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Ian Kinsler and the inevitable automated strike zone

Accept your robot overlords, baseball.

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Detroit Tigers v Texas Rangers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This scrap between Ian Kinsler and major league umpires is getting a bit ridiculous. And it’s all so unnecessary. The whole drama centers around the calling of balls and strikes. Everyone who watches baseball on a regular basis realizes the umpires aren’t perfect, and occasionally quite erratic. In fact, it’s clearly, purposefully articulated to us on a nightly basis by graphics and broadcasters. Baseball can’t go on like this. It’s time to give in to the inevitable and prepare to implement an automated strike zone.

The Detroit Tigers’ second baseman was understandably furious over a series of awful called strikes, across multiple plate appearances, in a game against the Texas Rangers on August 14th. In his post-game comments, he lit into home plate umpire Angel Hernandez with a vengeance. On Saturday, Kinsler was hit with a fine that Brad Ausmus called the biggest he’d ever seen. Kinsler is far from alone in his poor opinion of the umpiring work going on around the league. But things appear to be coming to a head over his comments.

Kinsler’s fine wasn’t enough for one group of umpires. They came out to work on Saturday wearing white armbands to protest the lack of a suspension in Kinsler’s case. A move that doesn’t exactly speak to the objectivity required of a major league umpire. Joe West, major league baseball’s longest tenured umpire, was one of those who took part in the low key protest. Reaction was a mixture of surprise and gentle ridicule. But they were rewarded with some immediate results. Commissioner Rob Manfred agreed on Sunday to meet with the umpires’ representatives to discuss Kinsler’s punishment, and what they see as increasing abuse from players.

West himself had only recently returned from a three game suspension issued on August 9th. West was rung up by the league for publicly referring to Texas Rangers’ third baseman, Adrian Beltre as the biggest complainer in the game. There’s some heat out there between players and umpires, and it should come as no surprise. The players and fans aren’t happy, and the umpires are fed up with the complaints, while simultaneously resisting a solution whose time has come.

The automated strike zone is inevitable for the same reason that brought us video review; the fans can see clear as day when an umpire “kicks the (expletive) out of it,” as former umpire Jim Joyce put it after blowing Armando Galarraga’s perfect game. There’s even a strike zone box with pitch location displayed for everyone watching at home. It’s a very difficult sell to your customers, particularly younger fans raised on technology, that you’re simply going to live with incorrect calls, despite readily available solutions.

The players see it too as they go over previous plate appearances on the tablets that are now ubiquitous in any major league dugout. The relationship between players and umpires has always been contentious, but we’re at a point where a player has incontrovertible evidence at his fingertips in any dispute. And yet, a move to an automated strike zone still feel years away. Urgency is seriously lacking here.

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s response to questions about it was simply to mumble something about the human element. The umpires don’t want it. And while the players seem increasing on board, no particular pressure is being exerted by the players’ union, at least not overtly. There’s no sense that it’s a priority anywhere in baseball. Statcast is measuring the spin rate of each pitch, yet whether or not it passed through the strike zone remains a matter of opinion. This feels like an impossible position for baseball to stick with long-term, and so it would be better if the league just got on with implementation as soon as possible.

There are plenty of ways in which an automated strike zone could be implemented without any damage to the game’s aesthetics. There’s no robot umpire. There’s still an umpire behind the plate calling the balls and strikes, and running the game. He’s just getting some help in the form of a signal from a watch or an earpiece. You don’t necessarily have to rig home plate to glow green for a ball or red for a strike, although hey, have at it I guess. The point is, the system could be handled in a way that goes completely unnoticed.

However, there’s one key issue that perhaps makes any short-term implementation unlikely. In recent years, pitch framing has become a commodity. Teams pay for that skill, and that makes them highly unlikely to agree to de-value it. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, aren’t going to be happy to see Yasmani Grandal’s ability to frame pitches as strike, eliminated as a factor in baseball games. Teams are going to have to get beyond that to eventually get on board with a strike zone as perfectly defined and consistent as possible.

But we know how this ends. A pennant chase or a World Series game marred by a series of bad calls in key moments. A screw-up that costs a pitcher a perfect game and is highlighted for all to see on television and the internet. At some point, there’s going to be an incident that finally spurs the league to action. Why wait for an ugly moment for the game before simply accepting that this is a change whose time has come? Figuring out how to handle an automated strike zone is something that will take time and some experimentation to get right. All the more reason to begin developing a reliable system immediately.

An electronic strike zone became inevitable as soon as broadcasts introduced pitch tracking and video review was instituted. Umpires are presumably no better and no worse than they ever were, but now they’re in a position where the introduction of technology and data gathering in the game conspires to make them look bad on a nightly basis. Players are upset. Umpires feel disrespected and are speaking out about it in unprecedented fashion. How long can the league argue to their paying customers that it’s okay with getting calls wrong?

For a different perspective on the umpire situation, head over to FanGraphs to read our own Ashley MacLennan’s latest residency piece.