The suits who run the major leagues, the people who decided this spring that uniforms should be worn, um, uniformly, are at it again. They've come up with the outlandish idea that—get this—pitches thrown over the plate should be strikes and those that are not should be balls. Whoa.
Umpires and pitchers are having a hard time getting their heads around this notion. A revolution has ensued, of which the first shot was fired May 24 when frustrated Diamondbacks pitcher Curt Schilling made like Sean Penn and smashed a $5,000 camera with a bat after a 5-1 loss to the Padres in Phoenix. The camera was one of two at the park used by the Umpire Information System, run by a company called QuesTec. The system, said to be accurate to within half an inch, uses technology developed by the military to measure whether a pitch catches any part of the strike zone. After the game the home plate umpire gets a CD showing how his calls stood up to QuesTec's measurements. Baseball wants at least 90% of the calls to match the machine's.
Schilling, whose complaint was echoed by the Braves on Sunday, said after his camera assault that an umpire urged him to "break the other one" and that "multiple times" umps have told him they're calling some pitches balls simply because of the QuesTec factor. The umpires have filed a grievance with the league, contending that the system isn't a "reasonable means to assess" their performance. Hearings begin next month.
Pitchers and umps presumably want to return to the days when the strike zone changed like blackboard specials at a seafood joint. The strike du jour mostly depended on an umpire's personal zone but also was influenced by how a catcher received the ball and how good a pitcher was at stretching the edges like Silly Putty. Such bastardization reached absurd proportions in Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS, when Florida's Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Braves with the assistance of umpire Eric Gregg, whose abstract rendering of the zone made De Kooning look like a master of realism.
In 2001 baseball signed a five-year contract with QuesTec to use its system as a training aid for umpires. The intent was good. If an umpire has a habit of calling pitches two balls off the outside corner as strikes, QuesTec can identify the pattern, just as video can show a hitter he's pulling his head off a ball. But the implementation has been flawed. Only 10 ballparks have QuesTec, fostering a belief that umpires call games differently if Big Brother is watching. Why, for instance, should Schilling pitch to QuesTec's rule-book strike zone in Phoenix while Seattle's Jamie Moyer gets the Silly Putty zone for his starts at QuesTec-less Safeco Field?
Moreover, the umpires have an understandable concern about the operators who monitor the system at each game. QuesTec says candidates for the job, which pays $100 per game, should "live within 50 miles of an MLB ballpark, have solid baseball knowledge and be computer literate." To some this sounds like Wanted: Roto-geeks and Internet shut-ins.
The good news is that baseball expects QuesTec to be in every park next season, which should address questions of consistency. Meanwhile, the league should hire operators with umpiring backgrounds and make the system less punitive. (Scores below 90% threaten an umpire's opportunity to work postseason games and even his job security.)
Calling the strike zone as written in the rule book is a dandy, if oddly novel, idea—one worth a few bruised egos and a battered camera or two.