I find that the offseason is the best time for discussion of potential changes to the game. That way, I'm less likely to adopt a biased or insufficiently-well-thought-out opinion based on some game I've just seen.
Anyway, this column is dedicated to two proposals I've often seen passed around: 1) some sort of computerized strike zone (possibly similar to the technology used in tennis) to determine balls and strikes; and 2) instant replay for any number of close plays.
1. Computerized Strike Zone
First, some form of this has already been implemented in some parks: Questec. QuesTec is a camera-and-computer setup that plots the strike zone and allows umpires' calls to be evaluated for accuracy after the fact. QuesTec is in place in about half the parks. It has caused some controversy. When it was first implemented in 2003, Curt Schilling famously smashed one of the 4 QuesTec field cameras (for which he was fined $15,000), and the Umpires union filed a grievance with the U.S.'s National Labor Relations Board (which it eventually dropped). The purpose of QuesTec is to ensure consistency in ball-and-strike calling by bringing some accountability to umpires, by evaluating their calls after the fact. Questions have arised as to the accuracy of QuesTec, with most players/managers/umpires opposed in principle but others, while not opposed in the abstract, voiced the opinion that QuesTec results varied greatly based on the operator. For more on Questec, read this fascinating article in Baseball Prospectus.
Anyway, the reasoning behind QuesTec and taking it further, into some sort of computerized strike zone whose results would actually affect the calls on the field (either by replacing the home-plate umpires calls or by some sort of appeal process) is obvious -- the home-plate umpire exerts a huge amount of influence on the game, and sometimes their calls are blatantly wrong (sorry Angel Hernandez, I'm looking at you). This can be incredibly frustrating and can lead to perverse, unfair results.
2. Instant Replay
Every time there is a controversial call in a playoff game (the Pierzynski strikeout comes to mind), the calls for instant replay are renewed. How can we be against, the argument goes, bringing accuracy to the game by making sure we get the calls right? Why should a game turn on a missed call by an umpire, why not get the call right and make sure the game is decided by what actually happens on the field?
Feel free to add to the case for either of these, but I'm 95% against them both. I think they would both be bad for the game.
Even if a strikezone could be computerized so as to be totally accurate, I don't like it for baseball. Baseball is a game played by humans, coached by humans, and enjoyed by humans. It should be called by humans. One thing I've always disliked about football is how hyper-technical it is, how many ridiculous tiny rules there are, and how serious it takes itself. Baseball is a game and should be treated like a game whose purpose is entertainment. Some subjectivism is part of what makes it enjoyable. In addition, it is a good for us to understand that some things are just out of our control, and not everyone is always treated the same or fairly - true in life, true in baseball. Particularly this is true of something as basic and fundamental to the game as balls and strikes.
Instant replay is not very different, in my mind. It's true that an unfair or incorrect call occasionally happens and a game can even turn on one, but isn't this part of the game? And would instant replay really change it? I'd be okay with some type of automated system to determine foul pole shots, because that is so tough for the human eye to determine, but any type of instant replay that would lenghten an already too-long game just leaves me cold. I have always ridiculed American football for instant replay; it's "challenges" remind me of my daily existence as a lawyer - there is a standard of review (clearly erroneous), cost-shifting for bringing a challenge (the lost timeout), and, on the whole, I can't help feeling that it is faintly ridiculous to apply the same standards to whether Laverneus Coles is out of bounds as I deal with in a fraud or constitutional lawsuit. And the length issue is a serious concern.
Don't get me wrong; I take baseball seriously. I'm not a stat-hater, in fact, I like sabermetric stats and the like. But I prefer baseball to be a game whose outcome is determined by humans. It sounds cliche, but isn't the human element part of the game? Or should we replace the coaches with computers too? I should say I'm fine with QuesTec (so long as it is reasonably accurate), I think it's good to bring a little accountability to umps to make sure they're doing what they should be, I just don't think the computers should directly control the calls. I also think that, generally speaking, umps do a great job calling the game and have improved a ton.
Feel free to disagree, to agree, or to post your own suggestions about rule changes you'd like to see. Now getting rid of the "human element" in sportswriting, on the other hand....