Miami Marlins

Could robot umpires be baseball’s future? Marlins manager says it ‘almost has to happen’

A dejected Miami Marlins left fielder Curtis Granderson (21) walks away from the plate after striking out while San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges (18) walks towards the closing pitcher to end the game in the ninth as the Miami Marlins play the San Diego Padres at Marlins Park on Wednesday, July 17, 2019.
A dejected Miami Marlins left fielder Curtis Granderson (21) walks away from the plate after striking out while San Diego Padres catcher Austin Hedges (18) walks towards the closing pitcher to end the game in the ninth as the Miami Marlins play the San Diego Padres at Marlins Park on Wednesday, July 17, 2019.

Miami Marlins manager Don Mattingly has openly voiced his disdain for bad calls this season. He has been ejected twice this year for arguing balls and strikes.

And when his frustration boiled over once again on Wednesday night at Marlins Park, he used it as another chance to share his thoughts.

The scene: The Marlins, who were being no-hit through seven innings against the San Diego Padres’ Chris Paddack, break up the shutout in the eighth, get another run in the ninth and have the tying run at third base with two outs.

Curtis Granderson works his way to a full count against Padres closer Kirby Yates.

The sixth pitch comes in high above the strike zone.

Strike 3. Game over. Marlins lose 3-2.

“You hate to see a game end on Ball 4,” Mattingly said.

He follows up: “The league tells me you sound like you’re making excuses if you complain about [balls and strikes]. Obviously the stuff that’s going on in the Atlantic League, it’s going to happen. It almost has to happen.”

The “stuff” Mattingly referred to is the use of an automated strike zone, more colloquially known as a “robot umpire.”

The possibility for this surfaced in February, when MLB and the Atlantic League agreed to a three-year partnership in which the independent league is used basically as a testing ground with new rules before deciding if they should be implemented at the MLB level. The earliest any of these new rules could be implemented is 2021 after the current collective bargaining agreement ends.

The computerized strike zone, which would eliminate human error in determining balls and strikes, is one of the primary topics discussed.

The computerized strike zone uses TrackMan radar technology to determine whether a pitch is a ball or strike. The information is relayed to a human umpire standing behind home plate wearing a wireless ear piece who will then relay the call. Umpires have the judgment to make their own calls in certain cases, such as if the system glitches.

“Hopefully,” Mattingly said, “the technology gets there quick.”

For a look at the human side of it, consider this:

Based on Statcast data heading into Saturday’s slate of games, umpires have incorrectly called 8.8 percent of pitches this season in which the batter does not swing. That could be either calling a strike on a pitch out of the zone or squeezing the zone and calling a ball on a pitch that should have been a strike.

Specifically with the Marlins:

8.6 percent of pitches Miami hitters have taken outside of the strike zone have been called for strikes. That’s the fourth-highest rate in baseball behind the San Diego Padres (9.2 percent), Pittsburgh Pirates (8.7 percent) and Cincinnati Reds (8.6 percent). The league average is 7.5 percent.

The Marlins have struck out looking 39 times on pitches that were outside of the zone.

There have been 19 botched called Strike 3s with two outs in the ninth inning or later when the batting team had the tying or winning run on base or at the plate. The Marlins are one of four teams that have fallen victim in this situation twice, with Granderson the latest example.

On the pitching side, the Marlins have been in the middle of the road in terms of calls. They have had 12.3 percent of taken pitches inside the strike zone called as balls, slightly above the league average of 11.98 percent. Conversely, 7.6 percent of Marlins pitches outside the strike zone that were not swung at have been called strikes, a tad above the 7.5 percent average around the league.

And Mattingly has voiced his opinions on those issues as they impacted the Marlins.

On April 1, after a 7-3 loss to the Mets, he called the umpiring “shaky” after two missed Strike 3 calls early and a ninth-inning hit-by-pitch call on a bunt attempt that sparked the Mets’ four-run, game-winning rally.

“I understand the whole ‘Marlins aren’t supposed to be good this year’ and I guess it it’s OK to pile on, but they’ve got to — it’s got to be better than that,” Mattingly said at the time. “It was shaky tonight.”

Mattingly was ejected in the Marlins’ 7-2 loss to the Braves after arguing about a low called strike on a Jorge Alfaro at-bat in the sixth inning that should have been Ball 4. The call came an inning after a borderline 1-2 pitch from Marlins starter Jose Urena against Brian McCann was called a ball. McCann proceeded to hit a two-run home run.

Both Mattingly and Miguel Rojas were ejected during a 6-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on June 2 after arguing balls and strikes.

“I feel like sometimes they make calls because the game is a little [lopsided] right there. You don’t know if you can come back,” Rojas said at the time.

And on July 7, the last game before the All-Star Break, Mattingly said he felt umpires gave Braves starter Dallas Keuchel “the ball off the plate all day” in a 4-3 Marlins loss. Keuchel had 15 called strikes in that game. At least six, according to his pitch chart on Statcast, were outside the strike zone.

Even on Friday night, following a 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, Mattingly smirked when asked about rookie pitcher Zac Gallen’s performance against All-Star and National League MVP contender Cody Bellinger — a two-strikeout night that would have been three if not for a missed called Strike 3 with a full count in the second inning.

“I know they’re trying,” Mattingly said Wednesday, “but there’s way too many misses.”

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Jordan McPherson covers the Miami Marlins and high school sports for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and covered the Gators athletic program for five years before joining the Herald staff in December 2017.