First Pitch: Tonight Shows That We’re Not Ready For Robot Umpires

PITTSBURGH — Leading up to the NL Wild Card game, all of the focus was on Jake Arrieta. The Cubs’ ace showed exactly why he was getting so much attention tonight, pitching a complete game, four-hit shutout, with no walks and 11 strikeouts. If you ask Pirates fans, they may tell you that Arrieta received some help from home plate umpire Jeff Nelson.

All night, Nelson was calling borderline pitches on the edge of the strike zone as strikes. Arrieta was able to pound this location several times, hitting his spots well. Gerrit Cole didn’t have his best stuff, and wasn’t able to capitalize on the same advantage as often. That made it seem like Arrieta was getting calls that the Pirates weren’t getting. But the reality was that the game was being called the same way.

During the game, I pointed out that the strike zone was being called the same for both sides, and it didn’t go over well with some Pirates fans in the heat of the moment. After the game, Daren Willman posted a chart that showed the Pirates not only got the same treatment, but actually had more favorable calls go their way.

After the game, the Pirates didn’t have any problems with the way things were being called.

“All in all, it didn’t seem to be like there was anything to the game that was out of context as far as calls were getting made one-sided or anything like that, at least from the questioning I did,” Clint Hurdle said. “When you pitch around the plate, you’ve got good stuff, more often than not you’re going to get more calls when you’re throwing strikes and delivering the ball to the edges and moving it up and down in the strike zone.”

Josh Harrison didn’t have a problem with his at-bats, but did notice this from the field.

“My pitches were pretty clear-cut,” Harrison said. “But from the field, or in the dugout, there were a few times that I was definitely questioning.”

The interesting thing about this is that Harrison actually did see a questionable call in the fourth inning. The first pitch he faced in the fourth inning was questioned by Pirates fans after being called for a strike. The only problem? Gerrit Cole got the exact same call a half inning earlier to strike out Addison Russell, as seen in the chart below.


Maybe Harrison just didn’t want to complain about his pitches, as he did offer a very specific thought on the trends tonight.

“You can see there were a few from both sides,” Harrison said. “I feel like we had quite a few with pitches on the outer half to righties.”

Things really got heated in the fifth inning when Arrieta struck out Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez on borderline pitches. That’s when I started noticing a trend that took this whole matter to a different perspective.

The entire night, I was seeing people complaining about the strike zone, and couldn’t figure out what they were talking about. I was following the strike zone in the press box via MLB Gameday, and the Classic version of Gameday (this is my usual press box set up, with the new Gameday to get exit velocity info, and the classic to go back and see the location and sequence of older pitches). Sean McCool, who was covering the game with me tonight, pointed out before that inning that the strike zone on TBS was much smaller than Gameday. The pitches to Mercer and Alvarez confirmed that.

Let’s take a look at the difference in location for that strike three to Alvarez. First, this is what you probably saw if you were watching on TV.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.47.18 AM

Based on that strike zone, there’s no way this is a strike at all. Anyone watching this would have to believe that the umpire is out of his mind, and not calling the game fair, especially since Jordy Mercer was struck out looking on a similar outside pitch in the same inning. But it gets more complicated when you get to the Classic Gameday view.

Screen Shot 2015-10-08 at 2.49.36 AM

This isn’t a clear-cut strike, but it’s closer to being a borderline call than the TBS strike zone. And the new Gameday — which features Pitch F/X and all of the Statcast data — had it even closer.

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 9.34.15 PM

That area could be considered outside of the zone, but it’s on the borderline, and any pitch thrown there is fair game to be called a strike. If your team gets that call, you’re not thinking you just lucked out. And if your pitcher doesn’t get that call, you’re complaining about the umpire.

The interesting thing is that after posting these images, I got messages from people who had the MLB App, which featured a totally different strike zone image that had the pitch way outside, similar to TBS.

I took an objective view tonight when discussing the strike zone. It would have been easy to just say that Arrieta was getting the calls, and that was the reason for him pitching so well, and a fair umpire would have led to a different result. That may have placated a lot of Pirates fans who were angry with the stance I took. It may have even gained me a lot more re-tweets and favorites and new followers and potential subscribers. But I was going off the information I had, which showed these as borderline strikes that were being called all night. And the people who were angry were going off the information they had, which showed these pitches way outside.

This brings me to my next subject where I’m going to be totally objective, even if it means arguing against something I’d really like to see. That argument: We’re not ready for robot umpires.

There’s nothing I hate more than the idea of a constantly changing strike zone, which all depends on the guy behind the plate that night. Last night in the AL Wild Card game we saw an umpire with a consistent trend that Dallas Keuchel was able to take advantage of. Tonight, we saw a totally different strike zone that Arrieta was able to take advantage of. If you want to know why offense is down, this is patient zero. Just listen to Josh Harrison explain how difficult these calls make things.

“It’s hard to play catchup, especially when the guy can start pitching to the corners,” Harrison said. “It’s hard enough to hit. When a guy is getting [calls] a little bit off, it’s even harder to hit. We had our chances. We had guys on, hit some balls hard. It [isn’t] all about the strike zone. But it does play a little factor when you feel you’ve got to cover a little bit off. And you take a pitch and it’s called a strike, and if that’s a strike, I’ve got to swing at anything out there.”

Sure enough, that happened on both sides. The pitch that Tony Watson got Dexter Fowler to fly out on was outside, even by Gameday standards. It’s something Fowler should have laid off from. But Fowler had an 0-1 count and probably had to protect that outside edge, which had been called all night for both teams.

The simple solution here is that robot umpires would be the best replacement for real umpires. You remove the human element. You remove mistakes. There would be no more variance from umpire to umpire, giving you one true strike zone, rather than 15 different strike zones across baseball on any given night. We have the technology that we can instantly see where a pitch ends up right when it hits the catcher’s glove. So why wouldn’t it make sense to have balls and strikes automated?

Tonight shows why it doesn’t make sense yet. Between the TBS strike zone, Classic Gameday, Gameday, and the MLB App you had four different strike zones for the same pitches. Which one is correct? Do you go with the smaller strike zone with no borders that TBS and the MLB App use? Or do you go with the slightly wider Gameday zones, which turn those balls into borderline strikes?

This also raises a question as to how this can happen. PNC Park is equipped with technology to track pitches. You’d assume that everyone was using the same technology. So how can you get such different results? The only explanation would be the size of the strike zone box drawn in each format varies, which comes with an easy solution — just have a uniform strike zone for everyone displaying Pitch F/X details. But MLB doesn’t even have that, with three different zones for three different platforms.

Until we have this, the idea of robot umpires has to be on hold. It’s something that I think baseball definitely needs, as the variance and inconsistent game calling between different umpires is one of the worst things in the game right now. But unfortunately, we’re not to a point where technology can provide the answer.

**I’ll have more analysis from the post-game tomorrow morning and afternoon, plus a look ahead at the future of this team tomorrow night. I want to thank everyone for a great season! That said, we write about the Pirates 365 days a year, so subscribers won’t even notice a break in our coverage of the system.

**The Two Cubs Batters That Defeated Gerrit Cole and the Pirates. Sean McCool breaks down the two Cubs hitters who got to Gerrit Cole tonight.

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Chuck C

Tim, Could you explain how you get four different strike zones from the same live feed? It looks like some are using a different size of home plate.


The zones and locations were the same for all methods, now that I look at them more closely. The only difference is the graphic. Classic Gameday has a fuzzy bit at the edges, TBS had a solid line on the plate, New Gamday has the “borderline” border, and the iPhone app only shades in the strike zone. Presentation differs, but the zone and the location is the same. Balls were called strikes.

Jeff Nelson is known for having a wide strike zone. He called a wide strike zone again last night. There might not have been much unfairness (though Cole did have three pitches inside the zone called balls while Arrieta only had one, and that one was the least completely in the zone of the four called balls, but that’s not enough to call it an advantage I guess), but that doesn’t excuse an umpire calling a strike zone which differs from the rule book he’s charged with enforcing.

But back to the point. While each presentation “looked” different, they were actually consistent with respect to where the pitches were and where the strike zone was. There isn’t deviation in Pitch F/X, so that excuse for not being ready for robot umpires is invalid. We have the technology, it does work, and we should probably be using it.


Honest question, was this an issue on Twitter or somewhere? I haven’t seen or heard from a single other person who comes close to sharing Tim’s opinion, that he apparently felt was worthy of speaking for all of us.


I, for one, will welcome our new robot ump overlords, that’s for sure.


I agree with some sentiments of others in this thread, that if the source data used is the same across all outlets, and the only problem is that the depiction of the zone and the baseball are not being drawn to scale with that data, then this is not an argument against an automated zone. That could be fixed in one 15 minute conference call held by MLB with the major sports sites (especially within their own, MLBAM), instructing them on what the official strike zone dimensions should be (or depicted as).

If there were a lack of accurate data available, or a lack of standardized measurement techniques, THAT is an argument against automated zones. How some software guy decides to draw the zone on the screen due to a lack of guidance from MLB has no relevance to the debate.

alex w

Since each umpire obviously has the authority and the backing of MLB to determine his strike zone, the definition of the strike zone in the rule book should be eliminated and the plate umpire prior to each game should define what his ball and strike zone will be for that game. Or perhaps MLB should only assign the 20 umpires to call balls and strikes who have demonstrated that they can most consistently recognize when a pitch is a ball or a strike. Under no circumstances should the plate umpire call swinging or non swinging strikes. If catchers can catch most games the best plate umpires can certainly work most games calling balls and strikes (obviously for more money). And the crew chief should not be a plate umpire and be the only umpire authorized to throw anyone out of a game.

Bruce Humbert

I guess I am stupid. I don’t get the logic of why a single system for all parks can’t be built and implemented. What the web sites/TV networks choose to show should not be a determining factor. The systems have the ability to track the ball across the three dimensional space and show whether it was a ball or strike INSTANTLY – actually a micro second or two delay – but we would not be able to tell.

So a “robotic” strike zone system is POSSIBLE….

But that does not mean we SHOULD do it.

The ART of pitching has always been about finding spots that are “unhittable” and taking advantage of those – I lived in Atlanta when Glavine, Smoltz and Maddox were getting guys called out on “marginal” pitches on a regular basis.

Personally I would like to see some more offense in the game. I thought Pedro did a nice job working the count – and should have gotten the benefit of doing that. I WAS NOT critical of him for not swinging at the third strike – it was going to be weak grounder to second at best. So I would like to see the system implemented – but I bet there will be a ton of negotiating needed with players and umpires to get this done,

Arrieta is an artist – Coie not so much – yet..


For me the bottom line for the Pedro and Jordy at bats (called 3rd strikes), they both should have been swinging the bats. I remember being taught that you widened the strike zone with two strikes against you. Get more defensive and swing at pitches that were close. Both of these guys were looking to walk first and it burned them. They should have shortened up their swing and swung. Saw a lot of that this year from these two guys.


Except that you were playing Little League against 12 year old kids lobbing meatballs.

Jake Arrieta is quite possibly the best pitcher currently on planet Earth with a five-pitch mix moving in each direction backed by premium velocity. Expanding the zone by 6″ all around with two strikes turns him from an elite pitcher to an unhittable one. A backdoor slider from his angle like the one to Alvarez is unhittable. At the very best you get weak contact most likely resulting in an out.

Why in the hell is that the preferred result as opposed to actually getting on base and continuing a rally?

Bush league, period.


Add to that the fact that, in the current system, an umpire is actually *less* likely to call a strike on a borderline pitch in a two-strike count, and expanding the zone becomes an even worse idea.





I appreciate Arrow’s comment; we’re predisposed to rationalize situations by using past experiences, and just about all of us have at least a few years of esteemed coaching from some kid’s dad while we were 12 years old in our memory bank.

Problem is that Major League Baseball is barely even the same game compared to what most of us played. It’s like me telling a NASCAR driver how to race because I just killed it on the Parkway this morning headed to work.


Tell me again how many Arrieta walked last night? Or the last five games he pitched against the Pirates for that matter. Yes some pitchers you can almost count on a walk (see Jeff Locke), but some just aren’t going to give up that free pass…especially with help from the umpire on the borderline pitches.


Agreed. Especially through the first run of the order where, Arrieta threw 8/9 first pitch strikes and never fell behind in the count. Polanco had a called third strike, where I thought Montero’s spot was missed badly, but I cant remember the inning.


I didnt think Cole started getting the wider zone until the game was already decided. Thats always been my issue with balls and strikes (especially at the college level, where the interpretation can vary from conference to conference). Whether the zone is being called wide or narrow, let that be consistent throughout the game. There’s been many games this year ive watched, non-Pirate games included, where the strikezone varied from inning to inning. I think thats what drives coaches and players, especially catchers, nuts.

Eric Marshall

I knew we were in trouble after the first couple of pitches. Cole hit borderline area and didn’t get those calls. He got upset and they ended up getting a run in the first. Arrieta comes in and the exact same borderline pitch is called a strike for him. Knew the game wasn’t going to go our way from that point on. They did give Cole some pitches later but the game was over and the damage was already done. Also weren’t given in critical moments.


All of these different strike zone visualizations (MLB, TBS, etc.) start with the same data, right? I was under the impression that everything used PITCHf/x. If that’s the case, then the difference between MLB and TBS is just a matter of different plotting styles.

For instance, the MLB Gameday Classic strike zone has that fuzzy border, while the TBS strike zone has a sharp border. Or, maybe the balls are slightly different sizes in each strike zone. These may not seem like big changes, but when you’re talking about subjective interpretation a small adjustment to a plot can make a big difference. There are a few legitimate arguments against robot umpires but I don’t think this is one of them.


Brooks Baseball shows it was fairly evenly called, but what was a killer was the two third strike calls (Mercer and Alvarez) in the 5th. Both were slightly outside the zone but it was more the leverage of those calls than the location.


Sizzling hot take from, once again, the smartest man in the room.

The strike zone is defined as the width of home plate, 17″. Not the width of home plate plus a fuzzy line of indeterminate width. Not the width of home plate plus an arbitrary box plus a superimposed maybe-to-scale baseball. Seventeen inches. That, and only that, can be considered “objective”.

The “borderline” calls Arrieta was getting were balls. “Borderline” by definition, has subjectivity built into it, which is absolutely hilarious coming from a guy preaching objectivity. Whether or not Cole got the same call is beside the point. The strike zone should be the strike zone.

Solving the “problem” of multiple zones is so simple I’d think it was trolling to claim otherwise. Step 1: Pick one method. Step 2: Use chosen method. The end. Done. No arguments, no reason for multiple outlets to use different methods. Done.

Scott Kliesen

Here speaketh the voice of reason. Listen and learn.

Arik Florimonte

Yeah, it’s insane that we put up with 15% missed calls per game on average.

One problem I see with robotic umpires is defining the top and bottom of the zone. By the book, it’s supposed to be different for each hitter. But that box they draw around the zone doesn’t change. The bottom of the zone for Polanco would be at Harrison’s waist.

The problem that Tim raises could be solved very easily by agreeing on a standard. It doesn’t matter if 5 different devices give different answers. It only matters that the same system gives the same answer on pitches in the same location.

One last thought: as long as we have human umpires, why not give them an electric shock when they miss one.


I know what you mean, but even the top/bottom “problem” isn’t a problem with the technology, it’s a problem with the graphics. Same principle behind Tim’s flawed logic above.

If the pitch tracking technology currently in use is good enough to detect everything down to spin rate on a 9″ circumference object hurdled at 90mph, I’d be comfortable guaranteeing it could also detect vertical limits of the strike zone specific to each player.

Your last thought is about the only “human element” I want to see umpires add to the game of baseball.


I thought the Pedro call was hard to take after he battled for a 3-2 count and after ringing up Mercer earlier. Really thought a walk there would be important for us…didn’t happen.


Timing, and also the precedent that sets for future at bats.

If Arrieta knows he can start his stuff even further off the plate with two strikes because the other team is forced to commit, he’s simply unhittable.


Yup. I think I’ve seen Cervelli bark at the ump about 10 times this year because of this. He’s pissed because strike two was 8 inches off the plate and so he flailed at strike 3 which is a foot off the plate. It went both ways last night but the called third strike to Alvarez was ridiculous. I live outside of Pittsburgh so I get the visiting announcers a lot and the former pitchers always talk about when they get calls outside the zone they were able to push the envelope a little more and get all sorts of swings and misses because batters were protecting a new zone.


Yeah. The questionable calls came at the worst times but it wasn’t the difference. Alvarez’s and Mercer’s were the hardest to swallow but the Bucs got a couple as well. The difference was the Cubs were already up an insurmountable lead.

Bobby L

I am looking forward to the analysis of next year. There are lots of decisions to be made as far as Rule 5, the 40 man, who to tender or not and how payroll will pan out. Hope these things get covered.


I’m certain there will be plenty of all that. Tim & staff does a great job on those subjects each year.

But the real fun stuff will be the annual, “Is it time to break the bank for David Price” article 🙂

Bobby L

Don’t see that happening.
Unless there is a large bump in payroll, my thinking is the Bucs are facing some uncertainty with respect to its current roster.


At least 3 balls that were absolutely crushed at the biggest moments of the game by Polanco, Marte, and Ramirez and they were right at somebody, and led to two double plays. That’s baseball.

And yes Tim, the guy behind the Catcher was giving some latitude to the best pitcher in the game last night. Arrieta worked the black the first part of the game and then moved the location a few inches in and out and he was still getting the calls – that’s playoff baseball. Cole had Command problems from the very start and never did win the confidence of the umpire. And, any of us who have ever played the position watched a game where the Catcher’s framing of the pitches was absolutely outstanding and perfectly complemented the Command of Jake Arrieta.

They played the better game – tip the cap and move on.


Well put. All of it. Pirates hit the balls right at the guys in key moments and the Cubs were able to hit them over the fence. Arrietta did get some calls and if Cole had more command he would’ve been able to get a couple more of them as well. Cubs framing was stellar. It is what it is.

Douglas C

You are spot on EmJ. Cole was not consistent with working with what the ump was willing to give. Look at Maddox and Glavine for all of the years that they pitched. I would loved to have seen the strike zone box on TV when those two pitched.


Cole was missing by FEET not inches…I am not sure he hit Cervelli’s glove more than 15% of the time…a couple of the pitches were called inside and ended up down and away. His location was terrible

Dale O

A nice season, but I want to vomit at how it ended.

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