The Umpire’s Botched Call, Moral Luck, And When Using Technology Becomes Ethically Mandatory

The Washington Nationals beat the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday, but if they hadn’t, we might be seeing the beginning of tidal wave of public opinion demanding that available technology be employed to avoid catastrophic umpire incompetence.

Washington had a 3-0 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. The Braves mounted a rally,scoring one run and then loading the bases with only one out. At that point Nationals manager Dusty Baker  removed struggling closer Blake Treinen  for Shawn Kelley

Kelley got his first batter to foul out, and then appeared to strike out Chase d’Arnaud, swinging. The game was over: the Nationals came out to congratulate each other, and the ground crew moved onto the field. d’Arnaud, however, argued to home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor that he had foul-tipped the ball into the dirt before the Nat’s catcher caught it. Bucknor agreed, and everyone was called back onto the field.

Kelley struck out d’Arnaud again, so no harm was done. But  videos of the “foul tip”  showed that the batter hadn’t come close to hitting the ball on the pitch Bucknor ruled a foul tip. He missed it by a foot.

If d’Arnaud, given an unearned second chance, had cleared the bases with a ringing double, the baseball world would be going nuts right now; that he didn’t was just moral luck. It went kind of nuts anyway. Bucknor is a terrible umpire, as his awful calls showed throughout the game, which was a typical performance for him. If the botched foul tip call had occurred later in the season during a crucial game, or during the post-season,  it might finally prompt Major League Baseball to use available technology and have balls and strikes called electronically, or at least have a fail-safe review system where an umpire viewing pitched on a TV monitor could instantly overrule a terrible, obvious, game changing call by the home plate umpire.

At this point, it is irresponsible for MLB not to use the Bucknor botch as impetus to make these changes now, before a disaster, realizing that a lucky near-miss shouldn’t be treated any differently. It won’t, however. It will wait until the horse has not only escaped the barn, but escaped the barn and trampled some children, before putting a lock on the door.

36 thoughts on “The Umpire’s Botched Call, Moral Luck, And When Using Technology Becomes Ethically Mandatory

  1. You won’t normally get many baseball-related comments out of me, but it just happens I watched a game where the issue you raise is germane. It was not, however, a professional game.

    The University of Kentucky hosted their arch-rival Louisville Cardinals in a college baseball game Tuesday. Louisville is ranked #2 in the country and UK #13.

    During this game, I saw a triple-play, the only one I have personally witnessed in a live game. Not only a TP, but a 7-2-6 TP. The left fielder caught a drive with runners at second and third, gunned down the tagging runner at the plate and the catcher threw out the tagging runner at third.

    Here it is in video:

    Now, what’s germane to your discussion is not that particular play (although it could’ve been on the third out), but rather in about fourth or fifth inning, UK had a runner on third tagging on a fly ball that got thrown out at the plate. The UK coach informed the umpire that the Louisville player missed the tag, so they went to replay (as college baseball allows) and checked. Sure enough, the ump got it right and the run was not allowed.

    This has the unfortunate effect of slowing down games, which are long enough anyway — this one lasted over 3 hours. But from a competition standpoint, it was a good thing, as Louisville came back to threaten Kentucky but ultimately couldn’t complete the comeback. An insurance run would’ve made the game less competitive, interesting and fair if that call had gone the other way initially.

    The trade-off is the time lag involved. I’d like to see a replay system where the number of replay views is limited to maybe three. If you can’t get it right seeing it three times, you might as well give up.

    Pro baseball could benefit from a challenge system like college football, but the pace of the game has to be considered.

    • Pro baseball does have a review system. Balls and strikes are not eligible for review, though, because there are so many pitches in a game and the ball/strike line has literally no width. The answer to this is probably that the other umpires should have intervened, but they follow a practice that they don’t interfere with each others’ calls unless they’re asked for help.

      • Having a human review each one would be far too time consuming. But this is definitely within the capabilities of automated vision systems. One camera situated looking directly down on the base plus a pair looking to the side facing the batter (two, to cover left and right handed batters) would be sufficient.

        Balls and strikes are easy. Programming some physics on the path of the ball can tell if there was any deflection to the path of the ball to detect a tipped ball.

        • The engineer in me was kicking around the implementation of this on my drive home.

          A common method used in industrial visual inspection is to put markings​ on products outside the visual spectrum. Humans can’t see them, but specialized cameras can.

          MLB could adopt the idea by putting infared lines on the uniforms at the knees shoulders, and down the center-line of the player. They would not affect the visual appearance of the uniform.

          The computer would then have very clear references for the vertical location of the strike zone.

  2. Are people saying that d’Arnaud argued Bucknor into the call? He seems to be jogging to first on the dropped third strike.

    I mention this not because it affects the analysis, but because it gives me the opportunity to point out that “Chase d’Arnaud” is a greater soap opera name than could be generated by an infinite number of soap opera writers typing on an infinite number of keyboards for an infinite period of time.

  3. When the commissioner is proposing abominations such as putting an unearned runner on second in overtime, I think everyone is going to be skeptical of even positive proposed changes.

    Still, can we call such a technology-driven overturned call (By)passing the Buck’ ?

  4. As Bob Brenley says here, if the batter in this case were as inept at the plate as C B Bucknor is behind the plate, he’d be in the minors or or carrying a lunch bucket to work. Is this an affirmative action problem? I couldn’t find the video of Brenley going nuts on Bucknor and getting ejected. They played the video during a recent Diamondbacks vs. Giants game broadcast while Brenley was in the booth with Steve Berthume. Everyone got a big laugh out of the video of Brenley being ejected.

  5. Jack,

    I haven’t followed baseball since the strike in the 90’s, but the question about the competence of the umpire makes me ask this question, since I think it is applicable in a great many situations. Is there a shortage of competent umpires, and if so, is an incompetent umpire better than no umpire at all? Is it a matter of ethics to say: “We need this position filled, and there are no qualified candidates, so we have no choice but to put an unqualified candidate in?” It certainly doesn’t seem like a huge ethical dilemma when we’re talking about a game, but if we were talking about an engineering position, or worse, a surgery position, is it ethical to put an unqualified person into the position when the only other option is to do without?

    • Ryan, my guess is there is a nearly limitless supply of ex-jocks who would love to be MLB umpires. With proper training, which I think they get, there’s no reason to have awful umpires. But if the objective is diversity in the umpiring ranks, MLB is looking for trouble. And getting it. I think you raise a very good point about the ethics of affirmative action. What’s the impact of having less than the most qualified people in various positions?

      • Then there’s the question of unions protecting incompetent members. Evidently MLB can’t touch Bucknor because of the umpires union and the CBA. Brilliant.

        • I haven’t followed baseball since the strike either, although I did relent and watch most of the World Series because it’s history.

          But if I remember correctly, 20 + years ago, the umpires were SO GOOD. You would see a bang bang play at first and they’d slow it down and show it from every possible angle and, more often than not, the umpires nailed it. There were some exceptions (I’m looking at you, Don Denkinger) but for the most part, they got it.

          Here’s my opinion on this. I don’t think it’s ethically mandatory to use electronic review. Can’t we just acknowledge that baseball is a game played by, and judged by, humans. Those are the parameters of the game. The umpires are going to try their best and we’re going to make sure they meet certain standards and are free from undue influence. Part of the game is already the mostly subjective calling of balls and strikes. Can’t part of the game be that it’s judged by fallible humans?

          • I agree that it is not ethically mandatory to use electronic review. But, ethically, in Major League Baseball in the U.S., it’s lazy and irresponsible to not use technology when it can be used, especially when it can be shown that using the technology results in more ethical outcomes to the games (to satisfy consumers of, sponsors of, and participants in, the games) – that is, for example, in improved “justice” in umpires’ calls.

            • My point is if we acknowledge that the game is judged by humans, who make errors sometimes, and that is part of the game just like the differences in strike zones or the different dimensions of different fields, it is not ethically to totally eschew technology.

              If you have 10 different judges looking at 100 different beagles, you might get ten different answers as to the beagle closet to perfection – you certainly wouldn’t get all ten to agree. But the one that the Judge selects calls himself a champion.

              So if part of the game is the human umpire element – that’s simply a part of the game construct we call baseball.

              • Boy I hate that argument. A strike is a strike, an out is an out. There’s no controversy, just flawed perception. The calls have been made by humans because there was no other alternative. Now there is. There’s nothing fun about bad calls.

              • “My point is if we acknowledge that the game is judged by humans, who make errors sometimes, and that is part of the game just like the differences in strike zones or the different dimensions of different fields, it is not ethically to totally eschew technology.”

                Yeah, but the different sized fields will ALWAYS be the same size every single time the individual field is played on. The strike zone will ALWAYS be the same size for each individual batter.

                Bad calls made by umpires because of human error will not ALWAYS occur with the same predictability as your examples.

                Bring in the tech.

                  • Poorly worded. But yes.

                    If it’s the same umpire for the whole game it’s the same strike zone for that game that *both* teams equally face.

                    Bad calls are random and unpredictable and will not affect *both* teams equally in a game.

                    Same with the differently sized fields argument. In one single game *both* teams are encumbered equally by the same field.

          • The call that made the review barn door fly open was this one.

            As it should have. There’s nothing about baseball enhanced by bad calls. It’s only “part of the game” because there was no choice. Now there is, and it’s a better choice.

            • Yep.

              In a *perfect* world, teams would self-referee their own games… and for most calls that would work fine, like a pitch that is 5 feet outside the zone is an obvious ball, or a hit that flies straight back is an obvious foul.

              But it’s for the close calls that in the spirit of two aggressive teams not spending hours arguing or just quitting in anger that one must have an objective 3rd party.

              The umpires were that fill in. The technology is a better fill in.

              Go with the tech.

        • I certainly agree there’s a great deal of damage that can be done when diversity trumps merit. The integrity of the system is at stake. If there are plenty of qualified applicants for umpires, then there should be no reason for a bad umpire to retain his position. (Unless there’s a desire to make baseball more of a reality TV show, where bad umpires are thrown into the mix to add more angst and drama into the sport…)

          So if unions and affirmative action are the true culprits behind this bad umpire, and not a shortage of umpire material, that raises another question. The use of technology to make up for bad calls would essentially be an end-around the affirmative action issue (sorry to use a football metaphor on a baseball post!). Does putting such a bandage on the issue properly appease everyone concerned, in that we can have our sport and diversity too, or does that bandage simply cover up a problem that will continue to eat away at the sport? Would the addition of more technology effectively punish the good umpires, prop up the bad umpires, dilute the position of umpire, and eventually lead to either umpires being entirely for show, or the abolition of umpires altogether? (Cue the tune for the Ballad of John Henry…)

          • I’d say, hire the best umpires, give them good training and use as much technology as there is. Tennis uses computers to make line calls. It’s totally non-controversial. Soccer and hockey use technology for goal/no goal. Sure, umps are human, but tech can help. Why would an ump be embarrassed if the computer says he missed a call?

  6. I’ve been against unions since the railroad workers union, whoever it was allowed featherbedding back in the ’50s. Imagine the futility of a coal-shoveler (fireman) in a diesel engine. Totally destroyed private passenger lines…now we get Amtrak. In my not do humble opinion, unions have no place in professional sports, nor in fire or police departments.

  7. I do wish that more technology would be employed in MLB to speed-up the game. Accountability of umpires for calling balls and strikes could be vastly improved using devices that certainly the big business of MLB can afford. “Video reviewers” should become part of the in-the-ballpark crew for every game – instead of some mysterious office in New York for all review appeals nationwide, to wait for…and wait for… It’s a mystery to me why the unions haven’t seen, and insisted on exploiting, those increased job opportunities.

  8. I don’t want to see electronic balls and strikes, and I think the replay system should be jettisoned. It’s a game. There are sometimes bad calls, and that’s all part of the bargain.

    My team, the Detroit Tigers, was on the short end of a historically bad call, and yet I think it actually enhanced the experience. I’m talking about umpire Jim Joyce’s epic miss of a play at first base which cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

    Immediately after the bad call, Galarraga handled it with grace; then, later one, Joyce was the personification of class. The next day, Galarraga brought out the lineup card, handed it to Joyce, and the two shook hands. It was one of the best ethical teaching moments in the history of the game: You had the pitcher, who was wronged, and the ump who made the mistake conducting themselves with total class.

    What would the scenario had been if replay was available? The crew in New York would’ve reviewed it, overturned it, and there would have been a delayed celebration. And then Galarraga would have been relegated to the dustbin along with Charlie Robertson, Mike Witt, Lee Richmond and other mediocre pitchers who had one great game.

    As it stands now, because of the mistake — and because of the way it was handled — a Tiger pitcher and an umpire has become part of baseball lore, and an example of sportsmanship, and owning one’s mistakes.

    That said, I’m disgusted by how many home plate umps refuse to call strikes because they either have their own strike zone, or because they’re incompetent. I don’t want to have computers running the game, but I would like to see some accountability. At the end of each season, MLB should look at each umps’ ball/strike calls. If they fall under a certain percentage of correct calls, put them on probation. If they fall below that a second time, dump their asses and bring in umpires who are willing to call strikes and balls as they’re defined by the rulebook: From the knees to the armpits.

    We don’t need perfection from umpires; we need competency. Right now, there are umps like Bucknor, Country Joe West and Angel Hernandez whom EVERYONE knows are completely incompetent — and, worse, completely arrogant. They need to be canned. I’m sure there are far more competent umpires out there who would be willing to follow the rulebook, rather than their own interpretation of it.

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