In the story of the Atlantic League as baseball-reform laboratory, the “robo-ump,’’ seems old news, so 2019.
The independent pro league, including the Lancaster Barnstormers, adopted an automated ball-and-strikes system two years ago (the last time there was a season, due to the pandemic), as part of its ongoing, experimental relationship with Major-League Baseball. Everyone seemed OK with the result, and it seems inevitable that the system will eventually be part of the big-league game.
There will be tweaks, it turns out.
The automated strike zone in 2019 was the same one in baseball’s official rule book, defined as, “the area over home plate from the midpoint between a batter's shoulders and the top of the uniform pants -- when the batter is in his stance and prepared to swing at a pitched ball -- and a point just below the kneecap.”
That has never been the real-world strike zone, at least not in the memory of any living person. The real-world zone has for generations been lower and wider than the rule-book one.
In 2021, the Atlantic League strike zone will be that lower, wider one.
“It's going to be a little bit shorter, and a little bit higher at the bottom, and (it’s) actually going to be extended about the size of half of a baseball on either side of the plate,’’ Joe Martinez, MLB’s senior director of on-field strategy, said Monday at the Barnstormers’ media day.
“These changes are meant to reflect the strike zone that was called in Major League Baseball as recently as, like 2008, 2010.’’
In 2008, there were 4.54 runs scored per National League game, and NL hitters had a slash line (batting/on-base/slugging averages and on-base plus slugging) of .260/.331/.413/.744.
(Also, parenthetically, the Phillies won the World Series.)
In 2020, through roughly 50 games, the NL is at 4.29 runs per game and .234/.313/.388/.701. The league is currently on a pace for about 16 percent more strikeouts than in ‘08, even though the difference in home-run and walk rates is much smaller, possibly less than five percent.
So the pitchers are way ahead of the hitters right now, and it is mostly reflected in swing-and-misses. Most everyone who cares about the game wants to see more balls in play, and thus more action and tempo.
There is less consensus on how to achieve that.
“If the umps would call a true (rule-book) strike, they would absolutely speed up the game,’’ Rob Burger, the great Lampeter-Strasburg High School pitcher and minor-leaguer with the Phillies and Colorado Rockies in the 1990s, said in a podcast interview last week.
“It’s that high strike that the umpires need to call, in my opinion. My simple theory is, you call a true strike zone, you make the batter swing the bat, and guess what? There’s your problem resolved.’’
Martinez said research indicates that if batters swing at that pitch, they’ll usually swing and miss.
“What we’ve found is there are two kinds of pitches that lead to more swing-and-misses,’’ he said. “One is that high-riding fastball, especially in this age of spin rate and ways of measuring pitch characteristics, and that hard breaking ball down in the zone.’’
So the plan, for the Atlantic League in 2021, is for both those kinds of pitches to be called balls by the robo-ump. The baseball world will be watching.
Americans used to believe baseball was an essentially perfect game. Technology intervened, and now that belief looks foolishly quaint.
What happens next?
You can watch that question examined at Clipper Magazine Stadium this summer.