Thrill of Victory

Should technology replace umpires?

This weekend’s Southeastern Conference Tournament championship baseball game between LSU and Vanderbilt was as good as baseball gets. The SEC’s top two teams went into 11 innings before the outcome was decided, and featured great pitching, jaw-dropping defense, and the occasional clutch hit, with LSU getting one more than Vanderbilt in its 11-inning, 5-4 victory over Vanderbilt.

What’s a shame is that afterwards, the buzz around the ballpark wasn’t so much about the game, but about the umpiring. Vanderbilt fans believed they got the short end of the stick on a few key calls on the base paths (a picture I saw showed an LSU runner called “safe” to be out by five feet) and a few key ball-strike calls that went against their team. For the sake of equal time, I saw LSU get the bad end of some ball-strike calls as well.

Had the came been called correctly, who knows how things would have turned out… and when I say, “who knows,” I mean that honestly; LSU may have well won the game anyway. The point it is, talk after a game like this should be about the game, not the umpiring. LSU is a truly elite team, and it didn’t deserve to see its victory tainted in any way.

At the same time I was watching that tournament, at least one Major League Baseball game was being tainted by an umpiring gaffe of its own. In Cleveland, the Oakland As were wrongfully denied a home run after umpires, even with the benefit of replay, incorrectly rule Adam Rosales’s home run a double. Blowing this call was inexcusable, as the ball clearly hit a railing several feet above the top of the fence and bounce back onto the field.

There have been all sorts of reactions to the latter story, including some who say that the As incident only shows that replays don’t help get things right. In this case, it wasn’t the accuracy of the replay that was the problem; it was the ego of crew chief Angel Hernandez, who as the reviewer of his own crew’s call refused to overturn it.

So, you’re thinking, this is a blog about bashing umpires, right? No, it’s not. I generally respect the job that umpires do. If you put me behind home plate, I can’t imagine how many calls I’d botch. Force me to keep all the hundreds of nuances of the rule book front and center in my brain while simultaneously having to make a bang-bang call, and it wouldn’t take me long to blow it. But it’s not my job, so this has nothing to do with anything.

Now every time something like these controversies happen, there exists an annoying faction of fans that screams, “the human element is part of the game,” meaning, that bad calls are part of the system and that ostensibly, we should all quit complaining and accept them regardless of how egregious they are.

That’s nonsense. There’s only one human element that should matter – that’s the athletes playing the game. If you extend this argument to its logical conclusion, then MLB should quit paying millions of dollars to pay, train and develop umpires, and hire the local Little League crews for minimum wage.

Which brings me to my real point: if accuracy matters, let’s make sure we’re as accurate as we can be.

Traditionalists point to how baseball has always been officiated by humans. They’re right, but if we’re going to lean on that, why not make them arrive at the ballpark in a horse and buggy as they once did? If you were drawing up baseball today rather than in the mid-1800s, wouldn’t you rely on computers and cameras rather than human eyes to learn whether a 95 mile-per-hour fastball catches the corner of the plate, or it doesn’t?

The human eye has its limitations. The human brain has its biases, and that as much as anyone includes officials – and if you don’t believe me, you need to read the book Scorecasting immediately. Shouldn’t we do all we can to make allowance for that? We already use technology to judge umpires on their ball-strike calls; why not just make it the standard?

Second, we need an expansion of the replay system. There are too many plays that can’t be reviewed now – whether an outfielder caught a line drive or trapped it, or whether a base runner beat a throw to first – that should be. Make the system like football, giving managers a certain number of challenges per game, and if you win an argument, then you keep a challenge.

Finally, have a separate replay official. Again, the problem with replay in Hernandez’s case was not that it was inconclusive, but that Hernandez refused to make the right call for issues of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, I wonder if self-preservation will stand in the way of progress here. Umpires, I would imagine, might object to a greater use of technology (especially with regards to ball-strike calls) because it could cost jobs, but I think you’d still need as many umpires as before; there are foul tips, plays at the plate, rules interpretations, all sorts of things where we need a human to sort things out. It shouldn’t cost anyone a job, but even so, I’m not sure the MLB Umpires’ Association would meet it with open arms because it’s human nature not to concede territory.

But the goal is to get the call right at all reasonable cost (for the college game, the money part may be part of the issue) and it’s time for accuracy – not tradition, not ego – to be the driver of these things. If the integrity of the sport’s not of paramount importance, then why bother to play it at all?