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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Human Element

Wednesday’s matinee against the Phillies was simultaneously an excellent baseball game and one about which there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say at first glance: Zack Wheeler was good, but Jake Arrieta was a little better. Wheeler gave up solo homers to Scott Kingery and Cesar Hernandez, while Arrieta surrendered one to Michael Conforto, but got double plays when he needed them. Oh, and Wheeler’s line included a sac fly struck by Maikel Franco. We’ll get back to that one.

Darned if the Mets didn’t make you think they were going to pull this one out. Arrieta began the ninth with a 3-1 lead, but departed when Pete Alonso reached on an infield single. Gabe Kapler brought in Adam Morgan, who unhelpfully hit Robinson Cano in the back before retiring Conforto on a fly ball. Enter Hector Neris, who struck out J.D. Davis, but then yielded a run-scoring infield single to Amed Rosario and hit Wilson Ramos with a pitch, loading the bases for Keon Broxton.

Broxton battled through a superb at-bat, pushing the count to 3-2. A walk would tie the game; a hit could put the Mets ahead with Edwin Diaz hot and ready in the bullpen. Broxton spat on a Neris splitter that was just low and figured Neris would throw him another one.

The ball came out of Neris’s hand headed for the middle of the plate. But it didn’t dive towards the dirt — it wasn’t a splitter, but a four-seam fastball. Broxton had guessed wrong, and bent his knees in reflexive horror as the pitch zipped through the strike zone. Ballgame.

But let’s go back to that Maikel Franco sac fly. It came in the second, and put the Phils up 1-0.

Wheeler’s first pitch to Franco was a curve ball that was a strike. Go look it up — it’s nowhere near a borderline case. Ted Barrett flat-out missed it, and called it a ball. Wheeler hung a curve in the strike zone that Franco swung through, then dotted an inside fastball at the knee — a perfect pitch, but one that Barrett’s miss meant was strike two, not strike three. Wheeler tried the same pitch again and sawed Franco off, resulting in a limp fly over the infield — one that proved just deep enough to score J.T. Realmuto.

What would have happened if Barrett had called that first pitch properly? It’s too simple to say Wheeler would have punched out Franco and kept the run from scoring. Hell, maybe Franco hits the hanging curve over the fence and things wind up worse for the Mets. But what is clear is that the at-bat was changed, and the outcome of that at-bat wound up costing the Mets a run they would desperately need.

And this is now routine in baseball. In nearly every game, a critical at-bat is marred by an umpire missing balls and strikes. Sometimes it clearly matters; other times it doesn’t; most of the time we don’t know and prefer not to think about it.

It’s past time for this to change. The technology exists to take balls and strikes away from umpires, who have proven collectively unable to judge them with the accuracy both pitchers and hitters deserve. And with that long-overdue change, let’s sweep away all the sentimental nonsense around the strike zone as adjudicated by human eyes. The idea that someone’s a hitter’s ump or a pitcher’s ump on a given day would strike us as unacceptable if we had a less fallible starting point — the strike zone should be the strike zone, full stop. (And the same for “a rookie doesn’t get that pitch,” “it’s 9-1, so swing the bats, boys” and all the other unwritten inanities.) Say goodbye to pitch framing — teams have wisely focused on its value in recent years, but a skill that encourages further errors by umpires is clearly a bug and not a feature. And don’t give me the old saw that umpire mistakes “even out.” For one thing, it’s self-evidently ridiculous to accept a mistake-prone system because the inherent shoddiness deals out unfairness more or less equitably; for another, it isn’t always true, and too many World Series highlight films are evidence of that.

Yes, baseball should always be fundamentally about the human element. But that ought to be about the players, not the referees. It ought to be about whether Broxton guesses splitter or four-seamer, and whether Neris can outthink him and execute that pitch. That’s how Wednesday afternoon ended, and it made for thrilling baseball. But that outcome was shadowed by another bit of human element — Barrett’s mistake on a first pitch that shaped a critical at-bat. It’s past time for that human element to disappear so the game can be better.

9 comments to The Human Element

  • Surly Duff

    AMEN TO THAT.

    Unfortunately our boy Ramos seems to be the man catching a lot of these incorrectly-called balls.

    He sometimes sets up so far inside on a righty that he has to stretch waaaaay across his body to reach a ball comfortably over the outer half of the plate. That makes it look like a bad pitch.

    Umps shouldn’t be susceptible to that sort of thing, but they are, unfortunately, human (at least for the time being).

  • Seth

    I wonder if MLB would actually consider adopting some kind of electronic umpire-prompt system? It would be awesome, but I’d be surprised…

  • Dave

    Hmm. Once there was this lefty who spent his best years with the Braves and a few not-devastated seasons with the Mets. I’m thinking that if he had to throw what technology would recognize as strikes, instead of being a Cooperstown-enshrined 300 game winner, he might have spent most of his career as a 5th starter/long reliever.

    Let’s do it. Enough of this crap. As you say Jason, let’s leave the human element to the players we pay money to see.

  • Kevin from Flushing

    In Bob Costas’ book Fair Ball, he mentions something along the lines of, “In the NBA, you never hear a broadcaster say, ‘referee Ken Mauer is calling a short 3-point line tonight.'”

    I’m ready for Robot Umps. Even if that means we’re looking at a future headline, “Boston front office claims Yankees hacked strike zone in ALCS”

  • LeClerc

    If electronic-eye ball/strike calls can be as deterministic as tennis line calls – then, by all means, let’s do it.

    But unlike tennis lines, the strike zone is not constant for every batter (see Bill Veeck Midget Experiment).

    The “PitchCast” box seen on SNY is a rectangle of constant height and width. That’s not sufficient to force the extinction of home plate umpires.

  • eric1973

    Since the charm is gradually being sucked out of the game anyway, might as well replace the umps, and then gradually the players, and then gradually the fans, most of whom are extremely annoying and do not watch the game anyway when they are in attendance.

    Surely, this will attract the millenials to whatever is left, which is the whole idea behind these changes anyway.

    Hey, Next Great Contest:
    Let’s re-name the sport, as recent studies must show the word ‘Baseball’ is testing poorly. Pat. pending, so don’t try anything.

    BTW, since we’re talking robots, the actor who plays the robot pitcher in the Twilight Zone is still alive, and is currently in jail for murder. As Casey said, “You could look it up.”

  • Greg Mitchell

    I thought you were going somewhere else when you mentioned that sac fly. It actually was set up by bad OF play. First McNeil, playing too deep and maybe with no OF arm, allowed Realmuto to go first to third on hit to left. Then on SHORT liner to center Broxton threw off balance as soon as he caught it and made ultra-weak throw home instead of setting and throwing–and I believe gunning Realmuto out with only decent throw.

  • Daniel Hall

    It’s two days later, and I still feel strike three to Broxton in my cojones. That one *stung*. Maybe because I was convinced the Mets would pull this one out after two nailed batters, confusing the Phils with the Gnats. Red hats be damned.

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