We see it every year game inning pitch: folks get really angry when they perceive that the home plate umpire has missed a ball or strike call. By and large, home plate umpires actually do a near-miraculous job calling balls and strikes when you consider all that goes into it, but we’ve reached a technological place that we no longer have to go entirely by our eyes to notice when a mistake is made.

To that end, many fans call for balls and strikes to be automated by the PitchF/X system that tracks pitches using cameras and radars in every big league ballpark. If the technology is truly there to give a perfect call every time, then there is little to no pragmatic argument for having balls and strikes called by a human.

However …

Given when we know about certain still-existent gaps in ball-tracking technology, I actually do buy the explanation that the technology isn’t there yet to make this foolproof. And if it’s not foolproof, then I personally wouldn’t want it in place, as it would seemingly make the possible errors in calls even more egregious (and then, what, you have to appeal to a human to second-guess the machine?).

But even if it were foolproof, Manfred points out what essentially amounts to a historical/cultural argument: is this something we want “the game of baseball” to include? Or is the human element of balls and strikes – aka fallibility and the debate that ensues – a core part of the game?

Maybe this is an area where I’m too old school, but I can certainly be persuaded by that argument, as irrational as it may seem. Having a human back there calling balls and strikes – with a zone that changes umpire to umpire, and sometimes game to game – makes for a more exciting experience (even if 50% of the time it means there will be frustration associated with a bad call).

I wouldn’t say I’m wholly convinced, though, because I do support instant replay for the same reason that would animate folks’ arguments in favor of automated balls and strikes: just get the call right. In that light, again, if the technology for balls and strikes were at 100%, I would find myself very torn.

As it stands, though, the technology is not quite there. So the human element lives on for now, and I’m fine with that.


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