I’ve been hearing about robot umpires for a couple years now. Many baseball fans want balls and strikes called automatically based on the highly advanced cameras we now have. The whole idea is that umpires are human, they call strikes on pitches out of the zone, they call balls on pitches in the zone. I totally get this, who wants their team to get screwed on a bad call by an umpire. With that being said, I have been vehemently against this proposal from the second I heard it.
I know what you’re thinking, “Ack, you’re a catcher, you’re biased. How can you have a neutral opinion?” And to that, I say, “You’re goddamn right!” I love catcher defense. I love watching catchers, I love playing defense, I love coaching catchers. In all the time I’ve spent on catching, I’ve learned that the most important thing about the position is not throwing out baserunners or tag plays at the plate, it is receiving and framing pitches.
There are 100 or so pitches per game that hit a catchers glove. A huge portion of those are borderline pitches that a catcher needs to work to make strikes or keep as strikes. You have to pick your spots and not try to frame every pitch. You have to be subtle in your movements. You need to have soft hands, but also stiff wrists. You need to use your lower body to catch pitches in front of your body the best you can. A good framing catcher can be the difference between a win and a loss.
This is performance art for me and the idea of removing this aspect of catching defense is an insult to me and any catcher who’s ever prided himself on his defense. I’ve always had a hard time putting into words exactly why it hurts me so much to imagine a world where ball and strike calls are automated. Today I found those words. Imagine the game of baseball if flyballs to certain areas on the field were automatic outs or automatic hits. Would that not cause an uproar from a good defensive outfielder who now won’t have the opportunity to run down a gapper and make a diving catch? How about if we just made certain infield ground balls automatic hits? You now have no chance to make a backhand play deep in the 56 hole and show off your arm to get the guy at first. This is the equivalent to automated strike zones for a catcher. You are ripping out the heart and soul of catching defense.
TV broadcasts started putting the “K zone” on the screen throughout games and now every fan thinks they are experts in what is and isn’t a strike. The strike zone is not a definitive box. It is whatever that umpire sees, and whatever a catcher can make that umpire see. I have never thought about the zone as an “x inch by x inch” box because that would be demeaning to a good defensive catcher. It would mean that the most important part of their job is meaningless.
I understand that there are a lot of people who disagree with me on this. I don’t care. Robot umpires would change the game dramatically, more than most people realize. It would become something different, something I wouldn’t recognize or love as much as I always have.
P.S. It’s baseball I’ll love it no matter what, but come on, just keep automated strike zones out of it.