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.