I feel bad for the good umps.
Automated strike zones called by robots are not coming to the major leagues next season, but the trend is marching along through the lower levels, and the big change could happen as early as 2024.
Unfortunately for the good MLB umpires — yes, they do exist — there continue to be too many reminders of why the approaching change is probably for the best.
Some of the examples have played out with the Cardinals this season.
There was the horrific strike zone of plate umpire Ed Hickox in a recent series finale against the Yankees. That one benefited the Cardinals more than the Yankees but left both teams befuddled. It altered the game.
There was the ejection of manager Oli Marmol in Arizona last weekend that featured home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor questioning the rookie manager’s time in the league. Pathetic. Good on Marmol for swinging back in his postgame comments about the clash.
And in Wednesday’s 7-1 loss to the Cubs in Chicago, there was Nolan Arenado getting tossed after a swing he successfully checked was called as a strike.
Arenado did not swing. Plate umpire John Libka was wrong and failed to consult his co-workers. Arenado’s temper boiled over, and he got himself ejected by storming toward Libka and shouting. It was a bad spot for Arenado to get sent to the showers. The game was in the third inning. His team was down three runs. Paul Goldschmidt was down for the day.
Arenado should have buried his frustration and prioritized the at-bats he had left to give, and he acknowledged as much after the game. Libka was not wrong to eject Arenado based on the third baseman’s reaction. But that doesn’t change the fact Arenado did not swing at Cubs pitcher Luke Farrell‘s 3-2 pitch. And it doesn’t excuse the fact that after Arenado was quickly tossed, Libka goaded him with a smirk.
Oh, and don’t forget even mild-mannered Adam Wainwright felt a strike zone was so out of whack this season he let plate umpire Ryan Additon know on his way off the field. Here’s how you know to question a strike zone: when Wainwright complains.
Of course, all of these examples trail what Diamondbacks starter Madison Bumgarner experienced back in May. After clashing with home plate umpire Ryan Wills regarding the strike zone, Bumgarner had to endure a long and incredibly awkward interaction during the now-standard check for sticky substances on the pitching hand. But this check was not standard. Umpire Dan Bellino baited Bumgarner with an intense stare. Never looked at his hand. It was a stunt. Something meant for pro wrestling, not baseball. Then Bellino ejected Bumgarner as soon as the pitcher reacted.
“When I began my MLB career almost 15 years ago, I received some good advice,” Bellino said in a statement issued through the Major League Baseball after the incident. “I was told to umpire every game as if my children were sitting in the front row. I fell short of those expectations this week. While I can’t go back and change what happened, I take full accountability. I will learn from this incident, and I sincerely apologize.”
Do better, blue.
Umpiring is a hard and often thankless job, but we are not talking about the saints who volunteer or collect peanuts to oversee youth games on our local ballfields. These are professionals. Too many of them appear incapable of acting like it.
As the clamoring for automated strike zones has intersected with the technology capable of providing them, it should have been clear to the umpires that it was time to battle the machines. Get the strike zone right. Get consistency across the board. Get those who can’t get things right to lesser roles. Get those who cannot figure out this game is not about them out entirely. Simply issuing quiet fines and secret grades, and saving the prime postseason assignments for the ones who screw up the least, isn’t good enough when there is a competitor gaining ground. More accountability was needed sooner. Now it could be too late.
I know automated strike zones won’t be perfect. There will be growing pains. I fear the demise of pitch framing as baseball art. We will have to worry about the Houston Astros rigging the robots to call balls strikes and strikes balls for opponents. What we won’t see, though, is a robot questioning a manager’s time in the league or a computer smirking at a potential National League MVP.
Umpires will still be needed, but it’s time to take the zone out of their hands. I’ve resisted in the past, but I’m no longer checking the swing. Bring on the bots.
@Ben_Fred on Twitter