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October 1, 2001

6-4-3

Assigned the Impossible

by Gary Huckabay

One of the persistent themes in our annual book is the idea of proper use of players. Most players who we criticize aren't bad players at all; there are very few bad baseball players that have ever made it to the high minors, much less the majors.

For example, when we chide Brian L. Hunter for being a punchless outfielder, it's not really a commentary on Hunter as much as it is commentary on the management of the team that signs him. Brian Hunter does a few things pretty well. He steals bases. He flags down balls in the outfield. He's not a completely worthless hitter--around a .250 lifetime average, .276 this year, with a mediocre OBP and negligible power. For the right club under the right circumstances, Hunter can help a club, perhaps even a championship club, as a 24th or 25th man. If a club signs him with those expectations, then, hey, good luck. But if they sign him expecting him to help their club as a productive everyday outfielder, they're being irresponsible.

Finding exactly the right level of responsibility for employees is a very difficult task. I've managed a lot of people in my real life away from Baseball Prospectus, and oh, man, have I made some brutal mistakes. I've given an excessive amount of tasks to people, tasks of excessive difficulty to the overconfident and undertrained, and worst of all, I've failed to challenge the exceptional. There are certain cases where a task is simply impossible--the tools being used for the task are simply inadequate for the job at hand. (Read this book for more examples, albeit dated ones.) Like everyone else, though, I'm trying to get better.

Major League Baseball is not getting better in this regard. Sandy Alderson has been tasked with improving the performance of the umpires, and as far as he's gone, he's done OK. But what's been missing from the effort is the recognition that the main umpire of the game, the guy arbitrating the strike zone 300 times per game, is simply incapable of doing the job adequately.

The strike zone is where the game is defined. The impact of an extra few inches either way in the strike zone is far greater than a few feet of extra distance in the power alleys. And despite the edict from the MLB office to call the high strike as part of a uniform strike zone, MLB umpires are still showing excessive variation in what they call strikes. The issue is not whether they're calling the high strike--the issue is that human beings are simply incapable of performing the job of ball/strike arbiter at a high level.

Think about exactly what we ask of a home-plate umpire. They must stand behind a man prone to sudden movements, behind and perpendicular to another man who may swing a large club. For their own protection, they wear a mask that slightly impairs their field of vision. Then, they must determine whether a small sphere traveling at 90 mph and intentionally hurled to maximize movement along one or more axes passes through a small three-dimensional space. That three-dimensional space, by the way, changes approximately 80 times throughout the course of a normal day's work.

Sound difficult? It's not. It's impossible--at least to do it at a level acceptable for a game so dependent on the ability of a human to do this job.

In February, Major League Baseball contracted with Questec to create and administer a system for umpire training that uses Questec's PitchTrax system, which you're probably familiar with from your local television broadcasts, as well as Fox's national broadcasts. I'm worried that this is not a step in the right direction, but rather a huge leap towards accepting mediocrity in the name of sepia tones.

Umpires will get better as they get improved training, and become more accepting of new technology that will help them do their jobs. But they won't ever be particularly great at calling balls and strikes, due to the physical limitations of the human eye and brain. The brain isn't particularly good at multitasking when it comes to picking up rapidly moving objects and comparing them to a fixed point of reference. Add in in the fact there are three dimensions involved, and you guarantee that no human will ever be able to consistently distinguish unbelievably small variations under the conditions we ask home-plate umpires to perform. It's simply a limitation of physiology.

No one--repeat, no one--is suggesting that we eliminate the home-plate umpires. I am advocating the use and refinement of technology like Questec's to call balls and strikes, with that output going directly to an indicator in the possession of the umpire. Calling balls and strikes will be done more effectively, and the home-plate umpire can spend more time and attention on other parts of the game as needed.

Human error is part of the game, but on the part of Butch Hobson, not John Shulock. Umpires really do a tremendous job. That was true ten years ago, and it's true today. Check out the replays of umps making safe/out calls at bases, or keeping tempers down, or keeping a game moving along, or the stuff people don't see, like the umpires checking the field well before game time for anything that may get someone hurt. But there are limits to what they can and can't do, and we should provide them with all the tools they need to do their job at a level commensurate with what the game deserves.

P.S. Thanks to all the BP readers and patrons for coming to the Baseball Prospectus Pizza Feed in Menlo Park last week. Everyone seemed to have a real blast, we managed to raise a few hundred bucks for the Red Cross, and we will definitely be doing it again, possibly in a town near you (San Diego and Washington, D.C. next, perhaps?).

Michael Wolverton and I would like to send special thanks to Dennis Cleary for spending a lot of effort to make sure everyone was comfortable and everything was taken care of, and to Jeff Barton of Scoresheet Sports for coming down and ably representing Giants fans.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for your generous donations to the Red Cross.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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

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