Updated: Jan 8
This week we are going to focus on technology in sports.
To do this, I am going to peruse baseball’s evolution with technology.
Quite simply: Is it becoming too much?
Baseball, nicknamed America’s Pastime, is thought of as one of the classic sports, rooted in tradition and old fashioned values. So much so that it is still largely frowned upon to over celebrate, showboat, or “pimp” a big play or home run.
Over the past decade, technologic analysis and review has flooded into the sport and changed its dynamic.
Let us take a look:
Analytical Boom: Ever heard of the movie Moneyball? The film, starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, is about the 2002 Oakland Athletics and how their front office executives (namely Billy Beane, aka Brad Pitt) revolutionized the game of baseball by approaching the formulation of their roster through math. Another word for this that is commonly used is sabermetrics.
The trend has increased steadily year after year. Over time, every single team has turned to sabermetrics. Why rely on old school intuition when data-driven technology produces better results on the field, and ultimately yields more money?
Over the past two decades, various stats have been developed to evaluate a player’s value to a team. In short, the technology has become so advanced that there are players who received contracts for tens of millions of dollars that wouldn’t have even made an MLB roster in the first place if they played baseball today.
Thanks to sabermetrics, teams can track every single throw or swing a player takes and evaluate that information in real time, as well as project how their statistics will play out in the future. Trends develop, and teams adapt as a result of the information they collect.
In recent years, teams have taken it to an even more extreme level, implementing the shift on some hitters. The shift is a defensive realignment from players’ standard positions to stack one side of the field or another. It is primarily designed to protect against base hits pulled hard into the gaps between the fielders on one side. So if a hitter is at the plate who, thanks to analytics, you know almost always hits the ball to one side of the field, you may consider shifting a majority of your infielders to that side to defend against him.
This is becoming an increasingly common phenomenon in baseball. But is it really good for the game? Does it perhaps take some of the fun out of it? A great debate about this very topic seems to be developing as there have been rumors that MLB will ban the shift to some level in the coming years..
Replay Review: I won’t get too detailed here with specifics, but there was a time not so long ago that replay was not too prevalent in baseball. I can think of a few instances from my childhood where I saw calls botched by an umpire that unfortunately ruined a big moment for a player (no hitter), or call to determine the outcome of a big game. Fortunately, fans no longer have to worry about getting totally screwed over as MLB now reviews a wide variety of calls. In fact, a review may now even be initiated by a team’s manager as a sort of challenge (think of football) in some cases. So at least the right call is being made. Yet, it seems as if something is lost from delaying the game three minutes every time to simply ensure the call is correct. There was something intriguing about having a bad call go your team’s way, or not go your team’s way. Something riveting about it. However, I guess if I were a player, I would be happy that calls are now heavily reviewable and ultimately yield the true and right verdict.
Automated Strike Zone: Balls & strikes are one of the few aspects of the game that is still susceptible to human error. No reviews are allowed for potential botched calls on balls and strikes. And there are a good amount of them throughout the duration of a game, even at the highest level. Humans aren’t perfect, and that shines through (at times) with umpires calling balls and strikes.
With technology and replay review are becoming increasingly prevalent in baseball, the debate of the Automated Strike Zone has come front and center.
The Automated Strike Zone is a relatively simple concept on the surface: A human umpire will still man the zone behind the plate. But, instead of that human making calls on their judgment, they will wear earphones and have the call relayed to them through an electronic strike zone caller.
The technology is already being tested in the Atlantic League and will soon begin in Minor League Baseball games. This experiment is no fluke. It is being backed by the MLB, who reached an agreement with the Atlantic League to try out the technology in their league's games just last year.
It is widely speculated that the Automated Strike Zone will make it to Major League Baseball at some point in the future.
This means that not one call should be missed and all should be good, right?
Yes, potentially. However, the Automated Strike Zone controversy is actually a lot more complex:
Pros: Or maybe just simply pro: you assure the correct call is made. A ball can’t be called a strike and a strike can’t be called a ball. It just can’t. Technology will assure that the correct call is made.
If you are a fan of a team or a player making millions playing for your organization, wouldn’t you want the correct call to be made? What if a clear ball is called a strike and that determines the outcome of a World Series?
Players will no longer be able to argue balls and strikes and, it would seem, will be less likely to be thrown out of a game for doing so.
Cons (Or strange changes we will have to get used to):
1- More balls will be called than strikes, perhaps.
Think of a 3-and-0 offering from a pitcher that barely misses the plate.
An umpire may be inclined to call that pitch a strike 70% of the time.
It will now be a ball 100% of the time, as umpires will no longer have the authority to formulate their own zones.
On the other hand, the technologically-driven strike zone may also afford pitchers more leeway at the top and bottom of the zones, meaning more strikes in certain situations. A curveball, for instance, may start out literally 3 feet above a batter’s head but drop in and nip the very top of the strike zone at the last second. While a batter would never swing at that pitch and an umpire would never call it a strike, it will be called a strike by the Automated Strike Zone.
2- Seniority will no longer exist. An established pitcher in the MLB who may get a few extra calls from an umpire based on his status will no longer have an advantage.
3- The accidental strike will actually be a strike: If a pitcher is aiming on the outside corner of the strike zone but misses badly inside, it will still be a strike if it hits any part of the zone. Regardless if the catcher has to literally dive across the plate. This has never been called a strike before, and is just something else we all will have to get accustomed to in the era of the Automatic Strike Zone.
Below is a great article from The Athletic, a great sports journalism site, that explains more thoroughly the arguments that I just presented:
You do need a subscription, however, so if you do not have one..perhaps you would consider signing up or reaching out to a friend who already has one.
The Bottom Line
Is all of this technology becoming too much? Sure, fairness and the correct call prevails more often than not these days in sports. And that is important. But are we losing some of the zest of the sport due to the increasing aspect of tech in games? We are losing a good bit of the human element. Isn’t the human element part of what makes sports so entertaining for us all? Let me know your thoughts. I am curious to know others opinions on this matter, as it is certainly something we can take another look at in the coming years.