In Which We Discuss Umpires and the Robot Condition

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Umpires have been getting a bad rap this postseason. In his piece for the Wall Street Journal, Jonah Keri posed the question, "Do we need umpires?" and if not, what would replace them? Simply, the answer is robots. Or not. Instead, baseball might consider introducing new technologies that would either aid or replace the human element of calling balls and strikes, fair balls and foul balls, and tossing Milton Bradley and Bobby Cox from games.

Keri mentions tennis as a sport that has blended technology with human judgment:

By all accounts it would be silly to do away with umpires entirely. Even with limitless replays there could still be calls that can't be made. Even if technology could be improved to cover line calls and close plays at first base, someone would have to be on hand in case the system crashed. Grand Slam tennis tournaments use Hawk-Eye, a computer system that tracks the lines with digital cameras but still keeps officials on the court to make final decisions.

To really get it right, baseball would have to put sensors everywhere--from cleats and gloves to the baseball itself. In addition, any diminution of the role of umpires would have to make it through the umpires union, the World Umpires Association.

Ah, the umpire union, the true antagonist to all that is good and holy in the honest sport of baseball. Some folks are more harsh with their criticism but Keri is merely exploring the issue: do we need umpires when they only get 95% of balls and strikes calls correct?

It's close but it's not perfect. Umpires need to continue to be evaluated each off-season for their ability to have a consistent strike zone, and the Zone Evaluation tool should be used to educate and improve, not to shame. But when we look at fair/foul calls and close plays at first base; or home run calls and outfielder traps, umpires get so many calls correct it's almost ridiculous to look at the isolated mistakes, like the one Phil Cuzzi made on Joe Mauer's would-be double.

Ideally, no incorrect calls would be made and the specter of Don Denkinger would be lifted from the game forever. If we were to add technology to correct the few mistakes, it should not be something that eliminates umpires, but rather adds a fifth umpire for every regular season game and a seventh for the postseason. Every single MLB game should have a dedicated umpire in a isolated, dark room full of TV sets that will review every single play and wirelessly communicate with the crew chief if any egregious mistakes were made. Everybody wins from this solution: teams get the right calls made, umpires get more jobs, and Bud Selig will earn the respect of the fans for another creative advancement in the game.

To merely say that umpires are inconsistent and need to be replaced is to completely miss the boat on why they got into the job in the first place: these men and women love the sport and want to preserve its soul. They are the defenders of all that is honest and gentlemanly about baseball, devoting their lives to upholding the rules and the spirit of a game that has changed very little over the past 150 years. To simply dismiss someone who toiled in low-A ball for years with low pay just for the chance to make the big leagues is simply inhuman.


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15 Comments

This was some of your best work.

Now where's that Bon Jovi song?

I agree with everything matt_t says. EVERYTHING, Mr. Von Jovi.

I for one welcome our robot umpire overlords.

Also, if Mr. Keri has time for Drew's fantasy basketball league don't some of you guys?

Use replay, give the managers one challenge a game that they get to keep if the call is overturned. I'll provide the red flags.

Jonah Keri is the biggest celebrity I have ever competed against in fantasy sports. This breaks the tie between Rob and Chief Wahoo.

Dedicated techie official makes all kinds of sense.

I will say, though, that MLB REALLY need to go to 4 umpires in the playoffs, not 6 (or 5, not 7, under your setup, Rob). As much as I tried to use an even-handed approach in the piece, even the umps themselves say having 6 in the playoffs puts them in an unfamiliar situation and creates mistakes like Cuzzi's. It's not lack of effort or bad eyesight, it's doing something you're not accustomed to doing.

Honestly, go to 4 umps in the playoffs and allow a couple of NFL-style replay challenges per game and I'd be a lot happier, even as I secretly pined for Pitch F/x on balls and strikes.

Ideally, the baseball teams would only have four players per side and there would be 37 umpires on the field watching every single move they made. Nine umps for each player in the field, plus one extra guy to sit in a lawn chair drinking Sambuca.

The Colonel, you'll be able to tell your grandkids about it one day.

Why not have an umpire stand next to each player, kind of like pregame ceremonies with Little Leaguers? The batter ump and catcher ump could decide balls/strikes--along with the pitcher ump, of course. We could even outfit them in Green Man costumes, so no one would notice them.

Speaking as a college football fan, you really, really don't want replay: It's slows down the game considerably, and in many cases it does little to guarantee that the right call is finally made. Plus, every time a league adopts replay, there's a greater chance that the pervy ref from the Buffalo Wild Wings commercial will show up to your door and ask to shower with you. This is science, guys.

Or, do what Rob said. I'm an idiot.

Your second point was bang on, Gorge. +1

Why don't we replace baseball players with robots? I mean, parity has worked out pretty well - why not make the actual players completely equal? The robot baseball player in that episode of the Twilight Zone was pretty good. Until they gave him a heart, and then he sucked. That's what we need: Heartless robots, like A-Rod.

I say sensors. Everywhere. In the ball, down the lines, on top of every outfield wall. If the ball crosses the foul line, it turns bright red. Over the fence, bright green. If it hits the ground before being caught, it blinks. Epileptic seizures abound. Everyone wins.

Think of the cross-promotion with Rob's idea! We could get DIY to ship Tony Siragusa out to all 32 MLB parks and build man-caves for each of the video umpires! Then Samsung could be the Official Television of the Replay Overlords. And Motorola could sponsor the wireless earpieces. Call 'em "Angels on Your Shoulders." CHA FUCKIN' CHING, BUD.

Also, I didn't realize Jonah was in the basketball league. It's one thing to make shitty picks and shittier jokes during the draft when it's just you numbskulls. Now I've gotta worry about making an ass of myself in front of an intelligent, respected, and accomplished writer?

/ralphs

We're gonna discuss umpires and the robot condition
We've got R2-D2 and Johnny 5
We're gonna do all your reprogramming
We don't mean that literally
We mean that, digitally

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