As Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic notes, Diamondbacks broadcaster (and former All-Star catcher and World Series-winning manager) Bob Brenly recently suggested on the air that he was in favor of turning over the calling of balls and strikes to automated systems like Pitch F/X. Piecoro later followed up with Brenly to see if he really meant what he said:
"I have a lot of friends who are umpires and they work extremely hard,” Brenly said. “But I just feel like the game has gotten too fast. Pitchers throw too hard. There is so much movement on the ball as it gets into the hitting area. I just think it’s not humanly possible to get every call right. And some old-timers are enamored with the human element in the game and they insist that’s part of the game. But I think moving forward, it won’t be."
So, yes, he meant what he said.
As our own Danny Knobler recently reported, expanded replay is likely on the way, but it's hard to imagine that MLB will ponder the drastic step of automating balls and strikes, at least any time soon. With that said, I'm with Brenly.
You can obviously leave the plate ump in place for calls at home, batted-ball judgments, etc. There's also no reason that the plate ump can't receive the ball-strike calls via remote monitor and communicate them in the traditional way, with his own flourish or flair or whatever. Umpires would obviously push back against such an innovation, but I couldn't possibly care less about their sensitivities on this front.
One possible concern is that the unpredictable nature of the human strike zone serves to create a useful balance between pitcher and hitter. That could be true, but that strikes me (pun!) as less problematic than having incorrect calls behind the plate determine outcomes. Besides, if automated calls led to higher contact rates (i.e., by allowing hitters to learn the zone more readily and more absolutely), then that wouldn't be the worst thing to happen to today's strikeout-heavy game.
Mostly, though, I'd like to see balls and strikes called as, you know, balls and strikes.