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.
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Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/14/17: Too Much Liberty, Too Much Precision, Too Much Success, Too Much Posturing, And More

Good Morning!

1 Today I’m going to have to waste several hours responding to a vexatious and retaliatory lawsuit by an Ethics Alarms commenter. It’s remarkable I’ve been able to avoid this annoyance for so long, I suppose, but annoyance it is. I’ve been threatened with a few lawsuits, and served once before, in that case by a lawyer who was angry that I described his ridiculous law suit against a Hollywood film as ridiculous.

The misuse of the legal system to harass and extort is an expensive price we all pay for living in a democracy that agrees with Clarence Darrow that in order to have enough liberty it is necessary to have too much. Our prices are higher, our medical expenses are inflated, and other rights, like freedom of expression, are constrained by the nation’s commitment to let common people, and often common people with unethical motives, have easy access to the courts to address their grievances, real, imagined or manufactured. I support this without reservation, , but it is no fun being the victim of it.

2.  It is a common refrain in resistance circles and the social media echo chambers that President Trump “isn’t doing anything.” That is hardly the case, and like a lot of anti-Trump rhetoric, is intentional disinformation. Since the anti-Trump collective spends all of its time trying to devise ways to somehow un-elect him—the 25th Amendment nonsense in back in the news—-while focusing on his tweets, his boorishness,  his feuds, and what he hasn’t done, they ignore the fact that Trump’s administration has been remarkably productive in addressing the issues that helped elect him. The U.S. is no longer wink-winking about illegal immigration. It is undoing the Obama policy of issuing restrictive energy regulations to signal concern over climate change that won’t have any measurable effect on climate change. The disastrous “Dear Colleague” please start assuming all male college students accused of sexual assault are guilty letter is gone and unlamented. We are not being bullied by little North Korea any more. Regulations of all kinds are being cut back. He is remaking the judiciary, pointing it away from judicial activism. Consumer confidence is high, and the stock market is soaring.

All of this has taken place in less than a year. The wisdom of many of these measures can be debated, and progressives hate all of it, but that’s irrelevant. There is much to criticize President Trump for, and much to deplore about his long and short-term effects on his office and the culture. Not accomplishing his stated goals, however, is not one of his flaws.

3. The Washington Nationals, who have morphed into the post 1986 Boston Red Sox as the team that always finds a way to miss winning the World Series, were eliminated in the National League Division Series with the assistance of many flukey plays that went against them. Particularly galling was when an 8th inning Nats rally was cut short in the fifth and decisive game against the Chicago Cubs because Washington’s second-string catcher was picked off first base with the potential game-tying run in scoring position. Jose Lobaton—now a name that will live in D.C. infamy–looked safe on TV and was called safe by the umpire when a snap throw to first by Cubs catcher Wilson Contreras caught him taking too big a lead. A slow motion review of the instant replay, however, showed that Lobaton’s  foot came off the first base bag for a nanosecond while Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo still had the tag on him. The naked eye would never have caught it. Still, if a runner is tagged while not on a base, he’s out.

On the NBC Sports website, blogger Bill Baer argued that this was a misuse of instant replay, writing in part,

“I]t feels unfair to use replay review in this manner. Both teams’ success or failure hinged on Lobaton’s foot coming off of the bag for one-sixteenth of a second. It’s a technicality, like coming back to your car at 10:01 only to see the meter maid walking away and a ticket on your windshield.

The spirit of replay review wasn’t about microscopic technicalities, it was about getting certain calls right: home run/not a home run, fair/foul, safe/out (in other areas, obviously, given this argument). Major League Baseball should greatly consider amending the rules to make it so that a player simply returning to the bag is grounds to be called safe, ending the pedantry of these types of reviews.”

This reminds me to add “It’s just a technicality” to the rationalizations I haven’t gotten around to adding to the Ethics Alarms list. (This makes four.)  It may feel unfair to enforce the rules, just like it feels unfair when you flunk the written test to get a license by one question, or get a ticket when you were driving just a little over the speed limit, or win the popular vote and still don’t get to be President because of the Electoral College. The “spirit of replay review” was to get calls right based on what really happens, not based on what the umpire saw or what he thought happened. Not “certain calls”: there’s no virtue in a wrong call that was just a little wrong. The difference between safe and out isn’t small or technical in baseball. It is everything. Lobaton was out, and it isn’t anything but a benefit to the integrity of baseball that he was finally called out. Continue reading

How The Human Factor Foils Technology And Ethics: A Case Study (UPDATED)

Baseball finally installed a replay review system to address umpire calls that were shown by TV slow-mo to be clearly wrong. For all the complaining about the system, it was the only ethical choice. Mistaken calls were changing the results of games, and because of technology, this was now obvious to all. Only technology could solve the problem.

Unfortunately, however, human beings still control the technology. Bias, emotion and other impediments to ethics will still prevail more often than we like to think. Yesterday’s Red Sox Yankee game provided a classic example.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi challenged a safe call on the Sox’s Andrew Benintendi when he slid into second base for an apparent double. The video showed that the second base umpire had missed the play. Upon review—the umpires put on headsets to get the verdict from a New York studio where another set of umpires check the video from multiple angles—the call was reversed, and Benintendi was out.

In the same inning, Red Sox manager John Farrell challenged an inning-ending double play. The review showed Red Sox baserunner Mookie Betts safely reached second before the throw, allowing the Red Sox to score the game’s first run. For the second time in a single inning, Greg Gibson,  the second base umpire, had his call reversed. I have never seen this happen before. For an umpire, this is not just embarrassing, it is professionally humiliating.

Later, in the seventh inning, the same star-crossed (cross-eyed?) umpire  called Yankee Greg Bird  out as he was doubled off second base after a lineout. The video this time was more conclusive than the first challenge: the umpire blew it, again. Bird had beat the throw.

While the challenge was being reviewed, the Red Sox broadcasters, who had concluded that Bir should have been called safe at second, were talking about the rarity of the same umpire being reversed three times in a single game. Sox color man Dennis Eckersley wondered aloud if professional courtesy and loyalty might affect the review.  What he was really asking was whether the umpires in New York would allow a colleague to be exposed to the disgrace of being reversed three times in one game. This wouldn’t only  make him look bad, after all. It would make umpires look bad. Three strikes and you’re out, after all.

Sure enough, the decision from New York was that the call at second was correct. Bird was out, even though the video showed he was safe.

The umpires have plausible deniability here: this was hardly the first time that a replay review seemed at odds with a video. Nonetheless, it was a sobering display. By all appearances, the umpires distorted the game to protect one of their own who was having a terrible night. They were employing the Golden Rule in the kind of setting where the Golden Rule works against an ethical result, not for it.

Fortunately for the umpires, allowing the third blown call at second was allowed to stand had no effect on the game’s outcome, but that is just moral luck. The umpires made a very clear statement. They regard loyalty to colleagues as more important than their profession, the game, their fans, or public trust. They, or at least the umpires involved, cannot be trusted to put aside their biases and conflicts when their duties demand it. Technology may be unbiased, but the humans using it are not. Professionals are not always professional when a colleague’s fate is involved.

Humanity is the ultimate conflict.

Angel Hernandez’s Botched Home Run Call, Continued: Now THIS Would Justify Over-Ruling It

"You blew that call deliberately! Didn't you? DIDN'T YOU???"

“You blew that call deliberately! Didn’t you? DIDN’T YOU???”

Yesterday I wrote about the terrible, tomato-worthy botch of a home run call by Angel Hernandez in an Oakland-Cleveland baseball game, and how as bad as it was, the rules of the game don’t permit such rules to be over-turned, and thus over-turned they must not be, lest the game’s integrity be damaged. But on the Dan Patrick radio sports show today, renowned baseball writer Peter Gammons theorized that Hernandez may have refused to credit Adam Rosales of the A’s with a home run, despite the instant replay proving to anyone with eyes that it was not a double as he had ruled, because he, like many if not all major league umpires, hates the concept of allowing instant video replay to over-rule umpire judgments.

And, of course, Hernandez has a well-earned reputation as a spiteful jerk.

Hernandez would never admit to so unprofessional an act, but I think Gammons’ speculation is fair, and also very possibly correct. The alternative is to conclude that Hernandez literally can’t see, which seems unlikely. What seems far more likely is that he and his umpiring crew decided to register a nasty and unprofessional protest over the gradually expanding trend in Major League Baseball of letting technology do better what umpires have traditionally done well. Continue reading

The Replay and Integrity: Baseball at an Ethics Crossroads

On the final day of baseball’s regular season, the San Francisco Giants were playing the San Diego Padres in a contest with post-season implications for both teams. Had the Padres won , it would have forced two one-game playoffs, with the loser of a Giants-Padres showdown today facing the Braves on Tuesday to determine the National League Wild Card team. In the bottom of the first, the Giants’ Andres Torres smashed a Mat Latos  pitch down the left-field line. The ball clearly landed right on the chalk-marked foul line, kicking up a cloud of white dust as undeniable proof that the ball was fair,and the batter destined for second base or beyond. Third-base ump Mike Everitt called it foul, however. Broadcasters, the Giants managers, everyone protested and pointed, but to no avail.

The Giant’s won anyway, so it only mattered to Torres’s batting average. But a time-bomb is ticking. Baseball, which was embarrassed last season into adopting video replay for home run calls, allows no videotape mandated reversals on other blown umpire calls. As the game heads into its period of highest visibility, when casual baseball fans start paying attention to the best teams playing for the title, the likelihood of an obviously wrong call by an umpire leading to an undeserved win in a crucial game is unacceptably high. Why does baseball’s leadership resist a solution? Continue reading