McCosky: Please don't turn MLB into a video game; say no to robot strike zone

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Home plate umpire Mike Winters calls out Tigers designated hitter Brandon Dixon on strikes during the fourth inning of a game against the Oakland A's on Saturday in Detroit.

Detroit — Baseball, the actual game of baseball, is one of the true joys of my life. Being able to cover and chronicle it at the highest competitive level is an honor and a blessing.

But, mark my words: If Major League Baseball adopts a robot strike zone, I’m done.

I’ve been listening to people complain about this game for years now — the pace is too slow, there’s not enough action, it’s too boring to the newer generation of sports fans — and I’ve agreed with some of it. I have applauded commissioner Rob Manfred’s efforts to speed up pace of play and think, overall, his initiatives have helped.

But when you start talking about altering the game’s DNA — messing with the distance from the mound to the plate, legislating defensive strategies out of the game or using an electronic strike zone — you’ve gone too far.

And baseball seems to be speeding down the path toward implementing robot strike zones as early as 2022. The technology — TrackMan radar devices — is already here. And MLB is testing it in the Atlantic League this season.

There would still be a home-plate umpire, but only to relay the electronic call and rule on check swings, fair/foul calls and plays at the plate. Joe West, your thoughts?

This is completely absurd to me, and I don’t think it’s a function of my age. It feels like the first step toward turning Major League Baseball into a video game. I don’t want to watch video games.

Tigers utility man Brandon Dixon was called out on a pitch Saturday by home-plate umpire Mike Winters that was at least six inches out of the strike zone. Some would use that as an argument for a robot strike zone.

No. Bad calls are part of the game. They are part of baseball’s fabric, part of its lore. Players make errors — you want to replace them with robot players?

Make no mistake, the players will be in for a rude awakening with a robot strike zone. Hitters and pitchers alike are going to hate it initially. There will be no interpretation of the zone, no gray area. Hitters are going to be stunned when a breaking ball that finishes well outside or low is called a strike because it darted through the zone.

Pitchers, especially the nibblers, are going to be crestfallen when that pitch just off the black doesn’t get called for a strike anymore.

Never mind the logistical challenge of syncing up electronic strike zones for players as big as Aaron Judge and as small as Jose Altuve.

Ugh. Please no.

Listen, baseball is an extremely difficult game played by and for human beings. Because of that, it’s a game of human fallibility. The struggle to master the game, to overcome or succumb to the inevitable failure, creates the tension, conflict and drama of the sport.

The umpires are a part of that. They are human, they miss pitches and blow calls. So what? It’s a part of the drama, always has been and always should be. A game played by humans should be officiated by humans. Period.

The human element — players’ instincts, managers’ intuition — is already being squeezed by analytics. Defensive positioning has become almost robotic. The data says you throw this pitch in this location in this situation and you align your defense like this.

God forbid a situation occurs where the pitcher, a human being, doesn’t throw the pitch in the prescribed manner or location. That’s what happened to the Tigers in Daniel Norris’ start Friday. Because of his slow set-up and quick, explosive release, his low-90s fastball was getting on hitters quicker than the data planned for.

So, several times the A’s hitters, because they were tardy on their swing, were able to beat the shift.

Humans, you can’t trust them, huh?

I don’t hate analytics. A lot of it is useful and enhances understanding of things that happen in a game and helps add some punch to certain types of stories. I don’t think they should ban shifts, either. Hitters will eventually adjust, I believe they’ve already begun to, and shifts will be less prevalent.

But it’s no fun if everything is too predictive and dehumanized. I loved playing Strat-O-Matic Baseball, but I wouldn’t pay to watch it. Odds and tendencies always have been part of the game, but I favor less data and more spontaneous instinct and athleticism.

I favor a blend of playing the percentages and a manager using his gut.

And, above all, I favor umpires — human beings — calling balls and strikes.

But that’s just me.

On deck: Marlins

Series: Three games, Tuesday-Thursday, Comerica Park, Detroit

First pitch: 7:10 Tuesday and Wednesday, 1:10 Thursday

TV/radio: All three games on FSD/97.1

Probables: Tuesday — LHP Caleb Smith (3-1, 2.25) vs. RHP Spencer Turnbull (2-3, 2.40); Wednesday — RHP Jose Urena (1-6, 4.44) vs. LHP Daniel Norris (2-2, 4.50); Thursday — RHP Trevor Richards (1-5, 4.44) vs. LHP Matthew Boyd (4-4, 3.41).


►Smith, Marlins: He’s been stingy, with a WHIP until 1 (0.92) and a 35 percent strikeout rate. Opponents are hitting just .205 and striking out 34 percent of the time on his 93-mph fastball, and just .148 with a 40 percent whiff rate on his slider. He also uses a change-up to right-handed hitters.

►Turnbull, Tigers: Turnbull is coming off a frustrating start against the A’s. He lasted just four innings, but most of the damage against him was the result of sloppy defensive play behind him. Of the six runs charged to him, only one was earned.

Twitter: @cmccosky