Earlier this week, San Francisco Giants prospect Jacob Heyward was ejected from an Arizona Fall League game for arguing with a called strike three that was out of the zone.
Seems normal enough, right?
Except there’s a catch, and this one’s a doozy. The umpire calling balls and strikes was not a person.
The AFL is experimenting with automated strike zones, and apparently they heard the complaints and decided to integrate the ““human element” into robo-umps, because Heyward was right to be upset. The pitch was not a strike.
It was a somewhat eerie scene, like something out of a dystopian science fiction baseball movie.
Jacob Heyward tossed in an Arizona Fall League game for arguing balls and strikes called by a robot umpire. pic.twitter.com/toO2OrXXCe— Chad Baker (@ChadBlue_) October 16, 2019
The automates strike zones are coming eventually, whether you like it or not. Hopefully they’ll be better than whatever Joe West device this one was, but they’re coming.
I’ve usually been supportive of robo umps. Making the game more accurate seems smart and fair to the players.
But watch that video again. What sticks out to you? Here’s what sticks out to me: The defense stealing a strike despite the catcher doing nothing to frame the pitch. Because the catcher doesn’t need to frame the pitch.
Implementing technology at the level of automated strike zones is a weird thing. It’s not like replay, which is used sparsely and exists only to erase erroneous things.
Robo umps are a piece of advanced technology that will be implemented on every single baseball play. Other than pickoffs.
Amateur baseball can’t afford that technology. Colleges may get it eventually, but high schools and little league won’t.
Which means that young catchers will be taught a skill - pitch framing - that magically disappears at the highest level. And that doesn’t sit well with me.
Perhaps I’m in the minority, but I think professional sports should strive to be as close to the amateur game as possible, just played at a higher level. That maintains the relatability.
Pitch framing isn’t some negligible skill. There are players who are extremely good at it, and players who are horrendous at it. And if you believe the metrics, that can be the difference between a few wins a season.
Which brings us to Buster Posey. Posey is one of the great pitch framers of this generation. Perhaps one of the greatest in baseball history. It’s a skill developed through tireless hours of practice and studying, and from seeing the game at the next level.
Last offseason, Fangraphs added framing to their catcher WAR equation, and Posey’s already great career took another leap forward. Framing is what took Posey’s best seasons from high-end to laughably good.
Posey showed up just in the nick of time. His anointed successor, Joey Bart, will likely spend the bulk of his MLB days with a robot hovering behind him, eliminating any and all need to frame pitches - a skill he’s spent 20 years developing.
Automated strike zones are coming. I’m just glad Buster Posey got here first.