Robots at the old ball game

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The score is 2-1.

Game 5 of the 1997 National League Championship Series is being played on a converted football field with one side wearing pinstriped, teal uniforms unironically. It’s a strange time and an even stranger game.

In the batter’s box stands Fred McGriff, a first baseman for the Atlanta Braves and his club’s last shot at keeping its World Series hopes alive. Across the mound is Florida Marlins pitcher Liván Hernández, who’s already registered 14 strikeouts on the day so far and is looking for his 15th to seal a complete game victory.

Hernández winds up and delivers his pitch without McGriff taking a swing. The ball looks to be about a foot wide of the strike zone, but home plate umpire Eric Gregg calls a strike anyway. It’s the third of the at-bat and the last of the evening.

Game over. Marlins win. Braves screwed.

The Marlins would go on to win Game 6 and advance to the World Series, where they would defeat the Cleveland Indians to capture their first title.

That missed strike call is probably the most significant in the history of the postseason, but there’s nothing to prevent it from happening again. Human error is still very much a part of Major League Baseball, where umpires still determine balls or strikes using only their eyes. This is exactly why a growing number of pundits, players and fans are calling for an electronic strike zone to replace traditional umpires.

Whether that’s feasible or even appropriate is still a matter of intense debate.

Baseball telecasts now display a strike zone graphic for every pitch so that fans and announcers can identify and follow one of the basic elements of the game. The technology that makes it possible, known as Statcast, uses a combination of radar, triangulated camera systems and software to determine pitch location, velocity and spin rate.

For the average viewer at home or manager in the dugout, this technology makes it incredibly frustrating when an umpire misses a call that the computer clearly caught. To fans or players on the field, it seems obvious that the technology is already in place to replace umpires and remove future disparities between the computer and the calls on the diamond.

Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs, who was ejected for telling home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, “That’s why we want an electronic strike zone” in August, told reporters, “It’s an unfortunate situation, and now that we have the technology, we should probably get it right.”

Electronic strike zones, however, aren’t the easy solution that they appear to be on the surface.

Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight has identified several issues with Statcast and the way it traces pitch location. In the four years since Statcast had made its data public, last season produced the highest amount of error in accurately tracking both horizontal and vertical movement. It runs into the most trouble when it’s quantifying pitch break or how much the ball moves between the mound and the plate. There’s evidence that its accuracy can even vary between different ballparks.

Even if the technology were ready, there’s still a healthy cohort of media members, fans and players who would oppose such radical measures.

Jason Gay of the Wall Street Journal wrote, “Humanity — and all the imperfections that go with it — is an integral part of sports, even when it means officials making costly mistakes.” Madison Bumgarner told reporters he had no use for “that stupid electronic strike zone” while his batterymate Buster Posey added, “I think I’d miss the umps calling ’em. I always make that sound — ‘Steee-rike!’ — when I’m playing with my kids.”

Yet technology is never stagnant, and so it seems inevitable that it will eventually progress to the point where an electronic strike zone really could be a feasible alternative. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has acknowledged as much, stating, “As a technological matter, I believe we will get to the point that balls and strikes can be called in real time by a machine.” Whether or not the owners will vote to institute an electronic system remains to be seen.

As we approach another postseason, every pitch is going to matter, and any missed calls will be scrutinized all the more ruthlessly.

Just don’t expect a robot to call the balls or strikes anytime soon.

Rory O’Toole writes the Thursday column on the transformation of athletes and sports media into the cultural conversation. Contact him at [email protected].