The Human Element

“As a member of the Commissioner’s Special Committee for On-Field Matters, I have heard many discussions on umpiring and technology over the past two years, including both the pros and the cons of expanding replay.  However, most in the game recognize that the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace all judgment calls by umpires.” Joe Torre, Vice President of Baseball Operations for MLB

The human element. It’s that occasionally stomach–turning and often infuriating factor in baseball that seems to be a sacred cow among league officials and sportswriter traditionalists, but has been trending toward technology with the advent of instant replay rules. It’s the feature of our game that has led to some of the finest on-field arguments and long term debates we’ve had the privilege to witness first hand. It’s the element of the sport that directly influences outcomes and can’t be proven to be fully objective 100% of the time, no matter how many times Major League Baseball reassures the fans that its umpires are highly trained, skilled and consummate professionals. Before we get into this discussion any further, it’s important to note that most umpires are generally accurate in their calls and are typically genuine professionals – it’s relatively rare that we see a glaringly bad call that’s not overturned or a temper tantrum outburst of authority.

However, when the Vice President of Baseball Operations – a baseball lifer that coached and played on some of the best teams of the past several decades – tells us “the human element always will be part of baseball and instant replay can never replace all judgment calls by umpires” I can’t help but begin to wonder, why not? Why must the human element always plague the sport when we know that the technology exists to get 100% of calls right the first time – even balls and strikes. Why do we care so much about protecting this infuriating “human element” that cost Max Scherzer the perfect game that he earned and that potentially cost the Dodgers a win against the lowly Marlins, even when the play was reviewed by New York City and not reversed (a mistake MLB later acknowledged).

One consistent argument to the contrary has been the protection of the pace of play. There’s even been casual talk that we may even see a pitch clock eventually; talk about a potentially dramatic shift in culture for pitchers that aren’t exactly Mark Buehrle on the mound.

When it comes to pace of play, I understand the argument on the surface. It seems like MLB is glad to have generally faster games since game times have dropped by an average of eight minutes in light of new rules such as requiring batters to keep a foot in the batter’s box between pitches (which has been overlooked by umpires more times than I can count), and certain other various tweaks. MLB doesn’t want to continue the perception that the games are a drag, or take too long for a family to enjoy the time they spend at the ballpark. So, sacrificing game length for accuracy through technology isn’t something the league is willing to do right now. Man, that eight minutes sure feels like night and day, doesn’t it?

Some umpires tend to call a bigger strike zone than others and some call a smaller one, but since 1988 the official strike zone has been defined asthat 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 top of the knees. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball” and was updated in 1996 to extend the lower limit to include the bottom of the batters knees. If a pitched ball passes through or touches any edge of the strike zone, it’s a strike. It’s as simple as that. Technically.

It’s at least some comfort to sophisticated fans that MLB uses high speed cameras and Pitch/FX technology to measure and evaluate home plate umpires for their ball/strike accuracy, but that level of comfort begins to decompose quickly when you realize that, in aggregate, these calls are botched right around 14% of the time. That’s far too much inaccuracy when many of the best hitters in the game only make a base hit around 30% of the time, and MVP’s generally only make a base hit around 32%-35% of the time. If you really want to be upset, go ahead and read the above linked New York Times article, in particular the sixth paragraph. Can we expect umpires to be right 100% of the time? No. They’re human. That’s the point of this entire article. Can we expect better? Hell yes, and we should.

For our Texas Rangers fandom, the most recent #umpshow we’ve been privileged to enjoy was the incorrect ejection of Adrian Beltre by home plate umpire Adam Hamari when the actual dugout instigator was Prince Fielder. Fortunately, this lapse in judgement by both Hamari and crew chief Ron Kulpa – who proceeded to eject Rangers manager Jeff Banister, who was explaining the mistaken identity error that had been made to Kulpa at first base – didn’t affect the outcome of the game; the Rangers won 4-2 on the day Cole Hamels worked six innings and only gave up two runs on eight hits and two walks. Does that change the rightful frustration with the state of umpiring in baseball on that afternoon? It shouldn’t.

Don’t even ask me to get into the oddly negative overturned calls rate the Rangers have experienced this year. Fortunately for us all, Billy Casey wrote an excellent piece discussing this here on SDI just a few weeks ago.

I want to be very clear here: I am not calling for full and complete robot umpiring similar to what’s been introduced in a California indie league, and by all accounts seems to be working relatively well. Will it happen eventually? I have no idea. Probably not, honestly. Would we have as many entertaining arguments between managers and umpires? Not nearly as many. It wouldn’t be quite as much fun to watch Banny scream at an umpire that just heard through an earpiece what call to make. Would it be effectively 100% accurate under ordinary circumstances? It sure would, barring a technological failure. Those “under ordinary circumstances” and “barring a technological failure” caveats are important. This is exactly why human umpires that understand the rules and intricacies of the game we love can never completely go away, even if cameras and computers are determined to be acceptably reliable.

To wit: Which is more important; accuracy and correct outcomes of games, or eternally preserving an at times maddening historical artifact of the oldest major professional sports league?

Robert Aycock on Twitter
Robert Aycock
Robert's first Texas Rangers game was in June of 1991. That was a 15 inning game where Nolan Ryan pitched the first 9 innings, Gary Pettis went 0-6, and Robert was hooked for life. Robert has a pretty exciting job in the real world. He's a corporate tax attorney at an oil company. Don't ask about it unless you want to get really bored.

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