After Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo triggered Yadier Molina by directing a rather distasteful obscenity at him during yesterday’s game, the rush to judgment was predictably swift and brutal. Lovullo earned an ejection the moment he started arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire, and he earned the wrath of Yadi as well as Cardinal Nation when he called Yadi a “motherf—–” while airing a complaint about pitch framing.
Lost in the hubbub is the issue of pitch framing which I strongly feel shouldn’t even be a thing. A “ball” should be called a “ball”, and a “strike” should be called a “strike”, and it shouldn’t matter how the ball is received and handled by the catcher. The name of the catcher shouldn’t have an impact either. But these things do matter, and that’s a problem with the human element in baseball that can and should be resolved.
Molina has a reputation as one of the best in the game at framing pitches, and he’s got the numbers to back up the reputation. Players know this, fans know this, and umpires are far too cognizant of it. Obviously, Torey Lovullo REALLY knows this. Granted, this works great for the Cardinals, and as a fan I shouldn’t complain about the way he influences ball/strike outcomes in favor of my favorite sportsball team.
On the other hand, if pitch framing means that Cardinal pitchers are at times pitching to even a slightly expanded zone or getting the benefit of the doubt on so-called “borderline” calls, then that’s a problem. It’s simply not fair. One person’s quantifiable skill is another person’s favoritism. The strike zone should be cold, heartless, and absolute. In a game full of judgment calls that may or may not be overturned or upheld based on irrefutable proof as seen on replay, the strike zone should be science and not an art.
It’s far from a science. Umpires are well-versed in the art of educated guessing, because it’s impossible for them to know with great certainty the exact travel path of each pitch in three dimensions. It’s not that they don’t want to know, it’s that the universe and human physiology impose certain limitations or unalterable constraints. It’s basically impossible for one person from a single vantage point to determine whether every single pitch crosses the plane representing the plate while also determining the height of the ball relative to the hitter’s strike zone. We’re talking basic optics here, and those optics haven’t changed in baseball’s lifetime.
So, given that we have plenty of technology to assist umpires with this particular set of judgment calls, why aren’t we using it?
Please understand that this isn’t a call for robotic umpires, or at the very least isn’t an immediate call for them. I prefer to think of it as “assisted umpiring”, and it could be phased in slowly over time. Start with a passive mode in games that don’t count. Umpires are still 100% responsible for making calls, but a little notification system lets them know when they’ve made an incorrect call. There are no repercussions, but the data could be useful in letting umpires know where they struggle.
Problems with the low/inside breaking pitches when a left-handed hitter is facing a left-handed pitcher and you are looking over the catcher’s right shoulder? Now you know. Having trouble catching the crossing point on that late breaking cutter? Here’s some help. Can’t tell your butt from a hole in the ground? Go into politics.
The passive approach could improve the current umpiring system without bringing the technology into regular season games. Umpires are mostly human, and I believe it’s human nature to want to improve at your job, especially when millions of people can see you are insufferably bad at it. Tim McCarver may be the most notable exception, but he’s like super old and gets a pass for everything he’s said for the last two decades.
Even opting for a less passive approach wouldn’t have to be done in the regular season. Just give umpires an indicator tone accompanied by a light in their masks. The system notifies the umpire of the call, and the umpire just passes it along. To make this even more fun, do this as a sort of double-blind. In other words, don’t tell the teams in the Spring training games whether or not the system is being used and randomly pick games for beta testing. MLB could then go back and do some data mining to see what a difference accuracy makes.
If the difference between the passive assisted approach and what umpires are actually doing is significant, then why should pitch framing still be a thing? Just imagine how much angst would be reduced if we (players, managers, coaches, and most importantly the fans) didn’t have to quibble about the strike zone.