‘We’re Lab Rats’: A Baseball League Where Stealing First Is O.K.


“You’re going to see more of that, just trying to spoil two-strike pitches, or trying to get on base with two strikes when the hitters are in the hole,” Burke said. “I don’t personally like it, obviously. But for the hitters, it keeps you in the at-bat.”

The biggest adjustment for the pitcher, Burke said, is determining the vertical size of the strike zone. Most umpires do not call strikes as high as the rules specify, which Rosso defined as the midpoint between the chest and the belly button. The width of the zone is easy to see, Burke said, “because the plate is the plate.”

Yet a strict computerized zone seems bound to hurt pitchers who could effectively widen the plate when working with certain umpires. The nuance of the catcher-pitcher-umpire dynamic is gone.

“I enjoyed the relationship so much with home plate umpires: Who was it, do I get along with him, what do I have to do to get him to work with my guy?” said the former catcher John Flaherty, a YES Network analyst.

“The whole part of figuring out a strike zone was so much fun. Bob Tewksbury, with San Diego, said he needed to know within the first three pitches how far off the plate he’s going to go. And that was great — do we have an outside strike, do we have an inside strike? We always had something. Those days are over.”

So, perhaps, is umpiring as we know it. Rosso, 37, said the automated strike zone made it difficult for minor league umpires to stand out from their peers. He trained for a skill that is no longer needed.

“I think umpiring’s an art, and when you put science into trying to fix art, that’s going to be fallible, too,” he said. “I think the professional guys at the major league level are shooting 98 and 99 percent every night. I don’t know if a machine could beat that.”



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