1876 is Long Gone

Michael Conforto was angry. You could tell. Strike one had been a foot high, and strike three a foot low. Both taken, correctly. Neither offered at. Both called strikes. He should have been on first with one out. Instead, he was the second out of the inning, an inning the Mets needed to score. After Conforto’s at-bat — after he struck out, you might say, except it’s not exactly accurate to say that he struck out, in any real sense — J.D. Davis singled, and Brandon Nimmo walked. Bases loaded, one out…except there weren’t, because Michael Conforto, against his own wishes and the rules of baseball, was back in the dugout instead of on third.

It’s not easy to call balls and strikes. That’s for sure. A study released last month helps show just how hard it is. “In 2018, MLB umpires, made 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls for an average of 14 per game or 1.6 per inning,” the authors write. “Many umpires well exceeded this number. Some of these flubbed calls were game changing.”

I may be preaching to the choir at this point, or maybe there’s just no hope either way, but I must say that these numbers are absolutely astounding, and would have been met with shock and calls for change if so many of us weren’t supporters of the ridiculous “human element.” More than 34,000 missed calls…14 per game, and more than one and a half per inning, sometimes far more…and somehow, no one seems to notice or care. This is on top, of course, of all the other bad calls, the ones that are only part of life insofar as sometimes bad calls just happen. All the fair balls called foul, the missed tags called made, the wrist movements called swings. Take all that, and to that pile of unfairness and anger, add 14 times every game where a bad pitch was called a strike, or a good one a ball.

And some of these calls were game-changing — because of course they were. They always will be. Every called strike changes a game in imperceptible ways, of course, but come the ninth inning, a game can be decided on any pitch. Today, it was two pitches: two balls that Michael Conforto properly let pass, that Rob Drake called strikes. And that, apparently, is not far from average. Every inning of every game from March to October, we should expect to see more than one call that goes wrong. The pitcher paints the black with a beautiful curve, a perfect pitch, unhittable and devastatingly located — but the umpire calls it a ball. Or the pitcher misses outside, and the batter lays off — but the umpire’s hand goes up, and the batter finds himself in a hole of someone else’s making, all because he did the right thing to a bad pitch.

The simple truth is that MLB needs to automate the strike zone. This has nothing to do with Michael Conforto sitting in the dugout, robbed of a chance to help his team, although his at-bat probably turned a few more fans toward the cause. This has everything to do with the simple fact that Major League Baseball, the most advanced baseball league in the world, the league that should lead all others in making baseball perfect and correcting the flaws in its design, has not updated the way it judges the most fundamental elements of its game —  balls and strikes — in a century and a half.

Back in the 1870s, when pitchers threw underhand and batters chose where they wanted their pitches, someone realized that games needed people standing behind home plate, making sure the pitches passed the batter at the right height. The pitches got faster. They started spinning. They kept getting faster, and they spun more, and they started moving in ways nobody had ever seen. Cameras developed, and the pictures got better and better, and then radar guns, and then pitch tracking systems. Today, any fan on the MLB At Bat app can tell exactly where a pitch crossed the plate seconds after it’s thrown. But instead, we defer to those people standing behind the plate, the umpires who continue to miss 34,000 calls a year, the holdovers from 1876, when there was nothing better available.

Eventually, a World Series game will be decided by a missed ball/strike call, and 30 million people will finally realize that having men stand behind the plate watching pitches too fast for human brains to judge and missing 34,000 calls every year no longer makes much sense. At least, right now, it looks like that’s where we’re headed. Or MLB could stop that disaster before it happens, and automate the strike zone right now. Until they do, though, Michael Conforto will sit in the dugout, angry and powerless. Conforto and hundreds of other hitters, all robbed of a chance to help their team, all because they did the right thing but the umpire didn’t.

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