All of it was headed toward Barksdale, and it formed a giant ball of rage and controversy. Barksdale’s faulty ball-strike calls did not define the Houston Astros’ 7-1 victory in Game 5 of the World Series, and they did not deserve credit reserved for Gerrit Cole or blame assigned to Washington’s quiet bats and leaky bullpen. But they did overtake the conversation during the game, and they will provide a backdrop as Major League Baseball continues a seemingly inevitable — if potentially misguided — creep toward robot umpires.
All game, the Nationals fumed over borderline calls that went against them. Immediately and decisively, technology allowed them, their fans and anybody with an Internet connection to validate their anger. The combination proved toxic for the sport. On its grandest stage, umpiring decisions became not only a small part of why the Nationals sunk into a 3-2 series hole but also a dominant topic of conversation that overshadowed the baseball brilliance on display.
It is precisely that scenario that prompts MLB’s consideration of an automated ball-strike system. Players, media and fans have instant access to data compiled by TrackMan and synthesized into binary outcomes. Ball or strike. Right or wrong. The only person without access is the umpire, the man charged with making decisions that games and seasons and legacies hang on.
On several occasions Sunday night, the technology left no doubt that Barksdale — an umpire whom even aggrieved Nationals classified as proficient at his job — had gotten it wrong. In the sixth inning, reliever Tanner Rainey threw a fastball to Michael Brantley that was in the zone on its entire path and didn’t even touch a corner, and Barksdale called it a ball.
In the seventh inning, Robles took a 3-2, 98-mph fastball from Cole that started well outside the zone and swerved back toward the corner but didn’t come close to touching it. When Barksdale rang him up, equipment flew and boos rained. In a regular season game, both Robles and Manager Dave Martinez, who railed from the top step, probably would have been ejected for their outbursts. Barksdale may have spared them because even he knew they were justified.
Afterward, the Nationals opted for diplomacy. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman said Cole beat them, not Barksdale. Catcher Yan Gomes acknowledged the questions would not be asked if there wasn’t a problem, but he offered no criticism.
“You know what? I will not ever sit here and criticize an umpire,” Martinez said. “I’ve known Lance for a very long time, and he’s really good. And that’s all I’m going to say about it. I’m not going to sit here — I know there were some choice words, but that’s just in the heat of the moment. They’re doing their job, and they do it really well. That’s why they’re an umpire in the World Series.”
A reporter asked outfielder Adam Eaton about whether, after a season spent controlling the strike zone so well, he and his teammates found frustration by a zone taken out of their control.
“Did you watch the game?” Eaton said, cracking a wry smile.
The game is not only watched. It is analyzed and tracked to a granular level. After an at-bat or an inning on the mound, players can pick up a tablet in the dugout and confirm their suspicions that they had been jobbed.
“It can be frustrating when you’re not getting borderline calls and then you see some borderline calls go the other way,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. “But that’s part of the human element of the game. I thought there were times tonight when we didn’t get a call. Tanner Rainey, for example. He stayed in it, and I think he got him out on the very next pitch. Joe Ross made a great pitch to [Carlos] Correa and put it right on the corner. He just didn’t get it. He hits the home run a couple pitches later.
“It’s tough, but it’s still part of the game. It should’ve been a walk to Robles, and — I don’t know. I think what we can’t do right now — and I don’t think anybody in here is using it as an excuse or a crutch — but it can’t be something we’re thinking about. I don’t think it’s going to be, knowing the character of this team. You’ve got to turn the page and come out ready to go in Game 6. Whole new ballgame.”
“In the minor leagues when we didn’t have any of that [technology], we still were able to yell at the umpires,” Eaton said. “As players, you just have an overall feeling of how the game’s going and the vibe of guys coming back. We discuss literally every pitch to each other. I would agree you have the evidence right then and there.”
The next logical step, of course, is that if everybody can see clear-cut results immediately, why shouldn’t they be used to determine outcomes rather than a failure-prone set of human eyes? Game 5 of the World Series raised the question: Should MLB use an electronic system to call balls and strikes?
“I don’t know,” Doolittle said. “I’ve gone back and forth on this. I don’t know. We can talk about it after the World Series.”
“Call me in like January or spring training and ask me that question,” Eaton said.
Gomes had the most clever version of avoidance. Asked whether the box representing the strike zone on a pitch-tracking display should determine actual balls and strikes, he paused. “Wouldn’t the box get in the way?” he said, chuckling.
It may be coming soon. If you want to know how MLB wants to run its game, the best place to look is the minor leagues, where it can implement rule changes without restriction imposed by the collective bargaining agreement. This year, MLB formed a partnership with the independent Atlantic League and experimented with robot umpires by using a setup called the automated ball-strike system. It also employed the ABS system this year in the Arizona Fall League.
The introduction of the system in the majors would come with undesirable consequences, some of them unintended and some unforeseen. It would change the way the sport looks as we know it. For 150 years, a pitcher who missed his spot in the strike zone and made his catcher lunge awkwardly often was punished with a ball; those would become strikes. The three-dimensional nature of the strike zone, and the human eye’s ability to recognize how a 90-mph projectile flies through that plot, means balls in the dirt have always been balls, even if they clip the very front of the zone at the knees. Those would become strikes. It would also eradicate the skill of pitch framing or expanding the zone throughout the game, skills that make baseball richer.
MLB does not want the problem the NFL faces. It introduced replay to get calls right. New technology necessitated an expansion of the rule book, to the point that trying to define a simple act such as a catch is rendered undecipherable. Trying to legislate out officiating errors introduced more problems and bastardized the game. Rule books are written with human eyes in mind, and legislating sports with advanced tech inherently changes how those rules govern the sport.
But maintaining the status quo also creates problems. It places umpires in an unfair spot, and their exposure is only growing. A Twitter account with the handle @Jomboy_ has gained a following for an expert ability to enhance and isolate audio of players and umpires picked up by broadcast microphones. After Rainey’s should-have-been strike three, it picked up an exchange between Gomes and Barksdale.
“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said, seeming to suggest he had called the pitch a ball because Gomes had leaped out of his crouch in anticipation of a strike call, which could be perceived as a form of showing up the umpire.
“Oh,” Gomes replied, putting both hands on his chest. “It’s my fault?”
From the dugout, Martinez screamed at Barksdale. “It’s the World Series!” he shouted. “Wake up!” Other voices offered their feedback in a more profane manner.
The Nationals can only hope the calls go their way in Game 6. And MLB can only hope the focus returns to the players.
“Through time, you see umpires and players and managers going at it about the strike zone,” Eaton said. “I think it’s no different now. It’s part of the game I enjoy. I think the banter is great. It’s unbelievable. It’s what makes baseball great. But when you’re on sometimes the bad end of it, it’s not all that fun. That’s the beauty of baseball.”