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May 13, 2013

Pebble Hunting

The Strike Zone Solution

by Sam Miller

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Now, whenever I go to the ballpark just to watch a game and the maniac next to me in the upper deck is screaming bloody murder at the home plate ump, I think: This is someone who has never umpired; this is someone who has never come upon the sudden understanding that the strike zone is malleable by the mind, that every pitch is a puzzle, that just about every ball has strikelike qualities and almost every strike is ballish. —Bruce Weber, As They See ’Em: A Fan’s Travels In The Land Of Umpires

Over the years, I’ve read a lot of proofs Rob Neyer has written that I could never find again, that were tucked into longer pieces or chapters, that elude search engines or scans of his online archives, but that I have gone back to so many times in conversation and thought that they stay with me. One of these proofs was about the flimsiness of the Human Element argument, the case against instant replay that praises umpire error as a loveable quirk of the game, like Tal’s Hill or pitchers batting. Fine, Neyer said, it’s a quirk. But who’s to say that we have exactly the right amount of human element? Why not more? Why not hire only umpires with bad vision, and refuse them glasses, if the human element is so good?

It was from a similar place that my own Modest Proposal came, but the more I lived with the idea the less certain I was that this idea’s value was as satire. Now I’m pretty sure that I actually, sincerely like the idea: Get rid of the strike zone. Give umpires total interpretive powers over balls and strikes. Follow me if you will.

In his confirmation hearing before the Senate, Chief Justice John Roberts used umpiring as an analogy for the law: “Judges are like umpires. Umpires don't make the rules; they apply them.” The reasoning behind that analogy was absurd—judges, particularly Supreme Court justices, set precedents all the time. It was also an inaccurate description of umpires. In one crucial area, umpires already make the rules.

You’re surely aware of the fact that the strike zone shifts. It expands in different counts, and not by a negligible degree—nearly 50 percent larger on 3-0 than 0-2. It relocates for left-handed batters; while we would rightly expect vertical coordinates to vary from hitter to hitter, it’s shocking how much horizontal ranges move, considering how explicitly home plate defines a strike. The strike zone is greatly influenced by what happens to the catcher’s glove after the pitch has already left the strike zone entirely. This fact should shock us for its illogicality, but we’re used to it. There is a rulebook strike zone. There is also a de facto strike zone. And these are two different things.

This is only partly by accident. Changes to the strike zone—recounted by Weber—have made its parameters progressively more vague over the years. In 1887, when the zone was first implemented, “A Fair Ball is a ball … so delivered to pass over the home base, not lower than the batsman’s knee, nor higher than his shoulder.” You could debate where the knee starts and stops; you could debate where the shoulder starts and stops. But the lack of complicating clauses made this a pretty simple definition. Changes in 1950, 1963, 1969, 1988, and, finally, 1996 added new details, and each detail (as Weber recounts in his book) actually served to make the strike zone less rigid. Here’s where it is now:

The strike zone is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

There are now no fewer than four points of dispute: the top of the shoulders (pretty clear); the top of the pants (not clear; whose pants? In 1996, when this rule was written, I was wearing my pants disturbingly low on my waist); the hollow of the knee (been feeling around my knee for two minutes; in good faith, I swear to you I have no idea what the hollow is); and the batter’s stance “as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball” (not clear; whose swing; on which ball? on the pitch that is in dispute, at which the batter by definition did not swing at?).

There simply isn’t a clear rulebook definition that we can agree entirely on, and, whatever rulebook definition we mostly agree on, it isn’t one that the umpires agree on. And so that creates an awkward situation for Major League Baseball, which has, in its showcase postseason events, a graphic on-screen that shows umpires making mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake. The graphic has to go. Or the situation has to be fixed.

So, one solution that could fix this is letting a computer call balls and strikes. (Though it’s clear that PITCHf/x isn’t up to the task yet.) I’m not against that. I expect it’ll happen sometime in my lifetime, and I doubt it’ll bother me. Before I appreciated the art of catcher framing, in fact, I would have been ecstatic if the computers took over, and now I’d probably be cautiously happy. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon, and I’m still happy. In a pitch-framing world, I find myself nodding my head a bit at the human elementers, at least when it comes to the strike zone; I do like the strategy-and-craft component that an individualized strike zone introduces, the way that each battle has its own terrain that has to be discovered and adjusted for in the course of combat.

You’ll take this to its logical conclusion and ask whether, then, foul lines should be abolished, and whether umpires should declare hits and outs based on intuition instead of whether the ball lands safely. But those are not areas where ambiguity is already embedded, where umpires have spent 100 years claiming their own territory, and where we have largely celebrated the role that pitchers, hitters, and catchers play in swaying the call.

And yet, I get furious at an umpire who costs “my” pitcher a strike, or misses a pitch down the middle. Sick to my stomach, if it’s a big enough call. Way worse than simply seeing the pitcher throw a bad pitch. Somebody noted the other day (apologies to whomever I’m stealing this from) that when a call goes your team’s way it’s a good frame; when a call goes against you it’s a bad umpire. That’s true, but it’s true because both of those things are actually true. The catcher and umpire have different roles, and a catcher who gets his team an extra strike did earn it, and an umpire who doesn’t call a rulebook strike did break the rules of baseball. Every missed call is a conspiracy between the catcher’s efforts and the umpire’s fallibility.

But if there was no rulebook, we wouldn’t feel entitled to that pitch. We might not like the umpire’s call, but we would no longer feel victimized by it. It’d be like replacing a judge who is crooked, who is taking bribes, who is passed out drunk, with one who is merely unsympathetic to our case.

Here’s how the rulebook should define a strike:

A ball, delivered by the pitcher while standing wholly within the lines of his position and facing the batsman, that, so delivered, is determined by the umpire to be a fair pitch.

And, instead of a PITCHTRAX graphic in the corner of the screen telling us whether it was on this side of a non-binding border or that side of a non-binding border, would tell us how often a pitch in that location is usually called a strike. A real-world strike zone, like Brooks Baseball provides us, rather than the false and pointless legalistic strike zone that we deploy only when it suits our purposes.

And that should cover it. The pitch must be legal, and it must be in an area in which the hitter has a reasonable expectation of being able to hit it.

The John Roberts metaphor works better in reverse. Like judges, umpires use the law as a guide—but, ultimately, they see their job as doing what is right. Precedent matters until it doesn’t, at which point judges go off on their own and set a new precedent. One more blockquote from Weber:

The umpire’s job is not so much to enforce the rulebook as to represent it, to set the fulcrum of the seesaw—to be the fulcrum of the seesaw—and make sure the duel between the pitcher and the hitter is properly balanced. … he’s much more of an arbitrator, keeping the most contested area of the ball field from being taken over by one side or the other. More than one major league umpire spoke to me of calling balls and strikes as a kind of political enterprise, an activity requiring will and conscience and a point of view.

This is how it is. This is already how it is, so I’m not suggesting anything nearly so radical as it sounds. We would accept it, I think, if it weren’t for that graphic in the corner of the screen that tells us every few minutes that the umpire has botched another one. The umpires aren’t the problem. The graphic in the corner of the screen is the problem. The rulebook is the problem.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

Related Content:  PITCHf/x,  Umpires,  Strike Zone

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