The way the robo-umpire experiment down in the Atlantic League is configured, it should not especially threaten the jobs of human umpires, who are still tasked with communicating balls and strikes and acting as a failsafe against computer glitches. That’s good news for all human umpires, but perhaps none more so than Rob Drake, who got himself into trouble Monday night with an especially inexplicable strike zone.
In the second inning of the Dodgers-Padres game, Drake called a ball on a 2–1 slider from Padres pitcher Eric Lauer, facing hunky slugger Cody Bellinger. Bellinger’s eye and plate discipline are tremendous, but this pitch almost literally could not have been more of a strike than it was:
Not only is that a strike, it’s also a fat fucking grapefruit of a mistake pitch, and had it been correctly called a strike, or had the plate appearance ended with an out instead of a walk, Bellinger would’ve been kicking himself for not tattooing that pitch into the stratosphere. Bellinger was eventually stranded on the bases, and Lauer would go on to collect the win, so no harm no foul, right? Not exactly.
A consequence of an umpire having a glaringly screwy strike zone is players lose their ability to anticipate what will and will not be called a strike. Drake’s strike zone was particularly erratic for lefty pitchers, which meant the Dodgers lineup, which faced eight innings of lefty pitching, was flustered and irritable. In the ninth inning, with two down and the tying run on base, Drake made a not-especially-controversial strike call on a filthy Kirby Yates 1–2 fastball on the outside corner, and the batter, Justin Turner, let Drake hear it.
Less worrisome than that the pitch was called a strike—it looked to me like a strike, and anyway that’s a nasty pitch and I prefer to think of it as a strike—is how Drake apparently described the pitch, to Turner:
Baseball America had an interesting article recently about how robot umpires might disadvantage a certain kind of precision pitcher who nibbles on the corners and successfully teases out a wider strike zone from fallible human umpires. That possibility plus concerns about the potentially lost art of pitch framing do add up to a worthy aesthetic counterpoint to the seemingly inevitable movement toward robo-umps, which by this reckoning would further emphasize pure and unsubtle power pitching. It may not work out that way, but it’s worth contemplating unintended consequences, especially if they could move the game toward an even more exaggerated version of what it’s become in 2019.
But just as soon as I start tugging my collar over the impending technological disruption of baseball umpiring, here comes Rob Drake, bewildering an utterly exasperated Dodgers lineup and making a powerfully persuasive case for the hiring of Robo Drake. If nothing else, Robo Drake would never exaggerate the placement of a pitch in order to justify a call that needed no justification. Robo Drake would say bleep blorp and leave Justin Turner to suck on that.