Computerized Strike Zones: the death of failure in sports?

When I was first asked to contribute to Baseball Desk, I thought, “How am I going to relate umpiring to business!?” It took me awhile to respond to founder Alex Einhorn as I dwelled on that question for a few days. I sat down and looked at my career, then the overall landscape of sports officiating at the macro level. Business was everywhere… it was in the relationships I had formed in almost a decade in professional baseball, it was in the crew chief role I was trusted with by different League Presidents, and it was in the failure I had experienced at every possible level of professional baseball. The failure would be just that, failure, unless I made the choice to learn from it.

I failed, I learned, I advanced to A-ball.

I failed, I learned, I advanced to Double-A.

I failed, I learned, I advanced to the Triple-A.

I failed enough, to learn enough, to find myself staring at an assignment to umpire in my first MLB stadium, The Ballpark in Arlington.

I had reached my decision regarding writing for Baseball Desk… absolutely I will.

“I failed, I learned, I advanced.”

The most common question I get when people learn that I umpired professionally is, “So… what do you think? Are they ever gonna use computers to call balls and strikes?”

I respond the same way every time, “I hope not.” It typically leaves somewhat of a bewildered look on most faces. “You don’t want a 12-6 curveball in the dirt called a strike, you don’t want the hard work and art of catching to be lost in baseball, you don’t want…” I’d tell them.

I try to explain what I mean by that, but it’s hard to convey that it has absolutely nothing to do with pride or ego to those with a view of umpiring still stuck in the 80’s. You’d be awestruck at how many people ask what it’s like to hold that huge chest protector in front of you while watching 95mph come straight at your face. The “balloon” chest protector has been obsolete for approximately two decades now. The second part of that question is actually a pretty easy answer… the hard work of a great catcher is what creates the trust needed to not flinch at the 95mph pitch that has ended careers.

Early this year I came upon an article in a publication I hadn’t yet heard of, Collegiate Baseball – The Voice of Amateur Baseball, titled, “It’s Time for Technology to Call Strikes” by Rob Nelson (Jan 6, 2017). Said Mr. Nelson, “There are absolutely no negatives by having a mechanical strike zone which would allow precision with calling balls and strikes. The technology is there to do it now. If such a change was made, you would see the game advance as never before with game times being reduced because pitchers and hitters would know precisely what they were working with in the way of a strike zone on a daily basis.”

On the surface, it seems this is a pretty self-explanatory argument. The use of computers would create a strike zone so accurate that hitters would be insane to argue a called strike, or pitchers argue a called ball, right!? It will speed up the game. It will be fair for everyone. It will save time-consuming, costly ejections. Except that… we have those metrics now, and replay has already proved there to be very little correlation between actual incorrect calls and an ensuing ejection.

In 2013 MLB began using limited replay, for boundary and home run calls, to test how viable it would be to make the leap to include plays all over the diamond. In 2014, replay was expanded to many different areas, and I heard from numerous media outlets about how ejections would be down because so many incorrect calls would be fixed.” Many of those with their finger on the pulse of sports officiating knew different, that accuracy was only important to managers, coaching staffs, players and fans when the call went in their favor. There’s actually nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s science!

Why we Rage- The science behind crazy parents and coaches

As 2014 became 2015, the numbers continued to maintain as a marked spike in ejections now carried from the first year of expanded replay into the second. What was most interesting to me though was the subject matter at the crux of some of the most common ejections. The second-most common reason for which an ejection occurred… the arguing of a replayed decision, the most statistically accurate call on the field. It made no difference if the original call stood or was overturned, the team who the call went “against” clearly had no interest in the call being accurate. One player even decided to take it upon himself to get ejected during replay proceedings that would later overturn the call in his team’s favor.

Baseball is a game based around imperfection, and failure is a fundamental part of sports that motivates us to not fail the next time around. So what happens when we try to remove failure from only one aspect of the game? The simple answer, we can’t. It will inevitably creep into every other area of the game. Unfortunately we’ve already seen it at the youth sports level over the last decade or so, where winning has become the most important thing any team could take home from a weekend travel ball tournament. The examples we set from the sidelines, the dugouts, the car rides home, everything we do these days tells our youth that it’s not ok to fail, or that failure (in losing) is always someone else’s fault. The former scares our kids into being unwilling to take ownership and fail in anything, and the later tells them that they have nothing to learn from failure… it must be a coaching strategy or call by an umpire responsible for the loss.

The relationships, trust and failure so key to my advancement as an umpire have now been replaced with winning, winning, and more winning. In the same way, businessmen and women interested in the macro win rather than being crowned champions of a single weekend will find what they’re looking for in a culture that includes both ownership and failure. Refuse to let winning at any cost hold your business back. You’re better than that.


Brian R. Hertzog, President/CEO
Official Business, LLC

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