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June 3, 2010

Changing Speeds

Support Your Local Umpire

by Ken Funck

On Wednesday night, Jim Joyce blew a call at first base.  It wasn’t the first call he’s gotten wrong, nor will it be the last.  Other umpires also made bad calls yesterday—some because they were out of position, some because they’ve consciously decided not to enforce baseball’s rules exactly as written, but most because the human eye and brain are fallible.  Everyone who’s played a sport of any kind knows this—as a player, you can be sure a volleyball was out, not just barely out but out by a foot, only to have every one of your teammates tell you they were sure it hit the line.  None of this is news, and none of this is a tragedy—or at least it wouldn’t be, had the men who run Major League Baseball not consciously decided to ensure that it would become one but putting Jim Joyce alone on an island without any help.

While I feel sorry for the Tigers' Armando Galarraga having to miss out on his perfect game on Wednesday night, it’s tempered by the fact that his one-hitter will likely now become embedded in baseball lore far more deeply than, say, Len Barker’s actual perfecto.  Galarraga will take his place alongside Harvey Haddix in the annals of baseball’s wronged.  Perfect games are never entirely in control of the pitcher anyway, and had Miguel Cabrera booted that ground ball in the top of the ninth, or if Austin Jackson hadn’t made a spectacular catch on Mark Grudzielanek’s drive to lead off the inning, Galarraga would have lost out on his perfect game in a way that would not have made as much history.

No, it’s Joyce I feel sorry for—not because he made an entirely all-too-human mistake at the worst possible time, but because the shame and derision he has been made subject to was completely avoidable.  Baseball should have moved to a more expansive instant replay system a long time ago.  It’s not as if the league and the umpire’s union doesn’t understand that the men in blue are fallible and the more eyes involved in calling a play, and the better vantage point those eyes have, the more likely that play will be called correctly.  If they didn’t understand this, they wouldn’t allow appeals to the first or third base umpires on strike calls, or add umpires for the playoffs, or encourage umpires to huddle and discuss calls to see if someone else had a better angle.  Yet for some reason that I will never be able to fathom, the idea of adding one more umpire, an umpire in a booth who is often guaranteed to have a better view, seems to be anathema to them.

The men involved in Wednesday night's unfortunate error all handled themselves well.  Joyce admitted his error and apologized for it.  Galarraga accepted his fate with grace and had kind words for Joyce.  Detroit manager Jim Leyland expressed regret for both his pitcher and the umpire, but then went on to say this:

I’m sure somebody is going to say ‘if we had replay on that play, that kid would have a perfect game.’  Somebody will say something about that, but not me.  That’s the human element.  Umpires do a great job.  There’s no question about that.  They’re a whole lot right more than they are wrong.  They make some unbelievable calls on bang-bang plays.

Yeah, Jim, I’m one of the somebodys that’s going to say that.  I agree with Leyland that umpires generally do a difficult job quite well, but there’s no reason to continue to accept these errors, understandable and inevitable as they may be.  Saying we should live with them is akin to saying that we should live with scurvy and smallpox, despite readily available preventatives with little or no downside.  If fans at home or at the ballpark, or announcers in the booth, can see that a call was missed within seconds, is there any reason that umpires couldn’t do the same thing? 

Add an umpire to the crew, put him in a video booth, and have him buzz the crew chief on the field when he sees something was missed.  Since that extra umpire might have the best view of a given play, let him correct any egregious mistakes he sees.  There’s no clock in baseball, and umpires already manage the timing of the game by, say, sweeping the plate clean while a catcher gets his bearings after taking a foul ball off his grill.  No need for challenges or formal booth reviews—on a bang-bang play, just slow the action down for another few seconds to see if the replay umpire needs to fix an obvious mistake.  If not, the game moves on.  Giving this power to an umpire in the booth doesn’t undermine the authority of umpires, it expands it, and it protects them from the sort of unfair criticism that Joyce is likely to catch in the coming days.  It would also add so little time to the game as to be negligible, and there are other, better avenues of speeding up games (e.g., limiting pitcher/catcher conferences or the number of times batters can step out of the box) that aren’t an accomplice to situations such as Wednesday night’s missed call.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my work life, it’s this:  humans will sometimes make errors, so you need to set up processes to catch them before they lead to tragic consequences.  Joyce certainly feels terrible today, but really, he shouldn’t.  He did the best he could in the situation he was placed, and made a mistake that any other umpire, or indeed any other fan, could just as easily have made.  The true error wasn’t made by Joyce, but by those whose blind adherence to empty slogans like “tradition” and “authority” and “the human element” put him in a position to fail so publicly.  I hope they, too, had difficulty sleeping last night.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

42 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Mike W
(830)

The problem is that people seem to think that using replay needs to take a minute or two; this belief has been reinforced over the years by the NFLs ridiculously drawn-out, ultra-cautious, look-at-it-a-dozen-times implementation of their system. How often have we, watching a game on TV, seen a replay of a questionable call, been able to diagnose whether the field call was correct, then wait while the referee spends two minutes under the hood, wondering what the hell he's looking at? Yeah, pretty much every time, that's how often.

The problem disappears if we (1) put a fifth umpire in the booth instead of having the crew chief have to carry around an iPad or something, and (2) not require such an insane number of views. The process should take seconds, not minutes.

Obviously you still couldn't do this for ball and strike calls because the authority of the home plate umpire would disappear almost immediately. But this points out why there is resistance to other implementations of instant replay. There's no reason every single other type of call couldn't be reviewed. But. There would be so many calls overturned - think tag plays, what percentage of these do umpires really get correct? - that we would quickly expect all reasonably close calls (all calls whre you need an official inthe first place) to be scrutiized, and umpires would wind up routinely making what everyone understands to be preliminary, "placeholder" calls. We would probably also get a lot of what we occasionally see in the much faster-paced NFL, when a referee pauses, and then half-heartedly signals one way or another, knowing that the call will be reviewed, or sometimes fails to make a call at all, and the referees instead confer and then go to the booth. For baseball , given the lack of a need for constant policing of play, once we open the floodgates, what do we really need umpires on the field for?

Baseball is a lot different than football. The umpires union has every reason to fear being made obsolete by instant replay. And the sooner it happens, the better.

Jun 03, 2010 09:16 AM
rating: 5
 
misterjohnny
(925)

Make the 5th umpire the official scorer while you're at it. It will give him something to do the other 99% of the time when he doesn't have to review a lazy fly ball or routine grounder.

Jun 03, 2010 09:19 AM
rating: 4
 
RedsManRick

I've been making this same suggestion for a years now. Aside from the befits already listed, it takes the bias out of scoring decisions which are fairly ludicrous to begin with.

It also gives the umps an opportunity to see the game from a different perspective, watch the game with Pitchf/x, etc. which can only lead to even better quality umpiring as they are basically training themselves once every 5 games.

Jun 03, 2010 10:08 AM
rating: 3
 
misterjohnny
(925)

Has anyone done an analysis as to how much time the NFL uses on replay reviews in a typical game?

Jun 03, 2010 09:20 AM
rating: 0
 
Matthew
(455)

I agree with Ken and not Jim Leyland, but I think we should be careful when using smallpox as a comparison with human error in baseball. There have to be better examples.

Jun 03, 2010 09:21 AM
rating: 2
 
Richie

So that's why I had difficulty sleeping last night. And here I thought it was the lasagna.

Jun 03, 2010 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
GarryPowell

Lets not forget that baseball is entertainment. The blown call is much better entertainment. Ken is right, Harvey Haddix will always be remembered, Len Barker is not. He went to a local high school and my sons (big baseball fans) have never heard of them. We don't need instant replay. I love the controversy.

Jun 03, 2010 09:52 AM
rating: 1
 
awayish

It's not entertaining. It's incompetence. Incompetence on a public stage may attract attention, and even may seem interesting, but it is only "entertaining" by making a clown of the game.

Jun 03, 2010 11:11 AM
rating: 1
 
2White

I'm an advocate of instant replay, but I think the resistance from MLB isn't due to length of game issues, it's due to the impracticality of implementing reviews on continuous plays.

In football, plays are discreet and contingent upon possession of the football itself. Reviews are matters of who had possesion of the ball, where their feet/knees/elbows were, etc. etc. In football, the officials err on the side of letting a play run to its full and obvious completion, and if there was a mistake, it can easily be rectified upon replay review and the game conditions can be re-set to what they should have been. For example, officials often rule things as fumbles on the field and then let the action ensue until someone is obviously tackled or scores. If it turns out that it wasn't a fumble, and the person in possesion of the football was down by contact, then it's really easy to know which team should have possession, which down it is, where the line of scrimmage is, etc.

In baseball, there are often multiple players advancing on the bases and trying to score on the same play and whether or not they advance (and whether or not those players are eligible to advance) is contingent upon an officials call. If the wrong call is made, it's not easy to determine how the game conditions should be re-set. For example, imagine a batter hits a line drive to the RF gap with one out and a runner on 2nd. The runner likely would be going half way between 2nd and 3rd on the play, and score if it's a hit, but return to 2nd if it's an out. But there's no guarantee that he'd score, particularly if he's a slow runner. Say the umpire calls it an out, but replay shows that the CFer trapped the ball, what should happen to the runner on 2nd? Should he be granted home? Should he be given 3rd only? Yes, giving him 3rd is better than leaving him on 2nd, but it's likely that 75-80 percent of runners would score on that play, and if he's left at 3rd, that's not fair either. Scenarios like this are the essence of the difficulty of replay in baseball.

Jun 03, 2010 10:24 AM
rating: 1
 
bmarinko

I think baseball actually has more discreet events then football and is more suited to replay. In lasts night game, once the runner steps on 1st, nothing more is going to happen, regarless if he is safe or out. On the fair/foul situation, umpires could error on the side of leting play continue (fair ball), and if replay shows it was foul, its easy to reset everything.

Jun 03, 2010 12:22 PM
rating: 3
 
revering
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

This call didn't alter the outcome of a game ... just a scoring curiosity.

Making sure the correct team wins the game within the rules of the game is the job of the umpires, and that was achieved in this game.

On to the next game.

Jun 03, 2010 10:41 AM
rating: -4
 
Patrick

It didn't alter the outcome in hindsight. If the "base hit" had been the beginning of a rally that allowed Cleveland to tie the game or take the lead, I think it would have been a more unfortunate mistake.

Jun 03, 2010 10:52 AM
rating: 1
 
awayish

If the call didn't alter the outcome of a game, then the kid would have a perfect game and there would be 27 outs instead of 28. The fact is, the call DID alter the outcome of the game. If you wish to argue that the perfect game isn't really an important "outcome," then just say that.

Then again, even if we accept the only interesting outcome is win and loss, then this call also has altered the outcome of the game. Because outs affect runs scored and affect who wins and who loses. That the winner is the same for this game is only incidental. A wrong call would obviously affect an "outcome" of win and loss one of these days.

Jun 03, 2010 11:09 AM
rating: 0
 
revering

I thought what I said was pretty clear.

The call did not alter who won and lost the game. Further, it had a minimal effect on future games - an extra batter batted, and Gallaraga threw a few more pitches. Therefore the "importance" of this call is being far overstated in the media and by many fans.

Far more missed calls have had, and will have, greater impact this season, even those that do not alter the outcome of the game.

This particular missed call had an impact on this game roughly equivalent to a "mistake" by the official scorer.

I'd add that those in the media comparing this call to the Denkinger call are vastly over-reacting.

Jun 03, 2010 11:20 AM
rating: -3
 
awayish

the outcome of the game is the sum of all events called the game. so obviously, by recording an out as a hit, the outcome has changed. you are really trying to make a value judgment in a sneaky way.

Jun 03, 2010 11:27 AM
rating: 0
 
Ameer

As a baseball fan, I think that's a pretty terrible response to what happened. Like it or not, the "historical" part of a baseball game is an important part of the sport and so is the scoring/statistical part. So the "outcome" of the game was altered in a pretty significant way. Part of baseball is "who hit the most homeruns?" and "who had the most complete game shutouts in his career?"

The other aspect is that this was a pretty easily avoidable problem.

Jun 03, 2010 11:53 AM
rating: 0
 
revering

Nothing "sneaky" about it.

I am making a value judgment in the sense that the "value" of the blown call was just that it altered a scoring curiosity, not what I consider the most important aspect of the game - who won and who lost.

Jun 03, 2010 11:46 AM
rating: -2
 
2White

Except you can't judge the value of a blown call like wrongly calling a runner safe when he was out by taking into account only what happened in that one particular instance. It'd be like evaluating the value of a baseball tactic like the sacrifice bunt based on its use in one specific inning in one specific game in the whole history of baseball. Or like evaluating the value in Blackjack of hitting on 17 when the dealer is showing a 6. Yeah, some of the times, you're going to win a hand that you would have lost had you not hit, but it doesn't make it the correct play. You have to examine values of bad calls (and correct blackjack plays) across a broad sample.

Using BP's Run Expectancy Matrix, the bad call cost the Tigers about 0.2 runs. So every 5 games, a run would result from a bad call like that.

Jun 03, 2010 12:04 PM
rating: 0
 
Patrick

Again, what if Cleveland had come back to win after that? You can't definitively say "the Tigers will definitely win" until they have, so when Joyce blew that call, it could have had a very real impact on the result of the game. Saying - in hindsight - that it didn't alter who won the game is beside the point.

Jun 03, 2010 12:19 PM
rating: 0
 
TheRealNeal

The point was to have a perfect game, the point wasn't to get the call right. If he didn't have the perfect game going, this article you've read and replied to wouldn't have been written.

Jun 03, 2010 17:30 PM
rating: -1
 
bobbygrace

Ken, thank you for making an argument that I don't think I've seen in the replay debate: replay would help umpires. It would reinforce their authority and reduce the pressure on them to be perfect every time. It's apparent that nobody feels worse about this episode than Jim Joyce; with a simple booth review, we'd be writing about a perfect game and he'd be where he wants to be, in the footnotes (or not there in the story at all).

Jun 03, 2010 12:19 PM
rating: 3
 
NL2003

Replay in football has changed the game...frequently the ball is marked at the half yard pine as the knee is down. Before replay, those plays are always ruled touchdowns.

For baseball, a lot of "neighborhood" outs would be ruled safe.

I don't necessarily think either of these changes is an improvement. However, if that is the price to pay to eliminate a bunch of egregious calls, it is worth it. The game should be about the players, not the umps.

Jun 03, 2010 13:22 PM
rating: 0
 
J Scott

I agree with Ken about implementing review as fast and as completely as the technology will allow. I, however, am in favor of structuring the review as the NHL does it. Centralize the whole process in one room, and for the love of GOD take the review process completely away from any menber of the umpires union. The NHL uses League officials for this and so should baseball. Yes, unlike hockey which just reviews goal/no goal situations, there are occasions where the "reviewing authority" will need to know the "why" of a call. Was the baserunner called out because he was tagged or because he ran out of the baseline? The umpire is supposed to indicate such things but...

The system won't be perfect? Hell, it won't be close to perfect. But it will be better than what we have now. I am a "replay fundamentalist". I want as much responsibility for deciding close calls taken out of the hands of on-field officials (all sports) at the earliest feasible time.

Jun 03, 2010 13:34 PM
rating: 1
 
Michael Bodell
(89)

I think the home plate umpire should have some k-zone/questec like solution for balls and strike that they privately see (think little light in their mask that is red for strike, green for ball, and yellow for unsure) which they can choose to use or not. And that the booth should be there for review of fair/foul, bang-bang plays, questionable tags, neighborhood plays, trap/catch, etc.

Sure, you can't get back to 100% (the guy on second when the liner is "caught"/"trapped"), but saying you make the wrong call gets you to 0%. If the replay gets you to 75% that's better than 0%.

Jun 03, 2010 13:38 PM
rating: 1
 
R.A.Wagman

How about replay for all situations except when runners are already on and no run has been scored?
I would also avoid ball-strikes being subjected to replays. At this point. I don't trust the technology infallibly yet.
Anything else should be subject to review if there is any degree of uncertainty involved.

Jun 03, 2010 13:40 PM
rating: 0
 
larlaro

The Commissioner is challenged to make a ruling that honors the integrity of the game in question(Detroit vs Cleveland) as well as the integrity of the Game of Basebal. He also wants to be sure to not make unnecessary or drastic changes to the process that are not proven to be warranted.

Game-ending plays like this one are unique and deserve unique treatment. Replay has been implemented in limited situations in MLB already, so I would propose that overturning this call and adding immediate future use of replay on out/safe or fair/foul calls only in game ending situations like this one would be warranted.
Some would like replay used in many more cases.....and that day could come in the future.....however, at the least, game ending situations are unique in that the wrong call prevents a team from any further opportunities to win the game.

Either team could request replay to review a call that ends a game, and if incontrovertible evidence exists that the call was made in error, then the call could be reversed and the game continue on. This would also eliminate the need for the Commissioner to continue to have to rule on individual situations.

Furthermore, I would change the process used by umpires on all safe/out (judgement) calls. Currently, if an umpire not involved in the call has information to assist the calling umpire, he does not give that information unless asked by the calling umpire. This is not right and not in the best interest of the game. Umpires should work as a team, and since umpires are in the business of making the correct call, if another umpire on the crew has definite knowledge that would assist in getting to the correct call, that should be shared and discussed.

Jun 03, 2010 14:10 PM
rating: 1
 
garethbluejays2

Is this discussion entirely due to the context? If it's 7-0 Detroit and a reliever pitching the ninth, would there be any outcry? Baseball is the most individual of team games as individual records and achievements are as important, or almost as important, as the team ones.

Jun 03, 2010 16:06 PM
rating: 0
 
awayish

If it's a meaningless, blown-out game, the discussion is still affected by context, except that context would underrepresent the importance of correct umpiring.

Jun 03, 2010 16:40 PM
rating: 0
 
TheRealNeal

Following your logic through, the context here is over-representing the importance of the correct call. In the ying-yang of a 162 game regular season, the importance of umpires having all the calls 100% correct, probably is minimal. The home plate umpire handed Halladay a perfect game last week - where's the great outcry?

Jun 03, 2010 17:34 PM
rating: 0
 
awayish

Well, personally the biggest issue here is that there is no review system in baseball. Clearly, in this individual instance, there is a demand for such a system, and this is as good an opportunity as any to bring up the issue of a review system.

Jun 03, 2010 17:57 PM
rating: 0
 
summoner

I think we're dealing with a unique situation. Making rule changes or altering the nature of the game based on this incident is not a good idea. Discuss these changes at a later time, without the emotion of this horrible decision.

And, in that context, I believe Bud Selig could have said that in "the best interests of baseball" he would overrule the umpire's call and declare that a perfect game ended with Donald's out. He could then quote the Supreme Court from 2000 that this ruling was a one-time-only event and did not set a precedent for future action.

Jun 03, 2010 18:55 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

I am for replay including balls and strikes. A lot of importance is placed in mainstream media and on sites like BP about the importance of first pitch strikes versus balls. Whether a strike or ball is called changes the structure of the at-bat, and can even affect runners in motion.

I am not for overturning the call and declaring Galarraga's perfect game. In order to do so, not only would the final call have to be looked at, but all the previous plays and all the previous pitches. Does it make sense to use replay to overrule Joyce's call, but turn a blind eye to previous plays in the game or previous balls and strikes?

Then, you also have the problem of whether past perfect games should be reviewed for their historical accuracy. For example, was Ryan Howard's foot off the base when he leaped off the bag to catch the ball for Halladay's final out? Do you review no-hitters, for example, Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game, to determine whether the lone hit was actually an error?

Too messy to reopen the past, but replay, as thoroughly as possible, should be implemented for the future.

Jun 03, 2010 18:59 PM
rating: 0
 
R.A.Wagman

Amnesty to all ended seasons. Revues would (and should) be limited to plays that were disputed. What would be the point of re-looking at everything anyway?

Jun 03, 2010 19:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

If it is proposed that the play should be reviewed and overturned in the name of historical accuracy, isn't it ethical to also review the rest of the plays?

Jun 03, 2010 21:44 PM
rating: -1
 
awayish

this argument is silly as long as you realize the game is never perfect but it can progress and improve.

Jun 04, 2010 02:35 AM
rating: -1
 
Richard Bergstrom

So why progress in staggers and stumbles? Why half-heartedly expand replay or arbitrarily, on a whim, decide which umpire decisions can be overturned and which ones can't be?

Jun 04, 2010 04:36 AM
rating: 0
 
awayish

what staggers and stumbles are you talking about? nothing is being done.

Jun 04, 2010 08:43 AM
rating: 0
 
roycewebb

Evolution generally doesn't occur incrementally, a tiny bit over each generation. It occurs most often and most dramatically because some dramatic event (disaster, disease, famine) wipes out nearly an entire population. That leaves survivors with some kind of resistance (long-necked giraffes who reach remaining leaves more easily, bacteria with resistance to antibiotics, etc.) to become the leading edge of a species. Baseball is not an organism per se, and no one's talking about anyone dying or wiping it out, but it clearly needs to adapt (and evolve, if you will) to the changing technology around it and available to it, and if this is the kind of dramatic hue and outcry that prompts such examination and growth, then good -- I'm all for that.

Jun 04, 2010 11:11 AM
rating: 0
 
arcee555

I get your point....but you description of evolution is about 175 degrees wrong.

Jun 05, 2010 09:24 AM
rating: 0
 
djwells

"Tragic consequences" Fer gawd sakes, it's a baseball game!

Jun 04, 2010 13:10 PM
rating: 0
 
arcee555

Instant replay is better in getting a call right. But 2White hit it on the head, "...the resistance from MLB isn't due to length of game issues, it's due to the impracticality of implementing reviews on continuous plays."

Jun 05, 2010 09:17 AM
rating: 0
 
mglick0718

I am very late to this discussion, but wanted to add that I'm shocked that Matt Latos's 1-hitter for San Diego last month v. the Giants hasn't come up at all despite similar circumstances -- infield hit with questionable safe call at first the only blemish on an otherwise perfect game. The important differences between his and Galarraga's games are 1) the play at first was truly a tie (I still wasn't able to tell if he was safe or out watching on replay), not an egregiously bad call on an obvious out and 2) it happened leading off the 6th instead of with two out in the 9th. But less than halfway through the season we are remarkably close to having had an absurd 4 perfect games thrown.

Jun 07, 2010 12:57 PM
rating: 0
 
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