Detroit — For the sake of discussion, let’s put aside the logistical problems using an electronic strike zone would present for Major League Baseball. For now, let’s not bother with issues like how an electronic strike zone can be calibrated to fit the varying sizes — knees to the letters — of every big-league hitter.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is not a proponent of robot umpires or electronic strike zones, but during his visit to Comerica Park last month, he said the technology would soon be available to make it happen.
“As a technological matter, I believe we will get to the point where balls and strikes will be called in real time by a machine,” he said. “But there is a separate question as to whether you want to take the human element of a home plate umpire out of the game.
“When the technology gets there, I’m sure the owners will have a conversation about whether they want to make that additional move to take the human element out of the game.”
Manfred also is quick to point out that umpires get the calls right more than 90 percent of the time and the human aspect has “always been an important part of our game. I don’t think you can jump to the conclusion that just because you have the technology to do it, that it’s in the right thing for your product.”
The discussion in the Tigers clubhouse Saturday, though, was about who would benefit most from an electronic strike zone — pitchers or hitters?
“First of all, I hope we never do that,” Tigers reliever Alex Wilson said. “The human element is part of baseball. But if you do go to an electronic strike zone, hitters are going to hate the world. There won’t be one hitter in this league that agrees with what is going on.”
Wilson said with an electronic zone, pitchers could literally bounce a curveball in the dirt and get a called strike.
“If I throw it right, it can clip the bottom of the zone and bounce and you can’t hit it,” he said.
The same goes for sweeping sliders that clip the outside corner and finish several inches off the plate. Hitters are taught to lay off that pitch. With an electronic zone, it would be a called strike.
“That slider you throw that every hitter takes for a ball is going to be a strike if it nips that corner,” reliever Blaine Hardy said. “As a hitter, you have to be looking for that pitch and basically cheat to get to it.”
Starter Jordan Zimmermann isn’t so sure it would fully benefit pitchers.
“It could go both ways,” he said. “You get umpires now who will give you an inch or two inches off the plate at times. Those 3-0 pitches you are throwing that just miss the corner — if it’s an electronic strike zone, you aren’t getting those and umps tend to be pretty lenient on 3-0 pitches.
“You aren’t going to get strikes called on pitches that are just outside the zone. You are going to have to throw true strikes. Side to side, that’s going to pretty easy. It’s figuring out what’s the knees and what’s the letters that’s going to be tougher.”
Manager Brad Ausmus, also not a proponent of an electronic strike zone, said it would be a mixed bag for hitters.
“If it comes to that, hitters will be upset with some of the calls,” he said. “I think hitters will be very happy with inside-outside calls. Up and down is where hitters won’t be happy. Most of the time hitters don’t get upset by pitches that nip the corner; they are upset by ones that are called strikes off the corner — those won’t be called.
“But the balls up and down is where the hitter won’t be happy and have to adjust.”
James McCann shares both the hitter’s and pitcher’s perspective on this.
“I am sure there will be some adjustments pitchers have to make, as well,” he said. “Do I think there are certain pitches that are going to get called strikes that right now most of the time get called balls? Probably.
“But I think the adjustment, as a hitter, is just knowing it’s going to be consistent. You know what is a strike and what isn’t.”
On the whole, McCann is against removing the human element from the game. Though, he said the one true benefit to a robot strike zone is that it eliminates human emotion. The stature of the hitter or pitcher, the relative strengths and weakness of the teams, the enormity or irrelevance of the situation, old grudges and bias, things that can impact a human being’s judgment, will have no impact on a robot’s balls and strikes calls.
“I don’t know that an electronic strike zone is the answer they are looking for, though,” McCann said. “There are pluses and minuses to it. But I think there are other ways of going about getting what people want — people want a consistent strike zone.”
McCann said he would keep his ideas to himself, but it would start with a more clearly defined interpretation of what a strike is.
Reliever Warwick Saupold offered this as an alternative to an electronic strike zone: More umpire accountability.
“If an umpire is bad for a month, send him down like players are,” he said. “We get sent down if we’re aren’t performing well. I mean, they don’t have to answer to the media if they have a bad game. I don’t think that’s fair.
“If you have a rough stretch and somebody is grading you — whatever that grading system is — and you aren’t grading out well, then you get sent down. Bring somebody up from Triple-A. For these guys, having a bad game means nothing. I’m not saying they don’t care, but …”
Zimmermann said if an electronic strike zone were implemented, mostly he would miss all the arguments at home plate.
“How are you going to have the manager come out and chew somebody’s butt?” he said.
Ausmus offered a solution.
“They should put a computer behind the plate and you could hit it with a bat or something,” he joked. “Put a big server back there and you can hit it if you don’t like a call.”