about how learning and exploiting an ump’s biases and tendencies is just “a part of the game,” like field positioning or stealing bases. But this simply doesn’t hold. The strike zone is as clearly-defined in the rules of the game as basketball’s three-point line or the penalty mark in soccer. The only difference is that it can’t be clearly drawn on a floor or field. Would basketball fans insist it was “part of the game” if 10 percent of shots from the field were awarded three points? Of course not.
What is truly not “part of the game,” insofar as the game is what the rulebook says it is, is a strike being called a ball, or vice-versa. That is a breakdown of the game, and we now have, for the first time, a perfectly reliable technology to prevent those breakdowns.
Baseball has already accepted video review of certain umpire calls, acknowledging that they’re sometimes blown and appropriately providing a remedy. It’s time to do the same for the strike zone. If baseball were invented today, the technology would be adopted without a second thought. It exists, it works and there are no downsides. Just get on with it.
There. I’ve had my say for the week. There’s nothing to conclude. School is over. Stop reading. Go outside. Catch a game.
ALEC WARD is a College junior from Washington, D.C., studying history. His email address is alecward@sas. upenn.edu. Follow him on Twitter @TalkBackWard. “Fair Enough” usually appears every Wednesday.
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