From The Moral Luck Files: Searching For The Tipping Point On Robo-Umpires

Tonight the MLB play-offs end, leaving us with a World Series featuring either the Yankees against the Dodgers (tell me how that one turns out), or the Houston Astros against the Dodgers, which is better. My wife’s wish for a blown ball-strike call so obvious and outrageous as well as game-deciding that baseball resolves to let computers police the strike zone did not, alas, occur.

This did, however:

In the top of the eighth inning of a crucial  Dodgers-Cubs NLDS game, Dodger batter Curtis Granderson struck out. The pitch hit the dirt, and Cubs catcher Willson Contreras, as the rules require when a strike isn’t caught cleanly, tagged Gunderson for the final out of the inning. Granderson argued to home plate umpire Jim Wolf that his bat had made slight contact with the ball. It  didn’t. The replay showed that his bat missed the ball by at least four inches.  Nonetheless Wolf, after conferring with the other umpires agreed that the ball was a foul tip. Gunderson’s at bat was still alive.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon rushed out to argue the call and was ejected. Meanwhile, the Cubs big video screen in centerfield showed the replay, as the crowd booed. The umpires  deliberately did not look at the Jumbotron. After the game, Wolf watched the video and told reporters that he had indeed, as everyone already knew, blown the call.

As it happened, his embarrassing and needless botch didn’t matter. Gunderson struck out anyway. That, however, is just moral luck. The call and the umpire’s refusal to reverse it was just as inexcusable whether it resulted in ten Dodger runs or nothing. The point is that such a call could have changed the game, and the series. If it had, the screams from Chicago fans and anyone who cares about the integrity of the game would have persisted and intensified until baseball abandoned its archaic rationalization that “human error is part of the baseball,” and made use of available technology to make sure such a fiasco can’t happen.

This scenario will occur. Human beings being what they are, however, it won’t play out until a championship has been lost after a strike three right down the middle of the plate is called a ball by a fallible human umpire, and then the lucky batter hits a game-winning, walk-off grand slam on the next pitch. Then, after the horse has not only fled but trampled the barn-owner’s children, Major League Baseball will put a lock on the door.

The barn door, however, is wide open now, and the lock is available.

There is no excuse for waiting.


5 thoughts on “From The Moral Luck Files: Searching For The Tipping Point On Robo-Umpires

  1. If there is no excuse, what IS the excuse?

    I think many think the umpire is an important part of the game so I can understand the resistance.

    Maybe a compromise? Like Vanna White on wheel of fortune. They don’t NEED her to touch the letters to make them appear (as you can see when she and the other person are off synch, BUT the fans wouldn’t be the same without her.

    So maybe let the umps call them still with a computer telling them ONLY and we still wait to see.

    Anticipation is soooo great for a game so waiting to hear the call and see the various umpires deliver the call with their unique styles can please both sides???

    • Oh, you have to have the base calls made by umpires, but mistaken calls could easily be over-ruled by a replay umpire. Forget the challenge–just reverse the call. Even at home plate, you need the ump to call interference, balks, check swings, foul tips, swinging strikes. But once TV audiences could see the strike zone, and computers could show when the umpire is just wrong, you have to let the machine call the strikes, which can be done instantaneously.

      I’ve seen games this year where more than 10% of the ball and strike calls were wrong. That changes everything. What I’ve heard from ex-players is even scarier. Umps have trouble seeing good curves cross the plate. Umps really can’t be sure about 99 mph plus pitches. Umpires get fooled by catchers “framing” (moving the ball into the strike zone after itis caught.) Umpires call strikes that the catcher catch awkwardly balls. It’s infuriating to watch. The broadcasters keep saying that the umps “do a great job.” They do, for human beings. But even one mistake in the wrong place can change the results f the game. If an umpire’s mistake changes the results of the game, by definition, he has not done a great job. It was a great job once, because there was no way to do a better job. The excuse that “bad calls are part of the game” made sense when it was literally true, because there was no possible way to avoid them. After a bad call, it was gone. There were no slo-mo replays. No computer virual strike zones. No close-up TV shots. The play that mandated replay challenges, the Jim Joyce botched safe call in the final out of what had been a perfect game, would have been just a baseball controversy in 1950. Joyce wouold never have seen a replay. He would have said that the runner was safe. Some fans who were at the game would say that they saw it the same way. A definitive verdict would be impossible. FUN! Legend! Lore! But only because there was no way to know for certain that the runner was out, and Joyce blew the call to rob Galaraga of his perfect game, lasting fame, and the masterpiece he deserved. Now it’s the same with balls and strikes.

  2. Jack, who do you think will win this year’s Series? I want to see the Astros FINALLY win it all, but I can’t help thinking the Dodgers are superior in all respects. (Full disclosure: I lived in L.A. enough years to be a former Dodgers fan. I can still spell “Koufax.”) A part of me (unethical?) wants to see the Dodgers, if they win, win it in Houston, because I think Houston fans are more ethical per capita than L.A. fans – and, since I live in the Houston area nowadays, I can’t help wishing that the Astros’ final game of the season will be in front of their hometown fans, win or lose.

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