Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic has a wide-ranging interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred that came out on Wednesday. It requires a subscription, but this one's very much worth your while.
By way of sampling, here are Manfred's interesting remarks when asked about the prospect of one day automating the strike zone ...
Rosenthal: Given that, can you foresee a time when the zone is called by technology and not by umpires?
Manfred: Let me say it in two different pieces. I think we are much closer than we were a year ago to having the technological capability to actually call the strike zone. We have worked very hard on PITCHf/x (a pitch-tracking system). Hats off to (MLB Executive Vice-President of Strategy, Technology and Innovation) Chris Marinak and (Chief Technology Officer) Jason Gaedtke.
The accuracy is way up -- way better than what it was a year ago. The technology continues to move ... and it actually moved a little faster than I might have thought.
There remains a fundamental question the owners are going to have to address. When you take away the home plate umpire's control over the strike zone, you take away a principal piece of his authority in terms of managing the whole game. You really need to think carefully about whether you want to make that change.
So this is pretty illuminating. This is the kind of question that you'd expect an organizational leader to bat away, saying something like, "That's not something we're presently concerned with" or some such. Manfred, of course, probably doesn't say anything by accident, and he had to anticipate that he'd be asked about this issue. In that sense, it's notable that he says the league is making progress -- surprising progress -- when it comes to building a system that calls balls and strike with an acceptable level of accuracy.
Earlier this year, Baseball Prospectus ran a compelling piece that pointed out some of the challenges with regard to automated strike zone. Those challenges were such that implementing a tech-based strike zone probably wasn't tenable. Is Manfred addressing these shortcomings when he talks about the rapid progress? We can't know, but it seems likely. The upshot is that the commissioner of baseball has strongly implied that an automated zone may be viable much sooner than you think.
As for Manfred's primary concern -- the winnowing down of the plate ump's authority -- Rosenthal wisely follows up on it:
Rosenthal: I imagine the umpires would be violently opposed ...
Manfred: It's interesting. Fifteen years ago, the umpires were violently opposed to instant replay. They came around and actually wanted it. Who knows? We haven't had a lot of conversations with them on this topic, but I do think there is a serious management-of-the-game issue you'd have to think about with respect to that change.
Again, you can see that Manfred is opening that door ever so slightly and more generally spinning this as potentially doable. There's of course no doubt that an automated zone would drastically change the duties of the plate umpire. However, he or she would still need to be in place for plays at the plate. As well, the ball-strike calls could be communicated in the usual way -- with the plate ump putting the usual flair into them. The only difference is that the decision would originate from within the automated system and be communicated to the ump by earpiece, visual means or whatever. The ump would then make the call for all to see. As well, the plate ump could make his or her own silent ball-strike decisions on each pitch just in case the system blipped for a moment.
There's a real question as to whether MLB wants to go down this path and what the unintended consequences might be. For instance, would a more predictable strike zone somehow upset the pitcher-batter balance? That is, does the uncertainty of the human-determined strike zone serve a moderating purpose? Would hitters, armed with more concrete knowledge of what they should swing at and what they should lay off, gain such an edge that the game becomes fundamentally different? These are real concerns, and there's a lot of thought and consideration that needs to take place before MLB can even seriously think about taking the next steps. Manfred, though, seems increasingly open to the idea.
Anyhow, Rosenthal's in-depth talk with Manfred includes much more -- Pete Rose, the baseball itself, pace of play, expansion, the schedule, and so on. Definitely give it a read.