Robot Umpires

Let me start by saying this: I hate bad umpiring, especially on balls and strikes calls.  I can’t stress this enough.  It absolutely drives me crazy.  I can still tell you the exact innings and pitches that the umps blew some balls and strikes calls in the 2004 ALCS.  And the thing is, I hate complaining about it, because I hate complaining about umpiring in general.  It seems whiny.

In the postseason this year, a lot was made out of some obvious blown calls on the field by the umps (and those certainly weren’t alright either) but balls and strikes completely dictate the course of the game.  One pitch – making the count 2 – 1 instead of 1 – 2, for example – completely changes the game.  What makes it particularly frustrating is it’s a completely binary thing; either a pitch is a strike or it isn’t.  Yet there is so much change from umpire to umpire, game to game, and even inning to inning, that it has a palpable impact upon the outcome.

Back in the postseason, I noted how AJ Burnett became ineffectual in the World Series once the umpire would no longer call his outside breaking pitch a strike.  Was that Burnett’s fault?  Well sure, he should have adjusted, but if he had the same strike zone as in game 2, the Yankees might win that game.  Any way you look at it, the umpire was dictating the results, and that’s not alright.

So here’s the thing: we have pitch f/x and other digital ways of determining the strike zone, so how long until we simply digitally decide whether a pitch is a ball or strike?  No interpretation.  Either it is or it isn’t.

I mentioned this idea to an acquaintance right after the playoffs and his response was “if they start doing that, I won’t watch baseball anymore.”

I found this immensely puzzling.  I asked for an explanation.

“It takes all the human element out of the game.”

Now, I’ve heard of umpires being part of the “human element” before, and this media-created phrase is absolute garbage.  The PLAYERS are the human element.  How many John Hirschbeck jerseys do you see around (he’s number 17, by the way)?

The real problem is that baseball is incredibly conservative.  As I mentioned in my Mark McGwire post, people still think ballplayers should be fueled by “hot dogs and beer” because that’s how “Babe Ruth did it.”  Baseball fans are terrified of progress.  Football fans understand instant replay as a natural progression of the sport.  They even accept that a good number of the players they are watching use performance-enhancing drugs.  It’s a byproduct of our culture and while football fans certainly don’t go out of their way to applaud it, they implicitly understand why it happens.

This ties partly to how we experience these sports.  We remember baseball.  It’s a game of nostalgia.  It makes us think of our childhood, of summer, of eras long gone (and that’s partly why we get so enraged about steroids; they aren’t changing the game now as much as they are changing how we remember an era of the game).  Football is a game that lives more in the moment.  We don’t associate it with other events.  It IS the event.  Football simply is Sunday and the Super Bowl is practically its own holiday.

So we don’t want baseball to change but we expect football to evolve.  The irony here is that baseball is the sport that could most easily be improved by modern progress.  It has the easiest statistics to analyze.  It has simple parameters for both balls and strikes and on the field calls.  Yet people fight vehemently against these things.

Why not have a “robot” calling balls and strikes?  It ensures that the call is correct.  Why not have an umpire up in the booth instead, who can quickly use replay to make sure on the field calls are correct?  It could happen in seconds (and if you doubt this, just think – how long does it take you, watching a telecast, to figure out whether a call was correct?) and then there is no way managers could slow the game down arguing; an umpire just saw indisputable video evidence – how do you argue with that?  In fact, the rule should be if you waste time arguing that, you get ejected.

I know this is a pipe dream and instead I’ll just be left swearing at my TV screen.  I just hope all those people out there are enjoying the bad calls and really taking in all that “human-element” goodness.

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6 Responses to Robot Umpires

  1. Richard Krauser says:

    You couldn't be more correct. I've been saying this for years. Let some lasers make an invisible 3 dimensional box based on the batters stance & if the pitch touches any part of it, it's a strike. It seems quite simple.
    They took the human element out of collecting tolls at the George Washington Bridge. It didn't seem to hurt the experience.

  2. Brandon says:

    Very, very good job on this one. Outstanding.


  3. I’m all down for machines calling balls and strikes. I think it’s only a matter of time before it happens. It might be 5-10 years, but it will happen. As for resistance against replays, I’ve always felt that it was partially due to the fact that everyone can remember a time when a bad call went their way. I mean off the top of my head there was the Jeffrey Mair home run, that time Knoblauch made the phantom tag in the World Series, the non-call strike three on Tino Martinez against the Padres. This is stuff that has helped the Yankees win and every team has their own instances.

    That shouldn’t stop them from getting the calls right though.

  4. theboogiedown says:

    I was all for instant replay after watching the umpiring debacle that was the ’09 playoffs, that was until 3 out of 8 plays went under review last night during the NO/MN game last night. While getting the call right has to be paramount, boy it sure took more fun out of an overtime game than anything I’ve ever experienced. Granted, the “flow” of a game can be much more vital in football than in baseball (not even worth comparing really) but it really made a great victory kinda boring. And I was going for the Saints.
    Baseball does review a lot faster so I don’t think it would ever be such an issue but I think it warrants debate. Gotta disagree with you on the ball strike issue though, RA. Everything does evolve but would it be ok if baseball was the one thing that didn’t? If for no other reason than for the points you mentioned above yourself.

  5. I think what you said about the flow of the game is very important here. Whatever they do going forward with this has to be something that can happen quickly. Otherwise I don’t think the majority of people will be happy.

  6. jp says:

    I am all for getting calls right too, but I think umps play a different role in baseball than in other sports. Unlike pretty much every other sport, the umpire's call is part of the visual spectacle of the game. Think of an ump punching out a batter on a called strike 3, or an emphatic out call on a close play at first. The umps physical act of making the call is part of the game in a way that refs' calls are not in basketball or football.

    Seeing the umps call on close plays is a big part of the visual experience.

    Now maybe that's just because we've all grown up seeing umps making calls. Still, I think there's something different about an emphatic called third strike, and say, a red bulb lighting up.

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