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July 9, 2012

Out of Left Field

Ending the Empire

by Matthew Kory

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With the All-Star game upon us, it’s a good time to take a look at the state of the game. So, on the pulse of things as always, that’s exactly what commissioner Bud Selig did. He pontificated about a number of topics last week, but the one that stood out was his brief discussion of instant replay. Here’s Commissioner Bud on the expansion of instant replay in baseball (via Paul Casella of MLB.com)

People in our sport don't want any more. Given our attendance and everything we're doing, we're in the right place with instant replay. Baseball is a game of pace. You have to be very sensitive and careful not to disturb that pace.

Let’s parse this a bit.  There are three points. Point the first:

People in our sport don't want any more [instant replay].

When Selig says “people” he’s talking about the owners. They may not be keen on adding more replay if for no other reason than it’s an additional expense that they will end up paying for. Whether front offices, players, and other assorted members of the baseball community want replay is likely off Selig’s table. Clearly they’re not actively fighting for it, but they likely aren’t going to him and saying they don’t want replay increased either. I wouldn’t doubt that after particularly egregious missed calls, the kind that seem to pop up about once a week of late, Selig might hear a few voices in favor of increasing replay. Not that he would say so.

Of course it only matters what people in the sport want on the margins. Eventually, if there is enough call for replay from the paying customers, the ones who keep baseball in business, replay will come. It won’t come as quickly as if support for more replay already existed inside the game, but eventually fans will demand that calls are made correctly. Heretical thought, I know.

Given our attendance and everything we're doing, we're in the right place with instant replay.

This is a justification for keeping the level of replay static. So according to Selig, people are watching and attending baseball games in record numbers so everything in the sport is perfect, or at least the amount of instant replay used in the game is. It won’t take but a moment of thought to reveal this as a silly argument. What Selig is in effect saying is that improved umpiring would drive down attendance. People love baseball and people are watching baseball in record numbers, but that doesn’t mean the product on the field can’t be improved by, oh say, improving the frequency of correct calls.

Why would improving the level of umpiring drive down attendance? The only real way that would happen is if MLB adopted a replay system that was so time-consuming and ponderous that it serial-murdered the pace of the game.

Baseball is a game of pace. You have to be very sensitive and careful not to disturb that pace.

Every pro sport is a game of pace. Baseball isn’t unique in that regard, though that hardly rules it out as a concern. What it does do is point out that, while MLB has resisted replay like a child who doesn’t want to go to school, other sports have embraced replay with few if any repercussions.

The NHL has a central replay “war room” in Toronto where every goal scored (and goal almost scored) is reviewed to ensure the correct call is made. The system can slow down the game once in a while, true. Most goals are no-doubters, but infrequently, roughly once every three or four games, a goal is close enough that the review machines in Toronto are fired up and players have to stand around on the ice for a minute or so while officials figure out if the puck crossed the line. This can affect the pace of the game, but as soon as the puck is dropped the pace picks right back up and, this is the beauty part, nobody spends the rest of the game complaining about a missed call and how it inexorably altered the outcome of the game. Because, while pace is important, aren’t we all more concerned about outcome?

How many times have you had this conversation?

Person 1: So, what happened at the game?
Person 2: Oh, the Giants won. It was the best paced game I’ve ever seen.
Person 1: The Giants? Wasn’t that the game where the runner was called out after clearly touching home plate in the tenth inning?
Person 2: I really don’t remember.

It would really go more like this:

Person 1: So, what happened at the game?
Person 2: The ump blew the call in the tenth and the Giants won!
Person 1: The Giants? Wasn’t that that really well paced game?
Person 2: What the hell are you talking about?

The NFL uses a much more cumbersome process of “challenges” from head coaches which results in referees running from sideline to sideline to discuss things with each head coach while everyone waits (or enjoys hilarious light beer commercials: “Ha ha! I can’t believe that dolphin just gave that guy the finger!”) and then spending two minutes hidden under an 80’s-era photo booth.

Football’s system is a great example of how not to set up replay. It’s overly time-consuming and it actually penalizes coaches for correcting inaccurate calls on the field. But, here’s the thing: even with this awful replay system, people LOVE football. Love it! Crappy games between two non-playoff contenders routinely beat baseball in the ratings. This isn’t meant as a comment about the viability of one sport versus the other, just that even with a garbage replay system (and the ridiculous refereeing in football in general) that completely destroys the flow, pace, and whatever else of the game, nobody really cares that much. Or at least not enough to stop watching.

Pacing is important, of course, but we all survive just fine with interminable commercials during playoff time that also kill the pace of the game. Nobody is seriously talking about slowing the spread of commercialism during playoff time, which, while not my favorite, is another fight entirely. Getting the calls right is, or should be, the central point. How to go about getting the calls right is a discussion that should follow. Pacing is an issue within that following discussion, as are expense, umpire dignity, umpire jobs, logistics, and the like.

Those are issues for later. They’re not issues which should prevent improving an unacceptable umpiring situation that consents to incorrect calls and wrongly won games in the interest of… something, it’s unclear what.

When MLB allows bad calls to be made, just as when players play outside the rules, the integrity of the game is compromised. When you think about it, there isn’t much difference between actively allowing bad calls, as MLB does now, and letting players use corked bats, scuffed baseballs, or steroids. All impugn the integrity of the game.

Pacing matters, as the commissioner notes, but it’s a minor point that can be accommodated by smart planning. The rest of the argument is nothing. The technology exists to get more calls right today. The technology will improve and allow us to get more calls right tomorrow. As soon as it exists, MLB should work to implement it. Because getting the calls right should be the whole point of umpiring, right? We fans deserve it and so do people in Selig’s sport.

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

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

BP Comment Quick Links

Matthew Avery

Interesting that you criticize the NFL's replay system. I had always thought that would be an appropriate one for MLB. (Perhaps using Tennis's system of challenges would make it seem less silly?)

Jul 09, 2012 06:42 AM
rating: -1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I like that the NFL has replay. I just think their system is ridiculous. It takes an incredible amount of time and doesn't allow for challenges to much of the game (i.e. lots of calls are "unchallengeable"). They could do a much better job if their goal wasn't to make replay competitive.

Jul 09, 2012 11:05 AM
 
drawbb

The NFL system is the LAST thing anybody should want. What the hell kind of system says "Yeah, yeah...we know our officials will blow some calls, but we just don't care enough to correct all of them--only a couple"?

Jul 11, 2012 00:56 AM
rating: 0
 
Mike W
(830)

Excellent. Selig is just defending the status quo like any good bureaucrat. The particular words he uses aren't really relevant - they're not about conveying meaning, they're just taking up space where an "answer" should be.

Your imaginary conversation could also be used to answer the nonsensical "human element" defense:
Person 1: So what happened at the game?
Person 2: Oh, it sucked. The Giants won 8-7 in extra innings but there just wasn't, you know, the human element.
Person 1: No blown calls?
Person 2: Nope.
Person 1: That sucks. Too bad.
Person 2: Yeah. Ruined a perfectly good game.

Jul 09, 2012 07:00 AM
rating: 10
 
SC

More like:

Person 1: The game was ok, but all the calls were correct. Kind of took the fun out of it.

Person 2: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Jul 09, 2012 08:21 AM
rating: 8
 
boards

If BeelzeBud is so worried about pace, how about instructing the umpires to enforce the rules already in place regarding batters stepping out and pitchers taking longer than the allotted time to make a pitch?

Jul 09, 2012 08:48 AM
rating: 15
 
bloodface

BRAVO!

Jul 09, 2012 08:53 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Thanks!

Jul 09, 2012 11:05 AM
 
Edwincnelson

Let the computer call balls and strikes. How fast would the game go without all the staring, pointing and arguing? Tennis seems to be getting by fine by letting the computer call the serves and letting replay decide the close calls.

Jul 09, 2012 09:35 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I think if a system can be designed, tested, and implemented, then yes, I'm all for computers calling balls and strikes. I'm not sure we're there yet, I've heard some very real concerns about pitch f/x, but I've also witnessed some very real concerns with the current system of umpires.

Jul 09, 2012 11:06 AM
 
BP staff member Jason Wojciechowski
BP staff

I'm fairly certain that humans make all the initial calls in tennis. Cyclops was used for a while, but I think it's gone now.

Jul 10, 2012 11:36 AM
 
danteswitness

I'm not sure about all serve calls, but there is definitely a computer sensor that determines if a serve has skimmed the top of the net or not that makes that specific call for all serves.

Jul 10, 2012 12:49 PM
rating: 0
 
ChicagoOriole

The problem is that something akin to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle applies. If you measure the particle to a more precise location, you end up losing other information. On top of it, you probably change what you are measuring.

BP had a beautiful article on now Brett Lawrie was "framed." Having a computer make beeps and boops to call balls and strikes would take that away. You have actually changed the skill set a catcher needs to have, and that will change the game.

Isn't part of baseball's magic fooling the human eye?

The other thing is if somehow calls became scientifically perfect, fans would be deprived of the refrain "we wuz robbed!" as the reason for losing. If is much easier to face losing if you have a convenient excuse.

Leave the game alone!

Jul 09, 2012 11:44 AM
rating: -1
 
Hawthorne28

Having a computer call balls and strikes would seem post-apocalyptic. Players staring up at a screen after every pitch essentially asking 'was that to your liking, master?'. In my head it's not even done by pitch/fx, but by looking up at a robot on a balcony and waiting for its reaction, colloseum style...

Jul 09, 2012 12:38 PM
rating: 1
 
JoshuaL

It doesn't have to become completely computerized, all that is needed is to give the home plate umpire an earpiece that gets the ball / strike call immediately and can then do their regular humanized ball / strike call. Plus it would allow the umpire to manually adjust the call if they really felt strongly (although they should be strongly encouraged to stick with the automated result the vast majority of the time). I'm sure I'm just repeating the earpiece thing from something someone else wrote, but I can't remember who right now.

Jul 09, 2012 13:58 PM
rating: 0
 
Hawthorne28

Beyond my jesting, I'm inclined to agree to an eventual inclusion of computerised balls and strikes. Rather than the earpiece idea, though, I'd prefer the umpire to be able to choose when to hear the opinion of the computer. As in, if he wishes to use the opinion of a computer, he can simply signal for it, and then the computer's call stands. Or, alternatively, I wouldn't be totally against a manager or player-lead appeal system which included balls and strikes calls. Might cause some pacing problems, though.

Jul 10, 2012 13:54 PM
rating: 0
 
Robotey

With all due respect, what game of baseball have you been watching? There has never been and never will be an umpire who would 'ask' for help on a ball/strike call, especially from any other entity than a colleague. Do not make suggestions in a vacuum, ignoring baseball culture.

Jul 11, 2012 07:15 AM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

Remember, in Cricket, the Umpire doesn't make *any* calls unless the fielders appeal to him with a call of " 'owz that?"

Jul 09, 2012 14:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Llarry

Actually, I'd divide the replay debate into two subjects: Balls and Strikes, and Everything Else.

Balls and Strikes can be worked on down the line as technology improves further, but pitch calling is nominally even-handed, and players do have an ability to adapt to tonight's conditions, and that's a reasonable test of skill.

Everything Else is where the immediate attention should be. And it should be easy enough to implement. It could be done with an appeal to a central office for selected plays, like the NHL (what Matt didn't mention about their system is that they are monitoring the games at all times, and at least as important as what they review is the determination to *not* review some plays), or with real-time supervision in the park. A suggestion floated around at some point of adding a fifth umpire to each crew and sticking him in the booth with the ability to step in a review any play in the field. I would take it one step further and rotate the umpires through the booth as a fifth position and really sell it as a way to help the crew-mates rather than show them up.

Jul 09, 2012 14:16 PM
rating: 3
 
BurrRutledge

I overheard any interesting conversation between two baseball fans of a certain age. Went something like this:

Person 1: There's a basic philosophical difference between the young folks today, and those of our generation.
Person 2: Sure is.
Person 1: these young fans are more concerned about getting the call right than they are with the game itself.
Person 2: I agree.
Person 1: the game has a human element, including the players and the umpires. Instant replay would destroy the human element.
Person 2: absolutely.
Person 1: if a player can convince the umpire that something happened, but it didn't, that's still an important part of the game. A time honored part of the game. It's part of the mystique of the game. Something to talk about at the office the next day.
Person 2: Truly is.
Person 1: just because we have the technology to get every call right, doesn't mean we should. These young fans don't care about the mystique of baseball. All they seem to want is for the calls to be right.
Person 2: they could have a point there.

Jul 09, 2012 15:54 PM
rating: 2
 
LynchMob

I'm not a "young folk" ... I'm 53 ... and I think a world where every call is right is better ... I think the game itself is better when there are no wrong calls ... I think players who know the truth and do something to "convince the umpire that something [untrue] happened" are sorta cheating (ie. that's not a skill I admire, nor want to promote).

The mystique of baseball to me is how good the players are ... and I like when their efforts are rewarded based on what truly happened ... and that mystique is diminished by wrong calls ... that human element is diminished by wrong calls ...

Jul 09, 2012 18:57 PM
rating: 2
 
BurrRutledge

I am in agreement. I think technology has changed the experience of the game, and fans of the game have different expectations today than in yesteryear.

I think the fifth umpire in a booth at the game could help on the rest of the umpire crew with the calls in the field.

This won't come up more than a couple times a game, but getting the call right could be very important to the score/outcome. Such as bang-bang plays at first base (See: Armondo Gallaraga). Call on the field stands unless there's compelling/conclusive video evidence to overturn it within 30 seconds. It would be solved before the manager can even get to the umpire on the field to argue the call, so it's not like it would slow down the game any.

We would still run into some challenges, such as a fair ball down the line called foul ... can't just award two bases to the batter and runners after the fact, right? But I think fixing the obvious mistakes that can be fixed is far more acceptable than doing nothing.

Jul 10, 2012 06:42 AM
rating: 0
 
princecaspian7

Great article! Very perceptive, logical, pointed, and persuasive! How do we start a fan email blitz of Commish Selig to get him off his duff and moving in the right direction? Sign me up!

Doc Fisch

Jul 09, 2012 18:00 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Thanks. I don't know how we do that, but if you figure it out, let me know. Though I wouldn't use the phrase "off your duff" in the email to the Commissioner. Works fine here, just say'n is all I'm say'n.

Jul 09, 2012 20:27 PM
 
Robotey

Isn't replay in any sport--including baseball--all about the discrepancy between the viewer's experience and the umpire's/referees'? If an ump blows a call but no camera catches it, no one will ever know the harm. Sure the losing side will swear he got it wrong--and he may have--but it's just their opinion. But when the ump blows it and cameras in real time reveal the error, then there's a problem and the game loses credibility. Football replay is time-consuming and imperfect but it increases fan interest nonetheless because it re-enforces how the game is one of inches every time a player gets stopped at the goal line. The perfect example in baseball was in the 2006 NLCS, Spezio smacked what may have been a triple or HR in Game two at Shea. The umps deliberated like 3 blind mice, meanwhile TV replays showed the whole country it wasn't a HR. The only ones who couldn't use the replay were the ones whose decisions counted! It's too late to dial things back and eliminate the cameras that give the fans a better view, so now the decision makers on the field have no choice but play catchup. The NFL gets this. When will MLB?

Jul 09, 2012 20:37 PM
rating: 3
 
danteswitness

I know the tennis replay system has been mentioned a couple of times already, but I think it is what baseball needs to look at. Not only does the tennis challenge system take less than a minute each time, the crowd is always into it enough that they make audible sound effects to go along with the replay, also ending with an "OH!" when the final result is revealed. It actually seems to enhance the game. A similar replay of a ball/strike call would seem likely to accomplish the same thing.

Jul 10, 2012 05:52 AM
rating: 0
 
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