Like a bang-bang call at first base, there is much jawing and a whole lot of disagreement throughout baseball over an idea threatening to arrive soon at a ballpark near you: the electronic strike zone.
Dubbed "robo ump"—affectionately by some, not so much by others—it would be one of the most significant changes in the history of the game, an umpire standing behind home plate and calling balls and strikes based not on his own eyesight and judgment...but on the direction of a tiny voice in his earpiece. That voice would be the preprogrammed result of however the TrackMan system of highly calibrated lasers reads a pitch as it crosses the plate.
"It's hilarious how they're trying to change every single facet of this game now," veteran Arizona outfielder Adam Jones says in a voice and with an expression signaling the exact opposite of hilarious.
"Doesn't seem like baseball to me," San Francisco shortstop Brandon Crawford says. "It takes away the human element. Unless it's 100 percent accurate, it would be tough to implement in the big leagues."
New York Yankees starter CC Sabathia says: "If they can get it right and make sure it's accurate, I think guys would be all for it."
"I'm not in favor of it," J.A. Happ, Sabathia's Yankees teammate, says. "I don't know, I'll have to see how the tests go. I think it would change the zone and be an adjustment for both sides."
The tests are going full blast right now in the independent Atlantic League, which is acting as a sort of proving ground for MLB. After several delays, the league—with eight teams, from the Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters to the New Britain (Connecticut) Bees—is hoping to implement it this month, early in the season's second half.
"Once we get this thing nailed, the issue isn't like adjusting an old-time stereo, like when turning a knob," Rick White, president of the Atlantic League, says. "This is all computer programming."
Already, the Atlantic League (which now is also allowing batters to steal first base on any pitch not caught cleanly by the catcher ) has waded through myriad issues on the robo umpire experiment, all of which have contributed to the delays. It's more than just calibrating the strike zone. To start, decisions had to be made regarding such seemingly minute details as the volume level in the umpires' earpieces. It can't be so loud as to damage their hearing or be a distraction, but it certainly needs to be loud enough to overcome crowd noise. And the calls through the earpieces: Chimes? Bells? Whistles? A sound only for a strike, and silence for a ball? And the earpieces and masks must be compatible enough that, when an umpire removes their mask during a game, the earpiece doesn't go with it and fall to the ground.
The league decided on a male voice in the ear that would say one of three things: "Strike," "Ball" or "No Track." In the last case, the umpire must make the call on their own, which illuminates another issue: The plate umpire must not become overly dependent on the system because if it fails, even for one pitch, they must be alert enough to call the pitch. Also, umpires must remain focused to make the call on check swings.
In early tests, the earpiece voice was dropping the first part of the call, and umpires were hearing "rike," "all" and "rack." The devil, as they say, is in the details.