Now that baseball season is officially over*, it is an appropriate time to assess the use of instant replay in baseball. I’ll get right to the point. MLB completely fucked this up. They installed technology where it had no place and still do not use it in the most important part of the game – calling balls and strikes. It’s time to fix both of those.
I’ll move quickly on the first point. There’s no need to replay tag plays on stolen bases or plays at the plate. I understand these can be important calls that change the course of a game, but my observation after a season of this is that the umps get it right most of the time and, when they don’t, it’s close enough that everyone should STFU. The toll it takes in slowing down the game is not worth it. If they decide to keep it, I propose the following change: managers have to decide whether to challenge the call without the benefit of having some invisible person in their booth watch it in super slo-mo first. If your naked eye tells you the ump blew the call, toss the red flag.
My much bigger beef with umpires is their complete inability to call balls and strikes. For anything other than pitches over the heart of the plate, these calls resemble a random number generator vs. a decision governed by a rule book. Since the ones down the middle usually leave the yard, the only calls that matter are where MLB pitchers live on every pitch – on the edges of the plate.
I understand how hard this task must be. The umpire is sitting about 5 feet behind the spot where the call is made. He has a 220 lb man squatting (and moving around) between him and this spot. Every pitch is traveling at between 80 and 100 mph and moving in both the x and y directions due to spin. But, while the fact that it’s hard may excuse the horrific accuracy and inconsistency of nearly every MLB ump, it does not explain why baseball hasn’t gotten rid of the human element when technology does a near perfect job and would be, by definition, 100% consistent. I watched about 140 Nationals games on TV this year and always had the pitch track technology available to me on my phone, iPad, or the TV itself. The umpires’ ability to get the balls and strikes correct was putrid.
August Fagerstrom over at Fan Graphs published a fascinating summary of the wretched performance by home plate umpire Vic Carapazza in the Nats/Giants 18-inning playoff game in the NLDS. While he stopped short of blaming the Nats’ loss on Carapazza, noting, for example, that we scored no runs for 15 consecutive innings, he made it clear that, well, Carapazza cost us the game.
I have a few examples of my own from a random Nats/Phillies game this summer. In the event that you have a life and haven’t stared at pictures of pitch track, here’s how to read the screen shots that follow. Red is a strike (noted as swinging or called by the umpire). Green is a ball. If the circle is within the gray square, it is judged to be a strike by pitch track. Outside the square is a ball. Note that the square pitch track uses is precisely the strike zone as defined in the official rules of baseball. For some dopey reason, I like the idea of having the rule book govern these calls. Call me a purist.
Rule 2.00: The Strike Zone
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
When Jayson Werth stepped up to the plate against the Phillies as the go ahead run in the 8th inning of an August game that the Nats trailed by 2, he had a right to expect the umpire to enforce Rule 2.0, not some other rule that the umpire made up that night. Look what happened on pitch #5, the one on which he was called out. Nowhere near the zone.
Some might argue that Werth should not have been surprised by this shit call. After all, look what happened to teammate, Denard Span, 4 innings prior. Apparently, the umpire had “defined his strike zone” to be different than the one in Rule 2.0.
There are two huge flaws in the “he defined the strike zone” argument. First, the strike zone is defined in the rulebook!!! Should we also allow this umpire to decide that, just tonight, each hitter will be allowed 4 strikes or that a ball that leaves the yard is a single instead of a home run? Of course not! The reason sports have rules is to ensure fair and consistent play. Duh. Double duh!
The other fatal flaw in this argument is the same one Fagerstrom drives home in his piece in Fan Graphs. The total lack of consistency. Look at pitch #2 to the Phillies Ben Revere in the 5th inning of this game. Granted this was an inside strike, but a strike nonetheless under the Official Rules of Baseball. It was called a ball.
Then comes the coup de grace. In the 9th inning, having narrowed the lead to just 1 run, the Nats send young slugger Bryce Harper to the plate to face the Phillies dope smoking closer Jonathan Papelbong with a chance to tie the game with his prolific power.
Look at pitches #1 and #4. They are nowhere near the strike zone and yet both are called strikes. Pitch #4 is called strike three to effectively end the game. I’m sure Harper gave the umpire a dirty look and will be blamed for being a brash punk for so doing. Wouldn’t any one of us have given the ump the stink eye for those two dreadful calls.
To avoid confusion, this post is not a whiney diatribe about how my Nationals got screwed by umpires. Indeed, they did get the shaft in game 2 of the NLDS this year and, indeed, it may have cost them their season. I would absoulely acknowledge, however, that the complete inability of umpires to accurately call balls and strikes, per the MLB Official Rules, is a problem endemic to the game. And, it is slowly ruining it.
The good news is that there’s an easy technology fix. Just eliminate the human element. Let pitch track make the calls instead of just showing us after the fact how wrong the human umpire is. The call would flash on the scoreboard instantaneously after the pitch. You could still station a human ump behind home plate to make calls at the plate. You could even empower him to make a histrionic gesture of some kind when the scoreboard flashes a called third strike, so as not to lose that dramatic element of the game. But, this much is clear – it is time to let technology take over the calling of balls and strikes. The tennis folks realized years ago that a human eye cannot judge the location of a ball traveling at 100 mph. It’s time baseball did the same.
*When the Nationals are out, the season is over.