Some team executives talk about the electronic strike zone as if it’s an inevitability, and the same is true with some players. Technology has improved pitching, hitting and player evaluation, and the thinking goes that Major League Baseball eventually will move to a system that judges balls and strikes to a higher degree of accuracy than the eyes of even the best umpires.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said the other day on Mike & Mike that it might be a matter of years before the sport considered the adoption of an automated strike zone, and even then, he noted, there would have to be a conversation about all of the implications of taking this particular human element out of the game. MLB would not only have to work through the details with the players' association -- some of whose members say privately they would love to see an electronic strike zone -- as well as the umpires’ union.
But some in the game have mulled this eventual development to the degree that they have posed an interesting question: If an electronic strike zone is used, how will the competitors and the fans be alerted when a ball or strike is called?
“Are you going to have an umpire there with an earpiece?” asked one player. “Will [the umpire] be told what the call is, and then give the sign?”
On Sunday Night Baseball, the K Zone identifies the pitch as a ball or strike immediately, the instant that it passes through or outside the strike zone, so the process should be seamless. Last weekend, ESPN's Will Dorney -- in St. Louis to do graphics for Sunday Night Baseball -- mentioned an idea that you could envision the moment he said it out loud: Strike and strikeout music for the home pitchers, activated automatically by the strike zone electronics.
In other words: walk-off music for pitchers.
Just imagine: Craig Kimbrel is trying to work his way through a tense situation. Bases loaded and two outs, Aaron Judge at the dish, and Kimbrel tries to do what the Red Sox pitchers tried to do repeatedly against Judge on Friday night -- attacking the top of the strike zone.
And with a full count, Kimbrel nicks the strike zone, and in an instant, there is a flash of red on the scoreboard, and Kimbrel’s strikeout music is activated.
A guitar riff from Jimi Hendrix, or the Rolling Stones’s "Satisfaction." Or the sound of a chainsaw. Or a lawn mower. Or a lightning strike. Or Luke Combs singing "Hurricane" if Kimbrel wanted some country music. If the pitcher wanted to deploy a little pointed humor, he could use the epic episode-closing music from "Curb Your Enthusiasm" -- if the pitcher was willing to risk annoying some opposing hitters.
The umpires have understood for decades the importance of letting the fans and players know the outcome of important pitches, which is how and why so many came to develop their own personal style for signaling a strike three -- like that of Mike Everitt, or Tom Hallion. That inspired this compilation of some interesting strike-three calls from amateur umpires and, of course, Leslie Nielsen in "Naked Gun".
A third strike within the game is a big moment, and with almost the full range of audio available, the possibilities are endless, as Will noted, and teams could get fans involved as well, by asking them to pick the music and sounds that would accompany strike one, strike two, strike three, or the ball and strike calls for the home-team hitters. But if the electronic strike zone ever became a real thing -- and I agree with the players and executives who think that’s it’s inevitable, and perhaps closer to being implemented than a lot of folks realize -- MLB and the players' association will be able to sort through a whole lot of interesting ways to communicate the result of pivotal pitches.
Around the league
Gary Sanchez was promoted to the big leagues last Aug. 3, and since then, he has hit 34 homers in 113 games, including a booming shot off Drew Pomeranz on Friday night. But rival evaluators have seen a major regression in his defense this year, particularly in how he moves behind the plate. One of the theories guiding the Yankees’ handling of Sanchez now is that he got somewhat muscle-bound during the last offseason, gaining 12 pounds through weight training. Sanchez has been in the process of trying to lose that extra weight during the season, to improve his flexibility and his catching.
• Shohei Otani is bound to be the most prominent acquisition target of the offseason, and Eric Hosmer and Yu Darvish will generate a lot of attention in the market. But another high-profile free agent could be Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, who is completing his 20th season at the helm of the team. Theo Epstein set a new bar for front-office pay last year when he and the Cubs negotiated a five-year, $50 million deal, and that standard could help Cashman in his talks in an era in which high-end executive talent is being valued more and more. What is unknown is whether competitive bids begin to develop for him as his contract expires, whether it be from whoever takes control of the Marlins at the end of the bidding process or a team looking for new direction.
Rival executives say that the Braves are very open to offers for Julio Teheran, who is under contract for at least two more seasons beyond this year. He’s earning $6.3 million in 2017, $8 million in 2018, $11 million in ’19 and his contract ends with a $12 million team option for 2020. But Teheran has struggled this season, with an ERA of 4.79. The perception of other teams is that the Braves would like to flip Teheran for prospects, but that in order to do so, Atlanta would need to acquire a comparable front-of-the-rotation starter, which is why the Braves discussed Jose Quintana and have checked in with Oakland about Sonny Gray.
• Oakland is talking up Gray, 27, with other teams, and the right-hander may have provided the mic-drop outing that the Athletics’ front office needs to glean the kind of package it seeks. Facing Cleveland, Gray -- who will be eligible for free agency after the 2019 season -- shut out the Indians for six innings, allowing two hits and no runs, with a walk and five strikeouts. He had a good changeup. Gray is among the best starters available, and the Brewers, Cubs, Astros and Yankees are among the teams that may be involved in the conversations about him; it’s possible that Cleveland could be a match, as well.
• The Indians are looking at a range of possibilities, from complementary pieces to significant upgrades -- and Gray would certainly qualify in the latter category because of the acquisition cost.
• Some teams have looked into the work of Detroit’s Justin Wilson, who will be among the relievers moved before the July 31 deadline. One of the concerns about him is that he is a left-hander who doesn’t dominate left-handed hitters because he doesn’t possess a nasty breaking ball. He has owned right-handed hitters, however: Righties are batting just .126 against him this season, with a .504 OPS, while lefties are hitting .235. Wilson also has some experience closing games, which is why some rival evaluators think he would be a good option for the Washington Nationals.
• The Minnesota Twins have told other clubs in so many terms that they will be measured buyers -- in other words, they won't rip up major parts of their farm system to trade for big names, but they would like to add some help in their pursuit of a wild-card spot. As of Saturday morning, the Twins were just a game behind the Yankees for the second wild-card spot.
• Teams that have actively indicated to other teams they are ready to discussing the marketing of players: the Marlins, Tigers, Athletics, White Sox, Blue Jays, Padres, Mets, Braves, Phillies, Reds and Giants.
• San Diego is absolutely intent on getting the best possible return in the next two weeks for left-handed reliever Brad Hand, who went from being something of a journeyman with the Marlins to an All-Star. The Padres took advantage of Drew Pomeranz’s climb in value in ’16 in the same way: Once Pomeranz ascended and became an All-Star, San Diego flipped him during the All-Star break for prospect Anderson Espinoza.
• Rival executives continue to view the Dodgers as opportunity buyers: They don’t have a glaring hole on their roster, and they have a good farm system from which to make deals. “If they get a shot at a high-end player, you could see them taking it,” said one NL official. “Or maybe they take on somebody’s salary dump. But they are in the best possible position [from which] to make trades.”
• The Angels’ play over the next week may go a long way toward determining what course of action that team will take, rival execs say. If the Angels decide to make a hard run at a wild-card spot, they could add -- but like the Twins, in a measured manner, given that the AL West title is all but out of reach. If the Angels fall back, they could conduct a strategic sell-off to get more controllable pieces as they did a year ago -- and they’ll have close to a dozen players headed into free agency on their 25-man roster, including Bud Norris (1.02 WHIP, 48 strikeouts in 37 ⅓ innings), David Hernandez (2.73 ERA) and Yusmeiro Petit. All are making relatively low salaries and probably wouldn’t clear waivers next month, so if the Angels become sellers this month, it would probably behoove them to swap that trio before the deadline.
Huston Street has made only four appearances this season and is currently on the disabled list, but if the Nationals are looking for a relatively cheap alternative for closer -- assuming that the Angels might eat some dollars in any kind of a swap -- Street might be an option at the end of this month or in August, when Street probably would clear waivers.
Cameron Maybin is making $9 million this year and having a good season, and he could interest teams in need of an outfielder with positional flexibility. Third baseman Yunel Escobar is a good hitter and is making $7 million this season.
• The Rays are looking for bullpen help, and specifically, they are looking for a left-hander -- like the Padres’ Hand.
• Rival executives say the Tigers are very open to discussing Justin Verlander but believe it will be difficult -- almost impossible -- for Detroit to create an acceptable trade. Verlander is a legacy player for the Tigers, a possible Hall of Fame pitcher, but he makes so much over the next 2 ½ seasons (he’s guaranteed more than $75 million) that rival teams almost certainly would look for Detroit to eat a ton of money while also accepting very little in prospect return.
“If you trade a player with that kind of history, you want something to show for it coming back,” said one AL official. “I’m not sure they can get that.”
And there is one last hurdle the Tigers would have to overcome: Verlander would have to approve any trade.
Verlander is 34 years old, has at least 200 innings in nine of the past 10 seasons and has a 4.66 ERA and a FIP of 4.34 this season.
Baseball Tonight Podcast
On the podcast last week:
Friday: Cubs GM Jed Hoyer about how the Jose Quintana deal came together, the value of Quintana’s contract and the implications of the move; Jessica Mendoza on the Home Run Derby and Aaron Judge, and a look ahead; Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times on the surprising decision -- or not surprising, really -- of Colby Rasmus to walk away from baseball; Karl Ravech and Justin Havens ride the Fireball Express together one last time; Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago on what’s next for the Cubs.
Thursday: A conversation with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred about the electronic strike zone and the efforts to improve pace of action; plus Tim Kurkjian on Judge’s emergence, plus a look ahead to the second half.
Wednesday: Keith Law spins forward to the second half; Bob Nightengale of USA Today on the developing trade market; Alex Rodriguez’s thoughts on Judge.
Tuesday: Boog Sciambi, the voice of the Home Run Derby, on what happened in Miami; Pedro Gomez about his interview with Jose Fernandez’s mother; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game; Cody Bellinger at the desk.
And today will be better than yesterday.