Editor's note: In the days leading up to Rob Manfred's one-year anniversary as commissioner on Jan. 25, we asked our writers what one change or innovation they would make to improve baseball if the sport were starting over today.
Implement automated strike zones.
How it would work:
Computer systems, rather than umpires, identifying the location of balls and strikes is hardly a new concept and actually one of the easier changes to implement. QuesTec, the original company involved in automatic pitch data collection, was working on this issue 20 years ago, with the first QuesTec stadiums going live in 2001. Sportsvision's technology, popularly known as PITCHf/x, HITf/x and FIELDf/x, is already widely used, and MLB's Statcast already present advanced versions of this data to the public. While you still need the home plate ump for a number of judgment calls, the information detailing whether a ball is in the strike zone can be relayed to the ump within the blink of an eye.
Why it would help baseball:
One of the most important aspects of any sport is that everybody plays by the same rules. And one thing that's clear is that in baseball, not everybody has the same strike zone. While a checked swing is a judgment call, where a pitch is actually located is not. We know for a fact that different umpires have different strike zones and that home plate umpires are more or less likely to call a pitch a strike depending on the specific situation. We even have, in recent years, new tools that track how good catchers are at framing pitches. That we have data for how well a catcher can get strikes properly called (or successfully get strikes that are unproperly called) just boggles the mind. Can you imagine if the NFL had stats on how often a running back tricked the refs into thinking he was down by contact before fumbling the football? Or if the American Bar Association had stats on which lawyers were good at fooling judges with bad case law?
The difference between a ball and a strike is massive, which means getting it right is important. In 2015, batters put up an .815 OPS after a 1-0 count and a .609 OPS after an 0-1 count. For 2-1 versus 1-2, that's an .873 OPS versus a .423 OPS. That .423 OPS on 1-2 isn't all that impressive, but it beats the .000 OPS for batters who are walking back to the dugout after an erroneous strike three. If human error can turn Josh Donaldson into a Triple-A hitter or a Triple-A hitter into Josh Donaldson, it strikes me that we should probably try to eliminate that human error. (Sorry about the pun.)
Integrity in a sport isn't just making sure the players are all following rules but making sure that the rules are being enforced in a consistent and fair manner. A game in which veteran pitchers don't magically get more strike calls on the corners is a fairer, better game.
How realistic is it:
MLB has had the ability to implement this for years now. One of the common arguments against automatic balls and strikes is that we still can't count on the technology, which is a rather strange argument. We have planes that make thousands of imperceptible course directions accurately and without human contact. We have machines that fabricate transistors for CPUs so small that they are only a few atoms wide. We have mapped out the human genome, the very building blocks of our existence. Yet somehow, in baseball, identifying where a white sphere crosses a white pentagon a couple of feet away is some monumental technological challenge? Poppycock.
At this point, we're not even talking particularly groundbreaking technology. That smartphone in your pocket has way more impressive technology than what is required here. MLB Advanced Media already gets more data on pitches and hits in one game than any of us have seen in a lifetime.
If Major League Baseball started over today, there's little doubt that we would start with automatic balls and strikes. That we didn't is simply a function of MLB taking its first real steps into what it is today in 1876, when heavier-than-air aircraft was still more than 25 years away.
The umpires may be unhappy, but change doesn't come easily, even if they're positive changes. There are still a lot of crucial tasks for an umpire to evaluate, even if pitch location is removed from the job demands.
We trust robots with a lot of very important things in our lives. While 1980s movies have taught me that we probably shouldn't give our nuclear launch codes to robots, technology can easily handle this part of baseball well. If Angel Hernandez's strike zone isn't poor enough to trigger the apocalyptic extinction of mankind, neither will a computer strike zone. This is one call baseball needs to get right.