THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
By Jack Furlong
Watch any Major League Baseball game on television and there’s a chance you will hear an announcer use a phrase that is equal parts passive-aggressive, patronizing, and poor sportsmanship.
“It didn’t have to be.”
The phrase usually refers to an opinion regarding an umpire’s strike zone. Television graphics have advanced to the point where many broadcasts overlay an opaque box from the centerfield camera that attempts to represent the strike zone, and the broadcasters believe that the graphic is gospel when helping determine whether the calls made by the home plate umpire are correct. If a pitch lands outside of the box, yet is called a strike by the umpire, broadcasters take the opportunity take a snipe at the umpire for, in their opinion, being incorrect.
“The 1-0 pitch is called a strike, but it didn’t have to be.”
The use of this phrase furthers the narrative that authority figures do not have to be respected. It is a snide way to take a cheap shot without repercussions at someone who may not have the same opportunity to respond to the remark. Broadcasters are placing guised opinions into the dissemination of information, very much like the biased news casts that come from both sides of the political spectrum, which subconsciously sink into the psyche of viewers and are imitated by the public.
However, rather than attempt to edify against the use of this phrase with opinions, a better method to explain why this phrase should not be used is to explain why the graphic on the screen used by broadcasters is faulty and should be discontinued. If the box is removed from the broadcast, perhaps the opportunities to use the phrase will disappear.
Let’s begin with the height of the box, which does not change from batter to batter. The strike zone for each hitter is defined in the rules as the midpoint between the shoulders and the waist down to the hollow of the knee (the adage being “from the letters to the knees”). As ballplayers are not robots designed with the same specifications, every hitter will naturally have a different strike zone. For example, the strike zone for Aaron Judge will be much larger than the strike zone for Jose Altuve. Yet, the box on the screen has not once changed in height to adjust for these differences.
Second, the strike zone is meant to be three dimensional. A pitch needs only to catch any part of this three-dimensional zone to be deemed a strike by the umpire. The box on the screen is two-dimensional, more like a windowpane with no depth that needs to be touched by the pitch. Further, much like the lack of adjustments made for height, the position of the box in relation to the depth of the plate is never fully clear. Sure, we can be told the box is placed at the front of the plate (or at least in the correct spot), but such a representation cannot truly be trusted, similarly to how the height of the box cannot be trusted.
Third, the statistical analysis of how human umpires view pitches based on their setup and mechanics behind the catcher has shown an exceptional number of trends that have been accepted via convention due to their consistency. That’s not to say that convention is a reason to blindly accept something; rather, this convention allows us to positively use analytics to help us better understand what is happening. Umpires are taught to set up in “the slot,” defined as the space between the batter and the catcher. Their eyes are then meant to split the inside corner, giving them an exceptional look at the inside pitch, but possibly sacrificing the best look at the outside pitch. On average, even the most consistent umpires tend to have a 2-inch margin of error on the outside corner that is widely accepted by all personnel. However, the box on the screen does not incorporate this. (Interestingly enough, this trend is most common for umpires who are right-eye dominant when right-handed hitters are at bat. When right-eye dominant umpires set up for a left-handed batter, a small margin of error develops on the inside corner as well!)
Fourth, based on the fraction of moments an umpire is given to determine whether a pitch is a ball or a strike, an increased value is placed on the reception of a pitch by the catcher (sometimes colloquially known as “framing”). If a “borderline” pitch is received by a catcher with significant movement on the catcher’s mitt, a subconscious message is sent to the umpire that the pitch was not a strike and the catcher tried to move it back into the strike zone to make it appear to be one. In turn, it’s not uncommon to suggest that professional umpires might etch a picture of the strike zone into their vision to combat this, which does not account for all the minor nuances such as the changing height of the batter. Players like Aaron Judge have suffered because of this: Judge has had the most strikes below the strike zone called on him due to his immense height and the need for an umpire to visualize the strike zone to combat improper pitch framing.
Finally, the system used by Major League Baseball to evaluate umpires on their plate scores is completely different than what is presented on television with these graphics. MLB adjusts the strike zone from batter to batter in a “postgame processing” protocol, then applies a two-inch margin of error around the entire zone before determining how many of the pitches were called correctly by the home plate umpire. The graphics used on television in real time take none of this into account, creating a public persona to hate umpires while cultivating a private system that lauds them and proves they are still more accurate than any computer calling balls and strikes.
Thus, it appears that broadcasters who claim pitches “didn’t have to be” strikes may react in the moment without the educational knowledge of how the process truly operates. These broadcasters choose to be “malignant homers” to appeal to their fanbase instead of objectively remaining true to journalistic integrity. Rather than seek the approval of viewers, perhaps a better strategy might be to emulate the legendary broadcasters whose words painted pictures and truly enhanced a broadcast through genuine excitement, comfort, and familiarity.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.