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Tech me out to the ballgame: Replay, 'K-Zones' causing major league headaches

Technology is having a profound effect on baseball, from sliding into bases to the calling of balls and strikes. Does the good outweigh the bad? Depends on whom you ask. Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire

On social media, that oasis of calm and rationality, plate umpire Tony Randazzo was getting mauled for his strike zone during Game 5 of the Cubs' stirring 3-2 win that saved their season and bought them yet another elimination game, Tuesday night in Cleveland. Randazzo was no better or worse than most umpires, but the circumstances for officiating in all sports these days doesn't exactly qualify as normal.

Baseball was reluctantly pulled into the replay era four years ago through a half-dozen embarrassing postseason officiating errors that, back in the day, might have been whisked away in a cloud of argument and nostalgia but were unforgiven in the age of Twitter, Facebook, DVR and super-zoom slow motion with 50 million people at home watching the biggest games of the season on 55-inch HD televisions. Now the unrelenting march of technology -- the new iPhone 7 doesn't even have a headphone jack -- is forcing baseball to confront it once again, both philosophically at second base and radically behind the plate.

The philosophy of replay was ostensibly simple: Get the call right. Yet during a season in which time of game is a priority, baseball is dealing with an unintended consequence of replay: the spirit of replay on second-base tag plays. Former managers Joe Torre and Jim Leyland, both of whom work in the commissioner's office, are vexed that replay has resulted in nitpicking.

"I think this is an example of where the technology is too good," Leyland said, "Where, in this case, we're kind of victims of the technology. It works too well. It wasn't put in place to look at 10 different angles of whether a guy came off the bag by a millimeter. It bothers me."

Players, however, are more absolutist.

"No, the technology doesn't affect me at all," said Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler. "It doesn't make me less inclined to run, and I don't think it makes managers want to run less. Maybe you have to get a better lead, be more careful, but that's it."

Fowler's faith in the stability of the stolen base comes at a time of its revival, for it wasn't so long ago that the Moneyball era discouraged speed in the game, turned it into a stock market equation of risk tolerance and reward. The Sandy Alderson-Billy Beane-J.P. Ricciardi in a time of home runs and on-base percentage thought the risk too high.

"I love the replay, actually. I love the fact that they get the calls right. I know there have been tough times," said Cleveland outfielder Coco Crisp. "Case in point: I hit a triple when I was playing for Oakland; I slid, and you can clearly see my pinkie touch the base before he tagged me, and I was called out. Still, I love it. I would just like it not to be where, if the call is close, we'll keep it the same way. I want it to be full-on accurate, right or wrong. If you slide into second base and your foot or leg comes off the base a little bit and the tag is still on you? Well, you're out."

Much of the old guard never wanted the technology in the first place. On the field before Game 1 of the 2011 World Series, Torre and I talked about it and he stood firm: Baseball requires the human element. Bud Selig, the commissioner at the time, backed Torre and told me that missed calls were "part of the game, part of the beauty and humanity of baseball."

In the digital age to a generation raised on better technology, missed calls are viewed a bit more ruthlessly, as part of (a) a fix, (b) negligence or (c) both. They were the equivalent of the rain delay (another part of the game baseball refuses to confront): If the technology can get a call right, so went the thought, why not use it?

"Be careful what you wish for," said former big league pitcher C.J. Nitkowski. "Everyone wanted replay, and overall it has been a positive for the game. Technology is great, and HD cameras are awesome. The downside of all this technology is that if a baserunner comes a half an inch off the bag on a play, replay may catch him. That part of this has been awful. When you beat the ball/tag to the base, you should be safe. If you slide past the bag, you should be out; if you pop off the bag but are still over it, you probably should still be safe. I don't see any way in which baseball can rectify this. I believe it is here to stay. Infielders now have to hold tags, and baserunners have to be extra cautious when sliding. I don't see overhead cameras on every base showing us when a foot or hand is still over a base. That's the only thing that would fix this."

In an era on the cusp of self-driving cars, drones delivering packages and weapons strikes from 15,000 miles away, technology is vexing baseball again, in one sacred area: a rising chorus of having an automated, sensor-controlled strike zone.

"What?" said Cubs pitcher John Lackey. "That's gonna be way past my time. I won't be around when that happens. No way."

One of the biggest evangelists of the automated zone works for Major League Baseball, MLB Network host Brian Kenny, who told me he believes the time is now. Former big league outfielder Eric Byrnes also took up the cause, appearing on HBO's "Real Sports" last month with a similar argument: If the technology is good enough for tennis, defense systems and intricate medical surgeries, clearly the time has come for computers to call balls and strikes.

Part of baseball's problem is its unfailing ability to fight with itself. In trying to add value to television broadcasts, baseball nearly 20 years ago incorporated that little strike zone graphic over home plate that has now become ubiquitous. Fans often viewed the "K-Zone" graphic as an accurate depiction of the strike zone, which enraged umpires and the umpires' union because the graphic gave the impression that umpires were missing calls.

The league assured the umpires that the cute little graphic was just that, something for the fans so they could stay involved with the game. They did this while privately evaluating the umpires based in part on how closely called pitches during the game aligned with television graphics that were never designed to accurately capture the dimensions of the strike zone.

So baseball has a problem. One solution for the second-base issue is to go backward and replace the hard bases with sacks as they used in Torre's day, which would allow base stealers to hold on to the base and reduce the chance of sliding off of a solid surface.

As for the strike zone, the game could eliminate the television graphics that make its umpires look bad, or actually begin to refine a technology that accurately depicts the changing shape of the strike zone. If fans at home continue to feel umpires are inconsistent with television graphics, the chorus for automation will only increase -- as will resentment from umpires.

"I'm not in favor of it for a few reasons. First, I'm not that confident that the technology is good enough. The 'K-Zones' we see on TV are not 100 percent accurate, we've seen that this postseason," Nitkowski said. "They also don't adjust for the hitter; not every hitter has the same strike zone based on height and batting stance. In tennis, the lines don't move, so you can have confidence in the technology. I don't have that same kind of confidence in an automated strike zone. Fans and hitters also will not like what pitches would now be called strikes. People forget that the strike zone is three-dimensional and starts at the very beginning of the plate, regardless of how deep a hitter stands in the box. Curveballs with good depth (Kershaw, Hill, Wainwright) that catch the very bottom of the zone will finish in the dirt or close to it. Those will be strikes, and it will be a bad look."