Major League Baseball wants to allow teams to walk people intentionally without having to throw four balls toward home plate. Kudos, let’s do it. They also want to raise the strike zone. Sure, why not? But do they actually expect old school curmudgeons like Joe West and Laz Diaz to adjust? And more importantly, why do we rely on buffoons like West and Diaz to call balls and strikes when we have PITCHf/x technology?
Real Sports did a piece in 2016 comparing computers and human umpires, and not surprisingly, the machines can more accurately deduce where a 97mph fastball crossed home plate than hungover mammals in their mid-6os. But even before HBO sent Bryant Gumbel and his crew to investigate, anyone who has watched a baseball game over the past, oh, I don’t know, 150 years would tell you that human beings interpreting the strike zone is the game’s biggest problem. Now, in 2017, we have the technology to get every call right, and everybody’s still cool with the concept of a home plate umpire? What am I missing here?
The next step for baseball is simple: keep the home plate ump to make the physical call, maintain pace of play, make sure there are enough balls, etc., but give him an earpiece and let PITCHf/x call the balls and strikes. Crazy, you say? Not crazy at all. Former MLB player Eric Byrnes did it in an exhibition game, and it worked beautifully. The old school baseball guys who watched Byrnes’ experiment and thought they’d hate it? They loved it. Why? Because umpires, or officials in any sport, have one function: get the call right. Right now, umpires are missing about 15% of ball and strike calls. Even if you consider yourself a purist and you’re afraid of “robots,” it won’t take long to realize that the purity of the game isn’t jeopardized with a system like PITCHf/x calling balls and strikes — it’s enhanced.
To recap, I don’t want umpires to lose their jobs; I want to modernize their vocation. I’m an Indians fan, so I probably watched the World Series more intently than 99% of the people reading this, but John Hirschbeck — a veteran umpire who retired after this season — had the worst strike zone I’ve ever seen in Game 3. This Jonah Keri tweet accurately sums it up:
Cleveland ended up winning the game 1-0, but both teams had legitimate gripes about an absolutely abhorrent strike zone. It was an embarrassment to the sport.
And that’s the thing about being an MLB umpire — what’s your incentive to be great? Once you make it, and you’re in the union, you’re pretty much just coasting until retirement. You don’t get a year-end bonus for having the best call percentage. Nobody in the media writes about you, and if Phil Cuzzi (consistently atop the list when it comes to MLB home plate umpires) has a wife, you know she doesn’t give a shit. So you get no money, respect, or sex. Seriously, what’s the incentive?
The superlative umpires are the guys who you don’t recognize — the dudes who love the game and genuinely want to get every call right to make sure the correct team wins, end of story. There are many blues who fit that category, and to those men, God bless you all.
But even those guys, faced with the near-impossible task of trying to conclude whether a 93mph cutter nipped the inside corner, get 12%+ of their calls wrong.
The technology exists and the solution is simple, but the MLB’s more worried about moving the strike zone up an inch than making sure 99% of calls are correct. It doesn’t make sense. The game needs to embrace technology. Abner Doubleday would’ve jizzed his pants over this shit…