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August 29, 2003

6-4-3

All the Leaves in Need of Raking

by Gary Huckabay

I usually try to stay fairly reserved when writing a column. All the contributors at BP have different roles, and my role in writing 6-4-3 is to cover topics that are germane both in and outside the world of baseball--especially in areas like business and politics.

Today, you get an oversimplified, somewhat disrespectful rant. I'd like to apologize in advance, in a feeble attempt to buy more credibility for the angry words that follow. This is something like saying "With all due respect..." right before you say something disrespectful, in an attempt to head off charges that you're an insolent bastard. Words following a phrase such as that should always be heavily discounted, like you might do with Ted Danson at a policy debate or Steve Lyons covering a baseball game.

I've had a number of discussions over the past week or so that center around QuesTec, and all the issues associated with the company--their financial viability, the role of their technology in the administration of games, the aesthete and on-field consequences of usage, etc. I wrote a piece about the problem of asking umpires to handle ball/strike calls two years ago, and my views haven't changed since then. Simply put, given the operational needs of the game on the field, (e.g., limitations on the options available for positioning of umpires), it's just not possible for home plate umpires to do an adequate job of determining whether a pitch is a ball or a strike.

Whether in person, by e-mail, or on the phone, I've been listening to a number of arguments, recently, regarding QuesTec as part of a comprehensive system of umpire review. Eventually, most people come to agree that the job of accurately calling balls and strikes is simply too difficult for someone to do well. From there, however, nearly everyone who opposes QuesTec's use falls back on the "It's part of the human element of the game" argument.

The thing is, if you take that argument and drill down, you end up with the following call to action:

"Hey! Let's go out to the ballpark and watch umpires @#$% up calls!"

(I don't know what that sentence will look like when it gets published, but I know what I wrote. Sometimes, you have to fly in the face of RSAC.)

Some of you who hold that view are right now undergoing a reflexive dismissal of that statement. You're saying to yourself, "How does this moron get from wanting to preserve the humanity of the game to wanting to spend time and money watching ineffectiveness?" Think about it.

One of the reasons--perhaps the main reason--that people love sports is the tension and uncertainty that comes with them. When a baseball game begins, you have some educated guesses about what you're going to see, but the outcome of the game, and how things end up there, is extremely unpredictable. The terminus of the game is even uncertain; you don't know when the game's going to end, much less how. It's an unscripted drama based on a meritocracy of on-field performance. How cool is that?

The human element of the game lies with the players on the field. They're the show. The umpires are a necessary part of the environment in which the game takes place: they keep things moving along, keep players and spectators safe, and adjudicate the game. The purpose they serve is distinct, separate, and wholly a support function. There is no net positive change to the game in having human umpires rather than a (theoretical) perfect automaton. No one goes out to the park to see an umpire, and where fans of one team benefit from something like an Eric Gregg strike zone, fans of another team suffer the same amount. That's randomness affecting the outcome, not harder work or greater skill. Removing that randomness--and leaving the outcome to the players on the field--is not something to lament or wring one's hands over.

Don't get me wrong--umpires do a tremendous job. But when it comes to calling balls and strikes, they're not physically capable of doing even an adequate one. For those of you who would call upon tradition as the basis or your argument, I would submit that balls and strikes have never been called as accurately as the game really requires. The QuesTec system is accurate, consistent, doesn't get tired, doesn't get intimidated, and doesn't color its perception with ideas about the way the game "should" be. Its adoption does not mean a loss of jobs for umpires, nor a dramatic change in the game. No QuesTec system ever followed a bitching player back to the dugout, begging a confrontation that wastes time and detracts from the game. Furthermore, there is no slippery slope that's going to result in machines taking a bigger role in the game.

All 30 parks, Mr. Alderson. And if anyone at QuesTec is currently reading this and needs help securing funding, you have my e-mail address.

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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