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A New Zone

I've been debating for a while about whether or not to write about this topic because I knew it would strike a nerve with a certain segment of old school baseball fans. Probably a sensitive nerve.

But a recent Wall Street Journal article made me suck it up and go forward with it.

Let me preface this by saying, I think baseball umpires are some of the worst officials in all of sports. Much worse than football, basketball or hockey. So I'm not exactly a fan of the men in blue in the first place.

Here's the thing. I think responsibility for calling the strike zone should be removed from umps. Sam Walker, the writer of the Journal piece, does an excellent job explaining how umpires differ from other sports:

In all of sports, there's nothing quite like the baseball umpire, that odd species of stocky guys in masks and chest protectors who crouch behind the catcher calling balls and strikes. As Wednesday's game showed, they can have an enormous impact on the outcome. But what makes them different from officials in other sports is that their impact is more than just occasional. By calling balls and strikes, baseball umps play a crucial role in not only every game, but just about every pitch. And during these playoffs, one group of umpires may have played a more central role in the outcome than you might think.

He goes on to discuss the impact that the wide strike zones had a huge impact on the White Sox-Red Sox series.

More from the article:

Interchangeable as they seem, home-plate umpires can be surprisingly individualistic, even a bit eccentric, in the way they call balls and strikes. According to baseball's rulebook, the standard strike zone is a rectangle the width of the plate that runs from a batter's chest to the hollow below his kneecap. But no two umpires see it the same way. Some interpret it to be a commodious place while others seem to shrink it to the size of a Triscuit.

And this has been one of my major frustrations over the years of watching baseball. I know many will argue that it's just a part of the game, or the "human element" that many people used to try and argue against instant replay in football. But it's my single biggest frustration with the sport of baseball. You have a different ump on a day when perhaps his wife has left him or someone stole his car and suddenly, your strike zone is nonexistent. They can be as moody and as erratic as any group of people involved in professional sports, with the possible exception of Terrell Owens.

Granted, you have good ones like Tim McClellan, but the majority are inconsistent at best. So, what's the solution you ask?

I believe that technology has advanced to the point where a computerized system can call balls and strikes. AND instant replay should be instituted. I know it sounds radical and the umpires union would fight it to the bitter death, but what I'm talking about here is a level playing field. Every pitcher from Roger Clemens to Bruce Chen would have the same strike zone as it's defined in the rule book.

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the knee cap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball. (For diagram of STRIKE ZONE see page 23.)

ESPN has the K Zone. I'm sure that a system like that could be implemented so that it automatically calls the game. You'd still need a home plate umpire to call close plays at the plate or situations like what happened with the White Sox and Angels the other day, but you'd also have instant replay to determine whether or not they make the right calls.

Now I know what some old schoolers will say. "The strike zone is a part of the game's adjustments." If you're a pitcher and a certain ump won't give you the low strike, you need to adjust and elevate the ball more. The problem is, with some pitchers like a Tim Hudson or a Derek Lowe, if they elevate their pitches at all, then suddenly they become vulnerable. Their game is to be low in the zone. Other pitches like Seattle's Jamie Moyer, often live on the edge of the zone. If the zone changes from game to game, then the pitchers who live on control are suddenly more vulnerable.

Players like Curt Schilling have already shown their extreme displeasure over the computerized QuesTec system which helps regulate the quality of the umpires job of calling balls and strikes. I figure Schilling would probably not be in favor of such a system. But I would think that most pitchers would like it because they'd know if something was called a ball, it was a ball. You can't say that now. And wouldn't that be nice for a change?

Go ahead, let me have it. Tell me I'd be fundamentally altering the fabric of the game. Tell me it isn't feasible. Tell me baseball is a game of adjustments and if you can't adjust, you don't belong there. Tell me it's a game played by humans that should be judged by humans. I still want the calls consistent from game to game. If we can get there with the current crew of umps, I'm fine with it being judged by humans. I just don't think it will ever happen. Tell me I'm wrong.