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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

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