It's Elemental!

The Human Element, Jason Brannen’s post at SBN of a 5-pitch sequence demonstrating missed strike calls and a missed strikeout, culminating in a home-run, does raise an American-flag, apple-pie, motherhood issue: why not optimize ball/strike calls with automated, roboticized pitch-calling? The immediate benefit is obvious: getting the calls right.

But what other immediate impact would such a change effect? And what other unanticipated secondary, or tertiary effects, might follow in domino-like fashion?

If receivers will be unable to make pitches look more like strikes, called strikes would be expected to be reduced by this change. This would be expected to lead to fewer strikeouts, more bases on balls, more runners, more balls in play, and more offense and runs. What better enhancement for the post-steroid reduction of offense and scoring? Another infusion of offense is thought by some to be necessary to maintain fan enthusiasm, as pitching again seems to have moved ahead of hitting, if not to 1968 proportions.. Since strike zone enlargement in 1963, a number of major changes related to the strike zone, mound height, balls themselves, stadium dimensions, have been made in favor of the offense. What other changes will follow? Will a decrease in offense really be the case? Unintended consequences may be lurking, and should be anticipated.

Getting the call right implies some strikes now called ball balls, and some balls now called strikes, would be reversed. Strikes now called balls? Judgment calls by the umpire, which always have been part of the game. Balls now called strikes, however, have become a cottage industry for pursuit by catchers, analysis by researchers, and blogging by sports journalists. "Framing" pitches by catchers has become such a performance measure that called strikes on pitches in the zone, and called strikes on pitches outside the zone, have become a metric for receiver excellence. Names like Molina and Lucroy have become recognizable primarily due to the attention given them by framing analysts on the internet. One of the immediate effects, then, of robotocized umpiring will be to reduce the value of these penultimate practitioners of the "pinch and pull" art of pitch framing, not that they won’t also excel where new emphases are placed and new metrics hailed. Sabermetricians: what new areas of analysis will be opened up by the change?

With the subjectivity of the call entirely eliminated, the maneuvers catchers currently apply to make pitches look more like strikes will be irrelevant. The practice of "keeping the mitt still" will elicit no sense by the umpire-adjudicator that glove movement implies pitch errancy. The current practice of attempting to receive all pitches with the mitt in the same position, based on the supposition that umpires don’t want to be confused by wrist rotation, may give way to methods of pitch receiving that are more anatomic, more intuitive, and more practical. Holding that glove, arm, shoulder rigid while retracting the ball into the zone will no longer elicit the desired result: the robot will never see the ball hit the mitt.

Positioning the mitt isn’t the only framing mechanism that promises to be affected by the robot. Body positioning, another aspect of the art that takes advantage of subtle turns or rotations to allow better umpire vision, may give way with men on base to catcher positioning designed to create better catcher positioning for pick –off throws, or throws to catch stealing runners. However, altered receiving stance might give way to more passed balls, where the catcher gives up perfect umpire-oriented positioning. But blocking balls will remain an important metric, and a change in preferred glove position for these low pitches may indeed occur.

I won’t regale you with my thoughts on receiving methods for the low pitch (especially the low breaking ball), or the inside pitch to the right-handed hitter, which I posted here last year . But I will point out low pitches breaking into the dirt are best trapped or blocked with the palm up and directed forward, thumb to the left….so why not prepare to catch all "low" pitches that way? With no human umpire to influence, perhaps we will see a return to this practice of yesteryear, prior to hinged glove development.

Low pitches? Breaking balls or sinkers that cross the strike zone, then continue downward below the zone, are currently more at risk for being called balls than fast balls maintaining a more parallel position to the bottom of the zone. The robot’s ability to confirm passaging through the zone may give way to a change in pitch repertoire, with a new emphasis on the low breaking ball: more likely to elicit a ground ball, more difficult to hit, and more likely to elicit the strike call even if barely catching the strike zone. What split-finger pitcher, or 12-to-six curve-baller wouldn’t love the challenge of identifying that exact release point that allows the pitch to traverse the front black of the plate while immediately continuing lower, below the zone, and even into the dirt? Catchers will be more willing to call for such pitches with men on base knowing they no longer need to maintain a perfect receiving position.

And hitters? They will adjust…move up in the box to meet that pitch just grazing the front edge of the zone before falling into the dirt. And of course, pitchers will adjust to that adjustment!

Fans won’t have many adjustments to make. Umpires won’t disappear behind the plate. They’ll be needed for calls on caught foul tips, batters hit by pitchers, fair/foul, safe and out calls, bringing new balls into play, etc. It’s still: "1….2….3 strikes, you’re out! At the old ball game!" Some things are basic, not unlike the periodic table of elements, where K is potassium, not strikeout. Pb is lead, not passed ball. To the extent pitch-Fx and robots can be more accurate than Hu (the human element), who can argue with progress?


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