Virtual TV Technology Has Called Out The Umpires' Wandering Strike Zone
These are the dog days of the baseball season. Which was probably appropriate as the Toronto Blue Jays howled like scalded hounds all week— umpire-wise.
The Jays have perhaps been the whiniest team in the majors during the José Bautista era— a tendency supported by some (not all) of the team’s broadcasters. The collapse of the playoff team the past two seasons hasn’t help make them more amenable.
So it was no surprise when the Jays started to grumble about the ball/ strike cals of umpire Will Little in Thursday’s final of a four-game series with Oakland. Toronto’s high-intensity pitcher Marcus Stroman was not getting the strikes at the bottom of the zone that he usually gets— the strikes he needs to win.
He began a dialogue with Little about the strike zone in the first inning and, with few exceptions, kept up his bitching till the fifth inning. Trying to protect his best starter, Toronto manager John Gibbons joined the moaning from his dugout perch in the fifth. The Jays’ TV crew joined in the protests, saying Little was missing calls on both teams.
Trailing the awful A’s before a restless home crowd, the Jays needed scapegoats, and Little’s squeezing of Stroman made a convenient focus. Umpires are never 100 percent right, but the virtual strike zone on the Sportsnet broadcast showed this was something less than the greatest crime since the 1984 OJ decision.
Following a pitch that was clearly outside the strike zone, TV cameras on-field picked up Gibbons ragging Little. Faster than you can say Jackie Robinson, Little tossed Gibbons for arguing balls and strikes. Gibbons emerged from the dugout to get a few final corrective jabs at Little, pressing coach Demarlo Hale to handle managing.
When Gibbons exited and things settled down, Stroman threw one more pitch. This moving fastball one sailed outside the strike zone. When Little rightly called it a ball, Stroman shouted at him. (The message was not “Best of luck.”) The Toronto crowd roared its grievance
Little tossed Stroman from the game. When catcher Russell Martin turned to address the umpire, Little threw him out, too. Two pitches, three ejections and a lot of angry feelings from the jittery Jays and their TV announce crew who condemned Little on what their own camera showed was a pitch clearly outside the strike zone— just as he’d called it.
This was not mentioned by the TV crew who kept on about how bad a call it was, and how Stroman needed the corners and umpires carry grudges. The turbulent scene was widely replayed on highlight shows and digital networks that night. Most everyone talked about whether the Jays had been jobbed on a pitch that was demonstrably a ball.
In all the turmoil almost no one addressed the issue of how the process of calling balls and strikes could be improved.
The answer was as plain as the TV virtual strike zone to which no one was paying any attention. In its cold image, the strike zone was saying that the Jays’ grievances were exagerrated. If you were looking for an argument stopper, it was already at hand.
So why does MLB stick with humans? The biggest argument against the virtual strike zone is that it might be calibrated improperly if the camera mounts move. Or that not all angles in parks are the same. Many of these same arguments were made against introducing instant replay in football or line calls in tennis.
But video calls have largely removed John McEnroe histrionics in tennis. And NFL goal-line replays have largely eliminated the guesswork to the human eye. The last-second NBA reviews have established for everyone whether a shot was delivered on time. If the zone is slightly askew, it’s the same for everyone.
With the virtual strike zone calling balls and strikes, John Gibbons’ beef would be with a machine, not an umpire as erratic as Little or Angel Hernandez. The spectacle of managers or pitcher losing their mind over a call— as Gibbons and Stroman did— would be removed.
Games might— just might— proceed under something less than a conspiratorial tone where one team was being screwed by MLB’s head office. They might go by just as tad brisker with fewer arguments. Umpires could adopt a less flint approach to debates with players.
The time is here. Tell the baseball umpires' union that they have been made redundanton called strikes. They can amuse themselves with foul tips, sliding runners and calling balks. But for heaven’s sake let the 21st century begin at home plate.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)