Reader letter: Swalboski column was way off base
To the editor:
It is hard to know where to start in a rebuttal of Craig Swalboski's assertion (Pressbox View, Sept. 22) that baseball should turn the calling of balls and strikes over to technology. Baseball already has surrendered much of its humanity -- to money and greed, to rugs and manicured lawns in place of baseball fields with even a modicum of caprice, to players who have forgotten the art of "hitting the other way" in favor of the chance at a home run.
But make home plate umpires witless pretenders who pantomime balls and strikes so that the game merely LOOKS the way it used to look? What will they do when a run comes barreling home and they realize that, uh-oh, PITCHf/x isn't up to the task?
But enough of a traditionalist's opinion; let's talk numbers. PITCHf/x reports that umpires get calls "right" 86 percent of the time. Of course, that must mean that 14 percent of the time umpires get the call wrong. But to f/x, a ball called a strike that is off the plate by 1/32nd of an inch is "wrong" in the same way as if an umpire called a strike on a ball that was a foot-and-a-half outside! So in truth, it is likely that a goodly percentage -- perhaps even a very high percentage -- of calls deemed "wrong" by PITCHf/x are, in actual fact, extremely close to being strikes. So close that we might judge them…sorry f/x…to actually BE strikes.
Now let's look at the accuracy of PITCHf/x. It may surprise many to discover that there is no objective definition of a strike in the baseball rules. There are objective parameters, but the most critical one must be assessed by the umpire in the moment of the pitch. From the MLB Official Baseball Rules: "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 kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."
What does PITCHf/x do when a 6-foot-5 player scrunches down to the height of a 5-8 player, and then right as the ball is delivered, extends to his full height? Aha! This is what humans do well and computers do not: Real-time assessment of things that can't be defined by even the smartest computer programmers.
PITCHf/x is undoubtedly a useful tool. It helps us understand that pitchers, batters, and umpires are human; that they succeed -- and yes, they fail. But its place is not that of determining balls and strikes, except that we desire even more de-humanization of the most break-your-heart sport humans have devised.
For more than 100 years umpires have called balls and strikes, and batters, pitchers, and fans have suffered their love-hate relationship with them. It is part of the game we have loved and will continue to love, except that a mindless belief in "fairness" and "accuracy" further dilutes and depersonalizes it.
And what about those umpires? Shouldn't we at the very least listen to what they have to say before replacing them? Because I have no doubt that their assessment of the PITCHf/x system would go something like this:
"Actually, f/x does pretty well. I'd say it gets pitches right about, oh…maybe 85 percent of the time?"