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Game Changers: The electronic strike zone

Game Changers: The electronic strike zone

The average Major League game includes 250-300 pitches, and each has the potential to ignite rallies or snuff them. Each one of those pitches has an outcome, the vast majority of which are judged by the home-plate umpire.

Ball or strike? It's as simple as the game of baseball itself.

Yet, just like baseball, what seems so simple can be ever so complex, especially when the human element is involved. A strike to one could be seen as a ball to another, or vice versa.

Miracle Whip

All those pitches are judged by the eyes of the man behind the mask -- the home-plate umpire -- and there might not be a tougher officiating job in sports.

"As much as we gripe from time to time, it's tough [and] they're under the microscope," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "We get a chance to see the play two or three times. They have to make a call."

With advances in technology and mass media coverage of every game, never before has the ball/strike call been more scrutinized and analyzed. And never before have umpires had more ways of reviewing their calls and adjusting their future calls as needed.

On one hand, Major League Baseball, with the approval of the World Umpires Union, has had some form of electronic analysis of the strike zone for a decade now, with the Zone Evaluation system running in all 30 ballparks and collecting data on every pitch's location.

On the other hand, all the training and evaluation in the world can't avert the occasional split-second decision that others might not believe was the correct one. It's a tough job, and the umpire can't possibly always get it right.

Example: In the ninth inning of a game on June 26, the Tigers' Johnny Damon was standing in against Braves pitcher Peter Moylan, with a full count, the tying runner on third and the bases loaded. A pitch that replays showed sailed outside of the plate was called a third strike, ending the game. The Tigers, whose graciousness in the Armando Galarraga/Jim Joyce perfect-game situation was lauded, were not pleased at all with the call.

"The game should've been tied there," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said afterward. "You can't miss those pitches. You just can't miss those."

Asked what he thought of the call after looking at a replay, home-plate umpire Gary Cederstrom admitted, "It didn't look very good."

Damon, the Tigers, and their fans agreed. It wasn't a strike, and the game shouldn't have been over. No doubt, Cederstrom -- a respected umpire with 15 years' experience and numerous postseason assignments under his belt -- got to relive the call all over again, thanks to the Zone Evaluation system, as well.

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So if technology can tell what's a ball and what's a strike, and humans can tell -- well, most of the time -- where does it all lead? Could technology further enter the game, now that every pitch can be objectively determined to be a ball or a strike? Or is that video-game fantasy that would extend baseball games into cricket matches in terms of time elapsed?

Certainly one of the issues being discussed by Commissioner Bud Selig's 14-member Special Committee for On-Field Matters is the strike zone -- an issue for the entirety of baseball's existence, which now has an added dimension with technology entering the picture.

As it stands, the electronic strike zone is a tool for training and evaluation of umpires, not an "eye in the sky" making pitch calls.

That said, the idea of being able to somehow detect a pitch's flight and whether it travels through the strike zone using technological means was the stuff of fantasy about 15 years ago.

But for the past decade, that's exactly what has been operating in baseball -- behind the scenes, as a learning tool for umpires. In 2001, Major League Baseball put the QuesTec system into effect, which topped out at 11 ballparks in the Majors before being replaced at the beginning of the '09 season by Zone Evaluation.

Zone Evaluation operated successfully in 99.8 percent of the 2,430 games played last year, according to MLB. The pitch-tracking software, developed by Major League Baseball Advanced Media and Sportvision, records the ball's position in flight more than 20 times before it reaches home plate. There are cameras on both lines and another camera that is centered adjacent to the field, all aligned to determine the ball's flight, speed, and ultimately whether it crossed the plate as a strike.

After each umpire has a plate assignment, the system generates a disk that provides an evaluation of accuracy and illustrates any inconsistencies with the strike zone.

"The umpires, they don't want to miss a pitch any more than a batter wants to strike out," MLB vice president for umpiring Mike Port told The New York Times when the Zone Evaluation system was instituted. "Where the Z.E. system will give us a lot of help is more data to help identify any trends: 'The last three plate jobs, you missed seven pitches that were down and in. Here's how one of the supervisors can help you adjust your head angle or your stance to have a better chance of getting those pitches.'"

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Throughout the history of the game, managers and umpires have disagreed on many things, but there's one area where disagreement always meets dismissal: balls and strikes. It's an unwritten but very clear rule that players and managers need to keep their critiques of an umpire's strike zone to a minimum, and in some cases there's zero tolerance.

The all-time leader in ejections is Atlanta manager Bobby Cox, in his final season of what's sure to be a Hall of Fame career. He has been ejected 156 times, and the strike zone often has been a part of the ... discussion, we'll call it.

After an ejection late last season, Cox said: "I think I could umpire. All I would say is, 'Ball,' and if somebody threw it down the middle, I'd call it a strike."

When it comes down to it, everyone knows what a ball and a strike should be. Rule 2.0 in the Official Rules of Baseball states: "The Strike Zone is defined as 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."

Of course, not every strike called meets that criteria. In fact, over the years, some umpires have been labeled by their particular strike zones, as having one favorable to pitchers or hitters, or one dimension of the strike zone or another.

"I've never believed in high-ball umpire, low-ball umpire," Leyland said recently. "I believe that umpires try to call the strike zone [and] do the best they can to call the strike zone properly as described in the rulebook. I think hitters try to swing at strikes and try to lay off balls."

At least you might say umpire Eric Cooper has one perfect game under his belt, and thanks to Mark Buehrle, he also has a no-hitter. Cooper was behind home plate for Buehrle's no-hitter in '07 and perfect game in '09, but he probably wasn't perfect, since it's hardly possible with that many pitches to call.

"I have the same approach whether the score is 0-0 or 10-0, or whether there is a perfect game or no-hitter going," Cooper said after Buehrle's perfect game against the Rays. "I try to call strikes strikes, and balls balls."

Obviously, it doesn't always work out to everyone's satisfaction. Not everyone sees the same thing, and the one person who has to determine the call has a split second to do so.

After a recent, particularly contentious game in which the Rays' Carl Crawford and manager Joe Maddon were ejected for arguing balls and strikes with home-plate umpire Bob Davidson, crew chief Tim Tschida was asked his opinion on the strike zone that night.

His answer told a lot about the current state of the strike zone, the men who call it, and what's being done to ensure more balls are called balls and more strikes are called strikes.

"We're evaluated on that Z.E. system, so we'll find out soon enough," Tschida said.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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