An instant classic, and baseball’s lingering problem

There’s no reason not to add a boundary call like the edge of the strike zone to the replay rule.

by Paul West

If you’re a Major League Baseball fan, perhaps you’re as sleepy as I am today; that, or perhaps you woke up to a tinge of regret that you missed what will surely go down as one of the most memorable World Series games ever.

Last night–this morning, really–the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers played a five-hour, home run-happy, nail-biting, seesaw affair which ran until after 2am EST and finished with a slow-pitch score of 13-12. There were multiple multiple-run (yes, I meant to write ‘multiple’ twice) comebacks, moments of agony and redemption, and a home crowd which barely sat down for the final three hours or so.

Unfortunately, both during and after the game, there was the recurrent topic of umpire Bill Miller and his amorphous strike zone.

It was a throwback to the days of the mid-1990s, when established pitchers like Greg Maddux could throw the ball several inches off the outside corner, and as long as the pitch was ‘framed,’ have it called a strike. Worse still, the strike zone appeared to at times extend off the plate in either direction, prompting the game’s announcers to lament to the effect of, ‘at least pick a corner, but it can’t be both.’ It was so bad that Miller actually trended on Twitter for most of the game, and player after player expressed barely restrained frustration at a strike zone they just couldn’t wrap their heads around. It cast a dim, but noteworthy, shadow over a game which was otherwise an exciting, fun-filled taste of March Madness in October.

Make no mistake, though: this is not about Bill Miller, who is by no means the only MLB umpire whose erratic zone affected a game of consequence. Note the quotes below, from a 1999 New York Times article:

Glavine added: ”I’m not going to lie. We get a little off the plate. But people want you to believe we’re getting six or eight inches off the plate. We don’t get that.

”There aren’t many umpires out there who will give you two inches, four inches, six inches if you keep going. They might give you two, but they’re going to draw a line.”

In his defense, he didn’t go the way of Tom Hallion, Laz Diaz, or John Hirschbeck, and become a combative, hair-trigger authoritarian when players questioned his funhouse strike zone. He kept his cool, because as one reporter wondered aloud, perhaps it had begun to occur to him that all those different players may have had a point…either way, his zone was more symptom than problem.

The problem which continues to dog MLB games is the effect which an erratic zone can cause. The concept that ‘framing’ should have the effect that it does is as ludicrous as the idea that ‘selling’ a call should effect, for example, pass interference. The concept that an established veteran should have a different strike zone than a rookie–the ‘swing the bat, rook’ mentality which too many still espouse–is similarly ludicrous.

Similar to in or out of bounds, or goal or no goal, balls and strikes–at least over the edges of the plate–should be a zero-sum, boundary issue. Accordingly, there’s no reason the current challenge rule shouldn’t be applicable to balls and strikes. It wouldn’t even have to alter the rule, or its implementation, in any measurable way–other than that it could be applied within an at bat, instead of just on the basebaths or along the foul lines. Major League Baseball certainly has the resources to install the sort of three-dimensional ‘cyclops’ sort of system employed by the ATP and WTA; and, again, if it’s too hard to determine exactly where ‘knees’ and/or ‘letters’ begin, the problem of egregiously widened plates could be alleviated.

If Major League Baseball would take this small step, then epics like last night’s one in Houston will more likely be remembered for the actions of the players only, and not the umpires. Goodness knows, the umpires would prefer not to be part of the storyline for the wrong reasons.

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