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Seattle Mariners

Could MLB umpires using PitchCom help with strike calls? Mariners, other players weigh-in

Logan Gilbert of the Seattle Mariners pitches during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on May 4, 2024, in Houston.  (Getty Images)
By Tyler Kepner The Athletic

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Sliders, a weekly in-season MLB column that focuses on both the timely and timeless elements of baseball.

Scott Servais spent 11 seasons as a major-league catcher, and sometimes, he tried to help the man hovering behind his back.

“If there were certain pitches that I knew would be tougher for the umpire to call, I would comment to him, ‘Hey, we’re gonna be doing a lot of this today,’” said Servais, now the manager of the Seattle Mariners. “Like if it was a lefty with a big slider or a hard cutter, I might say, ‘We’re gonna be running this in here a lot,’ just to give him a heads-up.”

The idea was that if the umpire knew the pitcher’s intentions, he might reward him with more strike calls if he consistently executed his game plan. Now, with PitchCom, baseball has the technology to allow umpires to know the intention of every pitch. But umpires don’t use the device.

The Minnesota Twins’ Carlos Correa said last week that he thinks they should, and Servais acknowledged he’d never considered a modern application of his old technique. Yet the more he thought about the concept, the less he liked it.

“If you’re expecting a pitch to break a certain way and it’s not there – it’s still a strike, but you’re like, ‘No, it can’t be a strike because it was supposed to be over here,’” Servais said. “So maybe now they call it a ball. There may be some benefits to it and I wouldn’t rule it out, but I’d have to push back on Carlos in that regard.”

Correa raised the idea in Cleveland last weekend after some borderline ball-strike calls went against the Twins in a close loss to the Guardians. Correa is not a chronic complainer – he’s never been ejected – but thinks the PitchCom would help umpires call a more accurate zone.

“It just occurred to me because I was thinking during the game about that,” Correa told Dan Hayes of The Athletic. “If umpires knew what was coming, it would be a lot easier for them to call balls and strikes instead of just trying to guess what way the ball is going to go. I think it’s a great idea and something we need to talk about with the league and the Players Association, because we want everybody to get the right calls. I think that would help big time.”

The presence of the strike-zone box on TV allows every home viewer to be an instant critic, and may overstate the depth of the problem. According to TruMedia (using data from MLB), umpires had a ball-strike accuracy rate of 92.5 % through Wednesday, well above their overall average of 89.1 % since 2008, when tracking began.

Then again, on pitches classified as “on the corners,” the accuracy rate dropped to 56.6 % this season and fell to 45.9 % for pitches on the corners with two strikes. Both figures are about 10 % more accurate in 2024 than they have been across the 17 seasons of data – but there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

The Twins’ pitchers had the lowest walk rate in the majors through Wednesday, at 6.7 %, with the Mariners just behind, at 7 %. Their pitchers wouldn’t seem to have much of an issue with the strike zone, but even so, the Mariners’ pitchers seemed to like Correa’s idea.

Starter Bryce Miller: “I think it would help. Sometimes I think if the catcher’s set up for a certain location and we miss, it’s (automatically) a ball. But if (the umpire) knows a splitter’s coming, he should be looking at the bottom of the zone. So if you throw it there, it might help in getting that pitch.”

Reliever Gabe Speier: “I never even thought about it, but I think it would help umpires, for sure, if they knew what was coming. I think that’s a cool idea. I think that more balls are called strikes than strikes are called balls; more pitches off the plate are called strikes, it seems.”

Starter George Kirby: “I know what (he’s) saying – it probably would be a good idea. Sometimes they get fooled, it happens. But it might help the hitters if it’s loud enough that they could hear it. I wouldn’t like that.”

Former umpire Ted Barrett raised that issue too, saying that some umpires might need to crank up their earpiece, which would inadvertently give away the pitch to the hitter. But Barrett, who called games from 1994 to 2022, wouldn’t dismiss the idea entirely.

“Me personally, I never wanted to know; I didn’t have to hit, so I could wait to react after it’s received,” he said. “I would try it in a spring training game to see if it helped – but, man, you need a Batman utility belt now to keep everything in place.”

Mariners designated hitter Mitch Garver, who has caught more than 300 games in the majors, explained why the idea might have merit. Then he hit on the point that is said to most concern Major League Baseball.

“I’ve caught some guys with outlier stuff, and those are the pitches that really screw up the umpires – like the low-release fastball that rides the bottom of the zone and catches the lower half, or the sweeping breaking ball that comes all the way across the plate, it’s hard for them to see that cross,” Garver said.

“I’m trying to think of a negative to that (idea), and the only thing I could think of is that an opposing team might be able to relay the way a certain umpire sets up for a different pitch.”

If an umpire knows a splitter is coming, Garver added, he might crouch down a bit, expecting the pitch to be low. Likewise, he guessed, if a high fastball is on its way, he might stand more upright.

According to an MLB official, who was granted anonymity to discuss internal planning, the league has explored the idea but decided against implementing it. The reason is precisely what Garver mentioned: The league does not want to create another situation that could tempt teams to relay signals to the batter.

After the sign-stealing scandal involving Correa’s 2017 Astros team, anything that might lead to similar activity is a non-starter for MLB. So as intriguing as Correa’s concept might be, the inspiration for PitchCom’s existence is the same reason it won’t be given to umpires.