When “Ick!” Strikes Out Ethics: The Intensifying Robo-Umpire Controversy

[I see that I last wrote about this issue in April, and before that, in June of 2016, and in 2012 before that.Well, it’s worth writing about again, and again, until ethics and common sense prevails.]

This weekend Major League Umpires held a silent protest, wearing armbands in support of colleague Angel Hernandez, whose competence was publicly questioned by Detroit Tiger player Ian Kinsler. In fact, Angel Hernandez is a terrible umpire, and terrible, indeed, even mildly fallible umpires have a problem now that they never had to worry about in the good old days: their mistakes are obvious and recorded for all to see.

Yesterday Red Sox color man and former player Jerry Remy was reminiscing during the Red Sox -Yankee game broadcast about one of his few home runs. He said he had struck out, missing with his third swing by almost a foot, and was walking back to the dugout when the umpire called him back, saying he had foul-tipped the ball. “I know that was wrong, but I’m not going to argue I’m out when the ump says I’m not.” Remy said. He went back to the plate, and on the next pitch hit a home run. “Of course, they didn’t have replay them,” Jerry added.

Before every game was televised and before technology could show wear each pitch crossed the plate, balls and strikes were called definitively by umpires, many of whom proudly had their own strike zones. “As long as they are consistent with it ” was the rationalization you heard from players and managers. It was, however, a travesty. The strike zone isn’t a judgment call; it is defined, very specifically, in the rules. A pitch is either within the legal zone or it is not. A strike that is called a ball when it is not, or vice-versa, is simply a wrong call, and any time it happens can affect the outcome of the at-bat and the game. If you watch a lot of baseball, you know that we are not just talking about strikeouts and walks.  The on-base average when a batter is facing a 2 balls, one strike count as opposed to a 1-2 count is significantly higher. The wrongly called third pitch can change the result of the at bat dramatically.

Since the technology is available to call strikes correctly 100% of the time, why isn’t the technology being used? Actually it is being used, in TV broadcasts. The fan can see exactly when the umpire misses a call, and the broadcasters talk about it all the time. “Where was that?” “That was a gift!”  “Wow, the pitcher was squeezed on that one.” Once, a missed call in a game was virtually undetectable, because one could assume that the umpire had a better and closer view than any fan or broadcaster could have. Now, there is no doubt.

Yet the players, sportswriters and broadcasters still overwhelmingly argue against the use of computer technology to call balls and strikes. It’s amazing. They know, and admit, that  mistaken  ball and strike calls warp game results; they complain about it when it happens, point it out, run the graphics repeatedly to show how badly a crucial call was botched, and yet argue that a completely fixable problem with massive implications to the players, the games and the seasons, should be allowed to persist.

These are the rationalizations and desperate  arguments they advance:

  • It’s always been this way.

Not really. Once, the umpire’s mistakes couldn’t be proved, leaving the integrity of the games effected by them scarred. Now we know when a call has been botched. That’s a material change. Technology makes it possible to do things better; the argument against new technology is often “But what we’ve always had is good enough.” No. It was good enough when there were no better alternatives, that’s all.

  • The umpires do a great job.

Irrelevant. Some of them do a great job for human beings, but not a perfect job, and not all umpires even do a good job. The technology does a perfect job of calling balls and strikes. It isn’t distracted, it isn’t confused by sharp curves and knuckleballs, it isn’t affected by biases for or against certain ballplayers. (It was said that umpires were so impressed by Ted Williams’ superior eyesight and plate discipline that if he didn’t swing at a close pitch, they assumed the pitch was out of the strike zone.) Perfect is better than sometimes great.

  • The umpires are right 95% of the time.

Hall of Fame pitcher Dennis Eckersley said this on two broadcasts over the weekend. It is bullshit, to use the technical term. It is not unusual to see a home plate umpire in a game blow multiple pitch calls in a single at bat.  A 20% miss rate is not rare, or at least rare enough.. There are umpires with large strike zones, and they can be,, and are identified by their performance. There are umpires with small zones. Surprise! Many fewer runs are scored in the games umpired by the large strike zone umps.

Anyway, 95% is not acceptable if 100% is achievable. In how many jobs is a 95% rate satisfactory? A doctor whose diagnoses and treatments are wrong 5% of the time isn’t going to practice long. How about an airplane pilot who lands his flights 95% of the time? Is an airport security system that catches guns and bombs 95% of the time good enough?

  • It’s tradition to have humans call the pitches!

Cue “Fiddler on the Roof.” “It’s tradition” is nothing but a variation on Rationalization #1, “Everybody does it.” Traditions are good when they preserve values and have identifiable, concrete, real benefits. Continuity and consistency aren’t values to be sneezed at. but when a tradition is recognized as standing in the way of  justice, fairness, and societal improvements, then it’s time for that tradition to be kissed good-bye.

  • We mustn’t lose the human element!

Ugh. Baseball is about what the players do, not the umpires. Whatever minuscule charm and visual interest the umpires contribute to the games is dwarfed by the damage they do when they are wrong, and the consequential aggravation to observers. The same, dumb argument was used to fight instant replay until a nationally televised perfect game—no hits, walks or baserunners—was spoiled by an umpire’s safe call on what the camera showed was an unequivocal out. Replay arrived shortly thereafter.

True, but that doesn’t make mistakes harmless or inconsequential. If mistakes can be mitigated or eliminated, it is unethical—incompetent, irresponsible, imprudent, stupid—not to do so.

Why are people resisting the change to robo-umpires so desperately? It’s they think it’s icky, that why. Technological change is inherently icky in many cases, and people express their discomfort with change, even beneficial change, by calling what is just different and new wrong.

What is really wrong, however, is having a solution to a real problem and not using it because of a barrage of emotional rationalizations.

30 Comments

Filed under Science & Technology, Sports

30 responses to “When “Ick!” Strikes Out Ethics: The Intensifying Robo-Umpire Controversy

  1. I mean… Umpires might be cheaper than robo-umps, at least until the minimum wage goes to $15.

  2. Rich in CT

    We could throw in the slippery slope argument: if we accept robo-umps, we come perilously close to pitch clocks in the major leagues. Ick.

  3. Joe Fowler

    It’s time for MLB to make the change. I believe that part of the resistance on the part of non-umpire personnel is the belief that human umpires can be worked to an advantage. Cajoled, intimidated, embarrassed, manipulated. There may be some truth to that, as a home-field officiating benefit is evident in every sport.
    The consistency argument that both teams receive the same treatment, good or bad, is pretty meaningless in the context of a game where the team I’m rooting for gets a “free” 4th strike in the bottom of the 9th resulting in nothing, to balance the one given to the opposing team which resulted in a grand slam in the 8th. Both batters should have been out.

    • Other Bill

      I agree with your first paragraph a hundred percent, Joe.

      I also find it interesting that the strike zone has been markedly improved since the advent of the little boxes appearing on TV broadcasts. As near as I remember, previously, the National League strike zone used to extend from about the knee DOWN to the top of the ankle. It was crazy. Letters to the knees. What a joke.

      No reason not to use electronics to call balls and strikes. Tennis has adopted electronic line judging. Would tennis have been worse off without John McEnroe’s rants? I doubt it.

      • Other Bill

        It’s primarily about jobs, I think. The players’ union is doubtless sympathetic to the umpires’ union. And even retired players who are announcers and color commentators are former union members.

        • NOW I am for robots… if they put a union out of business.

          But this one will not. The home plate ump is still necessary for the other parts of the game.

          • Other Bill

            But the pay scale will be flattened or go down. The home plate ump will have a greatly reduced area of responsibility and his compensation drags all the other positions up because every fourth or so night, they each go behind the plate. Won’t be good for umpire business. And I bet the senior guys make a pretty darned good living as contentious ex-jocks.

  4. JRH

    Frankly I’m not sure about how good technology will be in practice. But then I’m confused about the static strike zone: “Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone
    The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.” But this is not exactly the same, player to player. Take today’s Yankees. Aaron Judge at 6’7″ and Ronald Torreyes at 5’8″ have vastly different “strike zones” based solely on their body dimensions. So the Strike Zone is not a static “box”, but differs with each player. Perhaps technology can be adapted to fit this for every player’s size/dimensions, but I’d like for that to be demonstrated first. It’s clear that human Umpires have great difficultly applying this player-to-player.

    • Rich in CT

      It already is adapted player-by-player.

    • I might be behind the curve on this, but a while back it seemed like the plan was to sew some sort of magnetic tape into uniforms that would mark the top and bottom of the zone. If this is where it’s going, it would lead to all sorts of uniform-related shenanigans.

      • Rich in CT

        The systems that already exist I am sure do not need anything special to be worn. You would, however, need an umpire in the review booth to audit the technicians should the technology be used in regulation.

    • Redefine the strike zone such that a machine can enforce it. The computer can tell where an arm or leg is, for instance, and take proportions from total height for calculating the strike zone.

      Another way: computers can track who is at bat, and define the strike zone player by player from preset measurements.

      The TV graphics already take this somewhat into account today, so not a stretch whatever method you use.

  5. Errol

    The use of technology has greatly improved the officiating in tennis and cricket. It seems to me that those who oppose the technology go to watch the controversy over the bad umpiring than to go watch the actual sport being played.

  6. Rick M.

    Umpires have been tracked for years regarding a “pitchers” or “hitters” umpire. What drives me crazy is the inconsistency since that – naturally – drives the hitters, pitchers, and managers as crazy. If you are going to setup a questionable ball says lower corner just do it consistently.

    Several years ago I saw how destructive a poor decision can be. I forget the pitchers, but he was a borderline pitcher that was spinning a nice game against the Red Sox. I believe it was an Angels pitcher. Anyways, the Sox get something cooking in the fifth. The Angels had a lead and Boston had only one run. They had two on base with two outs and the pitch was a beauty. Great change that froze the batter. Easy strike three – not even close. Called a ball! WTF! I’m a Sox fan and this was just a crap call. Inning should be over, but four hits later the pitcher was gone and the next day sent to 3A.

    Sorry for the long reflection, but that one incident convinced me. The guy lost his job over a missed call.

  7. I have to say that if I was guaranteed that my doctor would be accurate 95% of the time in his diagnosis and treatments, I’d sign up for that in a heartbeat. Tens of thousands of people die in this country each year due to medical errors.

    Just as an example, if you are in the hospital does your doctor wash his hands before examining you each time he comes into your room? Are you comfortable with acquiring the germs of his previous patients?

    In regards to baseball, I totally disagree. I do not think that instant replay (with the exception of home run/foul ball calls) has improved the game. When you see a runner cleanly steal a base but be called out because slow motion replay determines that his foot came off the bag a half inch for a split second — is that what we come to the game to see? Not for me.

    Nearly every sport I can think of that has adopted instant (and since when is a 1-2 minute review instant?) replay has seen it taken to ridiculous extremes, such as I described above. I don’t know what that would be with balls and strikes, but I am confident we’d find out — to our dismay.

    It wouldn’t even eliminate the home plate umpire, since he has many other tasks besides just calling balls and strikes.

    It is a slippery slope and one that I feel we are already too far down.

    I have resigned myself to the travesty that is the current replay system, but I sure don’t want to see more. What next — starting each frame in extra innings with a runner on second? The commissioner seems to like that little idea too.

    Nothing that human beings compete in is 100%. We shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that we can make it so (and replay never makes it 100% either).

  8. JutGory

    Not necessarily icky.

    Baseball more than almost any other sport relies on tradition and is resistant to change. That can be good, but I think it is a downside here.

    From the umpires position, home plate is the premiere position for the very reason they call every pitch. Get rid of that and what do they do? Replace balls and call time if a batter steps out (a pitch clock could eliminate the latter). They are practically expendable at that point. Any play at the plate could be reviewed automatically to determine whether the runner is out or not. The umpires need home plate to be relevant. Get rid of them and second base would be next. The baseline umpires would only be necessary to call fouls, and that would only be convenient for runners to have an immediate call on the field so they know whether to keep running.

    Enough cameras could replace any need to call outs. There would be some trade-off in time, particularly if all pick-off attempts are called from the booth (not to mention balks). But, for umpires, it is to stay relevant, and even to survive as a part of the game.

    -Jut

    • Isaac

      I suspect you’re right. That’s the same maddening mentality behind the massive overabundance of unnecessary government jobs. Sure you don’t need those positions or even that entire department…but if we close them down people will lose jobs!

      Jobs exist because a task needs to be done, not so that people can have jobs. Giving someone a job because he needs a job is just charity. My teacher friends complain angrily about losing good students to homeschooling or private schools…not realizing that schools do not exist to give teachers jobs, nor do students exist for teachers. Teachers are there to educate kids; if the end result (smart kids) is achieved without them…good. If perfect or near-perfect officiating is achieved without umpires…good.

  9. Rick M.

    The Big Lie is just how many call they get correct. Face it, folks, Stevie Wonder could get most calls correct. Almost all are rountine, but what about the close ones? The base for that is the link below that gives the success/failure rate for challenges.

    The ball/strike is a piece of cake and has been available for years – pitch type, speed, break, angle…..everything you need. Batter and pitcher. Contact figues, excit velocity, bat speed and on and on. The metrics library for baseball stats would make the ancient library at Alexandia look like a library in Podunk.

    https://baseballsavant.mlb.com/replay?challenge_type=&year=2017&challenger=teamchallenging&team=

    • As the saying goes, there are lie, damn lies, and statistics. 🙂

      It’s not surprising that a high percentage of challenges result in an overturned call. By and large, the manager is only going to challenge a call when his video review people are telling him it can be overturned. So for every close play that is challenged, there are some number that never get formally challenged, mostly because the umpires get them right. Perhaps 3 times, 5 times, 10 times or more.

      I listen to a ton of baseball on the radio and the most frequent comment when the announcers see a replay is “The umpire got it right.”

      No, they don’t always, and every once in a while it’s a “What in the world were they thinking?” moment, but I can live with that.

  10. Chase Davidson

    Another rationalization you missed, one that I hear from my stepfather all the time: “It makes the game more interesting.”

    I personally think the best compromise, one that is possible with current technology, is to have a human umpire in a box with an AR view of the game that outlines the strike zone and the foul lines, and highlights the ball.

  11. Tippy Scales

    I have no problem keeping humans, because it’s a game, not a chemistry experiment, where everything has to be exact. Having said that, I think umpires should be graded every year, and if they fall below a certain percentage of correct ball/strike calls, they’re put on notice. If it happens a second year, they’re sent to the minors, and some bush-league ump will happily take their place and call the strike zone as laid out in the rulebook.

    But I’m against introducing even more technology in order to achieve “perfection” that somehow is never actually achieved. How’s replay working out? It sucks; it delays the game and they get it wrong half the time anyway.

    I bet batters would figure out a way to thwart the electronic system. If the strike zone is defined as the armpits to the knees, “when the hitter assumes a natural stance.” The problem here is, “natural stance” is a subjective term. Who’s to say a hitter can’t do a deep squat, proclaim that that to be his “natural stance,” and throw a monkey wrench into the works? The TV strike zones are a “best guess,” so if you’re truly striving for 100 percent accuracy, you’d need to put sensors in the uniforms at the armpits and knees. But, as I said, a batter could then squinch down and beat the system.

    Keep the human umps — but if they refuse to call the strike zone as defined in the rulebook, send their asses down to A ball.

    • I don’t have a problem with that, although it would be difficult to get the umpires to agree (don’t know when their CBA expires either). They do have training, refresher courses, and points of emphasis.

      MLB does rate the umpires already — but I think the way that’s used is to determine who gets to work the postseason games (and presumably the All Star game). A carrot rather than a stick.

      Unlike many other sports, MLB umpires are full time employees, so if MLB wants to do something bad enough the should eventually be able to do so.

    • Isaac

      We can instantly adjust stats in sports, instantly measure pitch speed, watch games live on television, watch slow-motion replays for our own amusement…watch highlights on YouTube…watch from the cheap seats on giant screens…is the failure of instant replay really an argument against introducing new technology? Almost every facet of enjoying sports in 2017 comes from some sort of high-tech. The foul pole is a technological advancement.

      I bet if we were forward-thinking we could fix instant replay with MORE technology, getting instant, accurate play-calling that would speed up the game. Bases, balls, and uniforms with practically invisible sensors in them. There’d be no need for replays at all.

    • I don’t see why the umpires wouldn’t merely advance in their role and become “keepers” or “operators” of the technology.

      Instead of sensors on the batter, it would seem to me the umpire makes the judgement call for each batter and delineates the strike zone for each batter as he steps up.

      That could occur in their traditional position behind the plate or from some box somewhere that has the display that the “strike” camera sees.

    • I think technology is better. In all competitive entertainment, there is a continuum that runs between Pure Chance and Pure Skill.

      It strikes me that most games / sports, will forever seek to push the controls in their game/sport towards the Pure Skill side of the house, meaning actively seek to eliminate sources of chance, where it is “philosophically” justifiable. I can see arguments to keep “weather” based chance in some games, while removing non-competitor human based chance (such as umpires).

  12. Pennagain

    And coming up to the plate is Robbie Robotsky, folks. Get a look at that stance! … The pitcher is winding up — he just got a new arm yesterday, fans, so this should be outa sight – really!

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