Could MLB umpires using PitchCom help with strike calls? Players have mixed feelings

May 21, 2024; St. Louis, Missouri, USA; St. Louis Cardinals’ Lars Nootbaar (21) talks to umpire Mike Estabrook (83) after being ejected during the second inning of a baseball all game against the Baltimore Orioles at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Le-USA TODAY Sports

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 percent through Wednesday, well above their overall average of 89.1 percent since 2008, when tracking began.

Then again, on pitches classified as “on the corners,” the accuracy rate dropped to 56.6 percent this season and fell to 45.9 percent for pitches on the corners with two strikes. Both figures are about 10 percent 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 percent, with the Mariners just behind, at 7 percent. 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.

Since the Phillies opened Citizens Bank Park 20 years ago, the flower beds above the left field wall have been a charming little part of the scenery. The first homer there, by Bobby Abreu in 2004, cleared the flowers. So did pitcher Joe Blanton’s homer in the 2008 World Series, and Bryce Harper’s “Bedlam at the Bank” blast in 2022.

But if April showers bring May flowers, then what happened to the floral arrangements in Philly? For TV viewers this season, it seems that the flowers are no more, replaced by a short orange billboard stretching above the length of the left field wall.

A recent visit to the park, however, revealed that the flowers never went anywhere at all. They’re just hidden by that billboard — which, ironically, advertises a “vegetation management” company that managed that vegetation right out of view.

This begs the question: Since the flowers never left, could they somehow become visible again to more than the few stadium sections angled just right? And are they actively being maintained, or just withering away? The flowers we spotted don’t exactly look ready for the Morris Arboretum.

The Phillies insist they haven’t forgotten about the flowers and are said to be considering various plans for what to do with them. Maybe they’ll have a pregame ceremony for their return, featuring former Phillies Kevin Flora, Erik Plantenberg and Pete Rose.

That’s for a later date, though. As for now — well, mum’s the word.

Lucas Erceg throws right-handed and bats left-handed, just like Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Dodgers. But while Ohtani has thrived as a two-way star — at least when major elbow surgeries don’t get in the way — a nagging issue kept Erceg from really trying.

“Every time I swung over a changeup, I would hyperextend my elbow,” Erceg said recently. “Then I’d get put back two days from outings because my elbow was sore. So it just didn’t translate.”

That was in Double A in the Milwaukee Brewers’ system in 2021, and it forced Erceg to shelve his .256 career average (with 55 homers) and dedicate himself fully to pitching. A former third baseman, he reached the majors last season with the Athletics, joining other active pitchers who started as position players in the minors, like Kenley Jansen of the Red Sox, Jose Cuas of the Cubs and Jordan Weems of the Nationals.

Erceg — who marks his first day of sobriety (June 10, 2020) on his glove — now serves as the primary setup man for Mason Miller, giving Oakland a pair of young, hard-throwing relievers who could appeal to contenders before the trade deadline. Here are some of his tips on how to make a successful transition to the mound.

1. Study up. “I had pitched in high school and college, but being reintroduced to it at the professional level was definitely different. I realized very quickly that pitching isn’t just throwing as hard as I can right down the middle, because guys at the pro level are getting paid to hit hard velo. So for me, it was just about really understanding that pitching is kind of the same as hitting — you’re just playing a chess game. The biggest improvement I’ve made is studying hitters and reading swings during the at-bat, making little changes according to the situation, doing my research on the hitters’ weak spots and how the things I do well blend with that.”

2. It’s not a bad outing if you learn from it. “At the beginning I didn’t have a lot of success — I was walking a lot of guys, and I would get behind (in) counts, throw my fastball for a double and I’d be like, ‘What’s going on?’ But the more reps I put on top of each other allowed me to understand that it doesn’t matter whether I do well or not, I am building my experience. In essence, I’m making sure that in every outing, I know what I did well, I know what I didn’t do well, and I can move forward.”

3. Train for durability. “Because last year was the most innings I’ve thrown in a season — including Triple A, about 70 — I knew this year I was either going to meet or exceed that. So I made sure that my mobility and conditioning, my everyday routine, was superior to weightlifting and strength. I did work on strength stuff, but my focus was to make sure I’m available every day, because availability was my best ability.”

4. There’s no such thing as a pitching slump. “It was definitely harder as a position player to keep a confident, positive mindset day in, day out. You go 0-for-4 with two punchies, you’re going home that day thinking, ‘I don’t want to drag that into tomorrow’ — and next thing you know, you’re dragging it into tomorrow. So that turns into a 10-day skid where you get one or two hits in 35 at-bats, and now you’re like, ‘Oh no.’ As a pitcher, say I had a bad outing yesterday. I end up throwing a lot of pitches, they’re high-stress, so I’m most likely down the next day. You have enough time to look at what you did right and wrong and prepare for your next outing, whereas hitting is basically every day. It was easier to kind of take each outing as its own little thing and not kind of compound it.”

5. The dream (of hitting) is over. “Let it rest peacefully. Yeah, I still think about how fun it would be to take BP and hit in a game, and do things at the big-league level as a position player. Even taking groundballs during BP would be really fun. I know I’m here for one reason and that’s pitching, putting up zeroes, so I don’t have any real visions of hitting. But do I think I could still do it? Absolutely.”

One of the fun parts of the Immaculate Grid is how it contextualizes the greatness of players we took for granted. On Monday, the game asked for a player with 300 career home runs and a .300 career average. It’s a surprisingly short list.

Of the 161 players with 300 career homers, only 27 also hit .300. That group includes 22 Hall of Famers and three players not yet eligible: Miguel Cabrera, Robinson Canó and the Dodgers’ Freddie Freeman. The others are Manny Ramirez, whose candidacy is tainted by his PED suspensions, and Alou.

Players with .300 career average and 300 home runs:

This isn’t to say that Alou belongs in Cooperstown; he made one appearance on the ballot, in 2014, and got six votes of the 571 cast. But he made the All-Star team for five different teams (Expos, Marlins, Astros, Cubs and Giants) and was such a skilled hitter that he never struck out more than 87 times in a season.

Alou was also one of the two biggest MVP snubs in World Series history (with David Price, who should have won over Steve Pearce for Boston in 2018). Playing for the Marlins against the Indians in 1997, Alou hit .321 and started the game-tying rally in the ninth inning of Game 7 off Jose Mesa. He also belted go-ahead three-run homers in Games 1 and 5, lifting Livan Hernandez to two wins.

That’s a wildly impactful performance, yet it was Hernandez, with a 5.27 ERA and more walks than strikeouts, who won the award. Alou later owned a racehorse named “The Real MVP.”

Willie Mays made his debut for the New York Giants 73 years ago this weekend, starting three games in a row against the Phillies and going hitless at Connie Mack Stadium. He was despondent until manager Leo Durocher reassured him.

“I was crying,” Mays told his biographer, John Shea, for their book, “24,” in 2020. “I was upset. I wanted to go back to (Triple-A) Minneapolis. I told Leo this league might be too fast for me. He said, ‘Son, you’re my center fielder. You just go out and catch the ball. We’ll hit for you.’”

Turns out Mays could hit just fine: He homered off the great Warren Spahn in his first at-bat at the Polo Grounds on May 28, 1951, and was on his way to 660.

Some 15 years later, in San Francisco, Mays was a certified baseball legend coming off his second Most Valuable Player award — but in those days before free agency, he could still use some extra cash. Mays was friends with the actress Donna Reed and her husband, producer Tony Owen — and according to another biographer, James S. Hirsch, “they told him that whenever he needed money, he could come on ‘The Donna Reed Show.’”

Mays took them up on the offer and made three appearances, the last one coming on Jan. 29, 1966, in an episode titled “Calling Willie Mays.” In one scene, Mays asks a woman if she rooted for the Giants.

“Last season, I followed the Dodgers,” she admits, and Mays replies, “So did we.”

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