Bernstein: MLB, NFL Ready To Experiment

An electronic strike zone and a replacement for onside kicks are good ideas.

Dan Bernstein
January 22, 2020 - 1:55 pm

(670 The Score) It's back to the lab for two of our major professional sports, with both MLB and the NFL announcing that they plan to use exhibition play to test new ways to improve the quality of their respective games. And it's a good thing on both counts.

For baseball, it's an objectively called strike zone for some upcoming spring training contests, employing cameras to standardize something the middle-aged humans behind the plate just keep getting wrong too often. Pitch framing by catchers is a measurable and valuable skill, and it can just as easily be called umpire fooling -- using the market inequity of a receiver taking advantage of eyes decreasingly able to match modern velocity and movement. The rise of the robot army is upon us.

"Robots may be an overstatement," MLB commissioner Rob Manfred told Fox Business on Wednesday. "The system actually is a camera-based system. It does call balls and strikes ... We're going to be using it during spring training and in some of our minor leagues this year."

The machines will determine ball or strike and the home-plate umpire will be notified via an earpiece in time for him to make his usual indication. So it may not appear different to those of us watching, particularly with so many umps now delaying their call so they can process what they just saw (or in too many cases, failed to see).

"We think it's more accurate than a human being standing there," Manfred said. "The current strike zone is designed as three-dimensional, and a camera is better at calling a three-dimensional strike zone than the human eye."

Good. The umpires' union recently agreed to such experimentation and eventual implementation in collective bargaining, so let's get on with it. Missed calls are good for nothing, pitchers and hitters both can benefit from knowing there won't be wild swings from game to game of what is a strike and what isn't and the value of a poor framing catcher like Willson Contreras goes through the roof.

Meanwhile, the Pro Bowl on Sunday will feature a new end-game wrinkle that was proposed and rejected last offseason, one that seeks to counterbalance the effect of recent safety rules on kickoffs that have made the successful onside kick all but extinct in the NFL.

If a team wants to retain possession after scoring, it can opt one time for a fourth-and-15 from it's own 35-yard line in lieu of kicking off. Once declared, the option is a final answer that can't be changed. Should the chance be converted, the drive continues. If not, it's the opponent's ball at the point of the play's conclusion.

For me, this concept falls somewhere between "Why not?" and "Hell, yeah!" Trick plays can be dusted off for such special occasions, so all of these brilliant offensive minds can wow us with creative genius. Or individual greatness can shine in new and different ways. Regardless, it places the responsibility back in the hands of the players who matter most to decide a game, instead of third-string special teamers left to corral a ball bouncing around with only a bit of controlled purpose, almost always ending up under a pile of writhing limbs that untangles into the nebulous evidence of replay review.

There will be unintended consequences for each of these new ideas, so let's figure out what they may be sooner rather than later. I'm in for all of it.

Dan Bernstein is a co-host of 670 The Score’s Bernstein & McKnight Show in midday. You can follow him on Twitter @Dan_Bernstein.