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.
- Everybody makes mistakes. (Rationalization #19)
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.