Calling Balls And Strikes

Robot Umpire

Calling balls and strikes in major league baseball has to be mechanized. This is obvious and beyond argument, and the only question is what will finally make the bitter-enders abandon their rationalizations and capitulate to reality.

I last wrote about this in 2012 in a post titled “Umpire Accountability, As the Day Of The Robot Approaches,” following a 1-0 game in which a batter in a position to tie the game was called out on strikes by an umpire named Larry Vanover, who rang him up with three balls out of the strike zone for the final 9th inning out. This particular contest was between two teams that had finished the previous season with one of them edging out the other for the play-offs by a single game, on the last day of the schedule. The pitches called strikes in this particular at bat weren’t even close to being over the plate. You could see that all three were wide with the naked eye as they arrived in the catcher’s mitt; you could see it in the computer graphic on the screen, and after the game, the pitches’ locations were charted to show that they were, in fact, balls. I wrote…

Baseball fans invest too much time and emotion into following the games and their teams to just shrug off results warped by obvious incompetence. The kind of atrocious umpiring demonstrated by Vanover…poses a direct challenge to baseball’s integrity. What will baseball’s leaders do about it?

They have only three choices:

1.They can, for the first time, take public and punitive action against umpires whose poor performance exceeds a missed call or a human mistake, and demonstrates inexcusable incompetence or a lack of professionalism. First time: a stiff fine. Second time: a suspension without pay. Third time: dismissal.I know that the umpires union in Major League Baseball protects its incompetents as zealously as the teachers unions, but baseball has its product to protect.

2. Baseball’s leaders can make a commitment to automated strike and out calling, and cut back on crews to one field umpire to keep order and one booth umpire to read the printouts, watch the TV screen, and study the replays.

3. Baseball can reject integrity and credibility, and continue to let the Vanovers on the field wreck the games and alienate fans.

So far, disgracefully, the sport has chosen #3, but the clock is ticking.

This season, I have seen terrible calls at the plate plausibly change the results of at least five baseball games, and bad calls undoubtedly altered events in almost every other game I witnessed too.  In some games, as much as 20% of all ball and strike calls are wrong. Those who don’t follow baseball tend not to understand this, but the difference between whether the fourth pitch, for example, to a batter with a count of two balls and one strike, is called a strike or not is statistically and strategically huge. If the pitch is called a strike, the average of all batters with the resulting 2-2 count is a .193 batting average, with a .584 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage). If the pitch is called a ball, however, the 3-1 count leads, on average, to a .274 average and a 1.029 OPS. How many games are significantly affected by bad calls on the fourth pitch? It’s impossible to say, except to say, “a lot.”

Also “too many.”

Baseball, as you probably know, finally adopted instant replay three years a go. The system isn’t perfect, but it reveals many umpiring mistakes every day, and fixes them. Yes, it takes too long, and yes, even with replay they sometimes get the play wrong. At least, however, we know that a national embarrassment like the one that occurred in 2010, when the last out of what should have been a no-hitter was mistakenly called a hit by a very good umpire although the TV replay instantly showed the audience that the call was not just wrong but astoundingly wrong, can never occur again. That play ensured that the technology available would eventually be used to stop such fiascos, and it only took a few terrible, game-altering calls during play-offs and the World Series to clinch it.

In 2010, the ball and strike calling technology wasn’t as good or as much in evidence as it is now. Today, every cable broadcast as well as national broadcasts show the location of each pitch on computer-measured zone—sometimes in 3-D—that graphically indicates whether the pitch was a ball or a strike. Sometimes it shows the ball literally in the middle of the plate, yet the umpire calls it a “ball.” Other times, we will see lots of black between the zone and the location of the ball, indicating that the ball missed being a true strike by many inches. Never mind: the umpire called the pitch a strike anyway. It’s infuriating, and unnecessary. Not only can these mistakes be avoided, they can be avoided without slowing down the game at all.

This was not always the case, of course. It wasn’t that long ago that many games were not televised, and there was no way to challenge an umpire’s judgment on a ball or strike call unless the botch was wildly egregious. If you have no choice you have no problem, so the fact that umpires missed crucial calls was regarded as a feature of the game, not a bug—“the human factor,” it was lovingly called.  On a recent Boston Red Sox cablecast, former Red Sox player and current color man Steve “Psycho” Lyons was asked about whether he favored automated ball and strike calls, and delivered a classic all-rationalization and logical fallacy rant. (Steve is a well-known idiot, but a glib idiot, hence his current career.) “Why do we need to change anything?” he asked, neatly sidestepping the fact that change has already occurred: once, nobody knew for certain when umpires called a pitch wrong; now the mistake is not only immediately apparent, but preserved. “We’ve always had bad calls; it’s part of the game!” This is Rationalization #1, “Everybody does it” combined with #41. The Evasive Tautology, or “It is what it is”  to reach an absurd conclusion that can be equally logically employed to condemn seat belts and keep the populace smoking three packs of cigarettes a day.

“Nobody’s perfect: these umpires are the best at what they do!”  This  is #19. The Perfection Diversion: “Nobody’s Perfect!” or “Everybody makes mistakes!” at its worst: the fact that nobody’s perfect doesn’t eliminate the obligation to be as good as you can, and the “best umpires,” are no longer good enough, because there are now better and more accurate ways to call balls and strikes. “What next? Why not just have holograms play perfect baseball?” This was a straw man, as well as #9, The Reverse Slippery Slope, reducing a reasonable measure to an unreasonable one by absurd extensions.

My favorite of Lyons’ bad arguments was that bad calls added to the fun of the game. “Controversy is good!” he said. Yes, and when there was legitimate controversy over a particular strike call, back in the days when there was no visual record of a pitch’s location sufficiently accurate and reliable to settle the controversy, maybe Lyons’ point had some validity. When a pitch can be shown to be unequivocally wrongly called, however, there is no controversy. The call is uncontroversially wrong; the athlete who deserved to prevail didn’t. There’s not a thing fun about that, especially if there is no excuse for it, because the technology is available to avoid the problem.

Amusingly, Lyons himself was screaming about a how two terrible calls had robbed the Red Sox of a crucial at bat in a game the very next night. He didn’t sound like he was having fun.

Finally, Lyons pointed out that some catchers are especially adept at “stealing” strike calls, by pulling a ball caught out of the zone into it so quickly and slyly that the umpire is fooled. “Do we want to take that away from them”?, he asked. In a word, yes. That technique developed to take advantage of the umpires’ limitations: it’s cheating, essentially, but a form of cheating that can’t be policed. The rules say a strike is a pitch that crosses the strike zone, not a pitch that the catcher is able to make appear to have crossed the strike zone. The catchers won’t be able to fool the computer after the pitch is completed by where their gloves end up. Good.

Technology allows human beings to address problems that were once regarded as unavoidable. This is just one more example. We convince ourselves that imperfections are charming when we have no choice but to accept them. When there is a means of eliminating them, however, holding on to that delusion is irresponsible. The imperfection that we know can be fixed, meanwhile, becomes an irritant. What was a feature of baseball before the technology to eliminate it existed is now officially a bug.

Baseball has a duty to make sure a strike is called a strike and a ball a ball, and not to keep pretending that it’s fun to let its games be decided by avoidable human error.

28 thoughts on “Calling Balls And Strikes

  1. My answer would have probably been players don’t start in the major leagues no matter how talented they appear, we start them out in the minors. And that’s what we should do with this idea, set up a system in a few minor league parks and try it for a season. If it works out then the next season do it in that entire league and maybe spring in spring training for the bigs. Two years then we’ll know if it’s the thing to do or if this kid with potential still needs some seasoning.

    • This is actually a pretty good idea. Change is always hard for virtually everybody, but easing into it generally makes it easier.

    • That’s how instant replay was introduced, though unlike that system, I can’t see what would go wrong with instant strike calls. I guess if the system went nuts and started calling everything a strike it would be a red flag…You’d still need an umpire for plays at home and checked swings, fouls and hit by pitches—and to take over if the computer goes all HAL mid-game…

      • I can’t see what would go wrong with instant strike calls

        Idiots shining laser pointers on the camera/sensors?
        Radio interference and hacking attempting on the cameras/sensors’ wifi?
        Any other way someone might think of to try and cheat the system that might show up if you tested t live for a couple years in the the minor leagues?

        —and to take over if the computer goes all HAL mid-game…

        I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Jack. Jack, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Marshall, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you. Take me out to the ball……. gaaaaame *bbzzt* *

      • A machine wouldn’t be calling balls and strikes. It would be called by another umpire using the system on a computer.

          • It’s not a matter of it being palatable or not that’s how system is designed . The program isn’t designed to call or strikes only to show the location of the ball in relation to batters strike zone . It still takes a human to make the decision . They’ve used it in a minor league game , it was pretty impressive .

    • Have no fear, valygrrl. The Baseball Watcher 9000 is the most reliable computer ever made. No 9000 computer has ever made a mistake or distorted information. We are all, by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error. . . . Unless ….. unless …..The Umpire Strikes Back.

  2. I just hope the pitch timer becomes dead in water. As much as I appreciated the slightly faster pace of the game… AHHHHHHHH!!!!

  3. I’ve heard commentators and color men say things like “Umpires have their own strike zones.” Umpires do NOT have their own strike zones. There is a set strike zone, and an umpire is supposed to be able to judge whether the ball is pitched into it.

    Now I can appreciate the fact that a 90 mph fast ball might be hard to call, but umpires should be thrilled with the new electronic system that now exists for judging balls and strikes. They have plenty else to do up there, so let the computers get them off the hook. Their power over key calls, at-bats, and games is too high for them to just wing it as best they can.

    Get the computer strike zone we can now see on TV screen and let that be the deciding factor. The impact can only be positive.

  4. “Baseball fans invest too much time and emotion into following the games and their teams to just shrug off results warped by obvious incompetence.”

    The best argument against both automated ball/strike and instant replay is that baseball is a game and that a game’s results should be shrugged off for everything short of malice or dishonesty. People have to learn to shrug off results for endeavors that are a lot more important than a ballgame.

    • I’ve heard that one, too.

      MLB Baseball revenue is approaching 10 billion dollars annually. The sport employs many thousands of people, and a couple orders of magnitude more rely on it. Baseball provides the most non-music content on radio. It bolsters local economies, binds communities together, and creates cultural continuity. It has provided the basis for classic fiction; baseball has also been extremely vital in helping the culture evolve in positive directions….notably in race relations.Speaking purely from a personal perspective, watching baseball has taught me more about values and ethics, as well as management, than any other area, with the possible exception of theater.

      That the sport isn’t important to everybody (that is, not everybody appreciates its importance) doesn’t make it unimportant. It isn’t just a sport, but a huge business and a cultural influence. Without integrity, all of that is important.

      No sport worth the time to play, pay for and follow can survive an absence of integrity.

      It’s not only not the best argument, it’s a TERRIBLE argument.

      • I gotta be honest, when I think of a game, I think of something played for fun. When you start paying a player $5 million a year, in my mind, at least, it quits being a game. Trying to avoid using technology so that the primitive regulatory agents can keep calling it a game is silly.

  5. The powers-that-be in baseball make the Vatican look quick or even impulsive when it comes to making fundamental changes. It is interesting that there is a conversation about lowering the mound to decrease strike outs (or increase offense, depending on how one wants to frame the proposal), when computerizing balls and strikes would likely accomplish the same thing. Although bad calls work both ways, stats appear to indicate more strikes called as balls than vice-versa. Lowering the mound would not result in less important umpires, though.
    Rule of thumb for non-fans: If an umpire’s name is included in media accounts of a game, he should probably be fired. Unless he was struck by lightning during the game.
    Rule of thumb for fans: If you can name an umpire from memory, and are concerned when he is behind the plate, he should probably be fired.

  6. Maybe “It’s part of the game” should be its own rationalism. “Everybody does it”, “it is what it is” (which I abhor because of its nihilistic and fatalist over and under tones), and “nobody’s perfect” are distinct justifications for bad behavior. “It’s part of the game”, followed closely by “what am I gonna do, he took a shot?”, are surrenders or capitulations to vagaries of everyday life. Just a thought.


    • I think “It’s part of the game” is really just another way of saying “it is what it is”; they express the exact same sentiment. While I don’t have a problem per se with “it is what it is”, as we endure many relatively immutable and unavoidable frustrations in our lives, my problem is, as in this case, when it short-circuits problem solving. It’s one thing to identify a problem, look for solutions, and then say “it is what it is” if you have none. There’s nothing I can do about the dangerous driving conditions here in the DC metro area except be on my guard – it is what it is. But many people say IIWII before looking for potential solutions to the problem.

  7. For me the notable sentence here is: “I know that the umpires union in Major League Baseball protects its incompetents as zealously as the teachers unions, but baseball has its product to protect.”

    Education’s current product is ensuring the next generation is completely indoctrinated and unable to think. Incompetent teachers are a feature not a bug.

  8. I believe that the 2010 game you refer to was not simply a ruined no-hitter; it was a ruined perfect game. Galaragga (sp?) was the pitcher. Even the runner looked at the first base ump like he was crazy – everyone knew the runner was out.

  9. Implicit in your post is the assumption that instant replay, as it has been implemented in MLB, is a good thing. I am not so sure about that.

    Let me stipulate that the replay system for checking home runs, and even fair or foul balls works well, I think, and improves the accuracy of the game without mangling it.

    When it comes to calling runners safe or out on the baseballs, I believe it is an entirely different story. Yes, there are some plays where the umpire got it wrong and the call is reversed.

    However, I believe there are as many or more plays where the umpire clearly got the call right and instant replay resulted in the call being reversed.

    What am I talking about? The game on the basepaths has degenerated to the point where a runner who might come off the bag for a couple millimeters for a few milliseconds is called out. Conversely the slightest movement of the ball when it hits a fielders glove can result in the runner being called safe.

    I know we’ve all see numerous examples of these type of calls. It is my opinion that these are cases where replays gets it wrong, and they don’t compensate for the occasional play where an actual bad call is reversed. Among the consequences have been the virtual elimination of the ‘neighborhood play’ and a widespread change being forced in how runners slide into bases.

    On balance, I don’t like the results. Just because we have the technology to impose microscopic tolerances to a baseball game doesn’t mean we ought to.

    Before instant replay was instituted, I agree that there was the occasional play where the umpires clearly got it wrong. However, we also looked at the replays of thousands of calls by the umpires and I was always impressed with the high frequency where the umpires got it right.

    What we did not see back in those days was a frame by frame analysis of all those plays — nor do I think we needed it.

    Once employed, in almost every professional sport I can think of, instant replay has been taken to an extreme degree that was never contemplated by its proponents. I think that, given the way it is implemented, it detracts from the game and degrades the game. I don’t want to see it extended further.

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