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May 14, 2014

The Lineup Card

10 Ways We'd Improve Umpiring or Replay

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Surlier Umpires
There's a school of thought that the only good umpire is the one you don't notice, and that the worst umpire is the one who wants to be part of the show. I'm on board with that when, for instance, an umpire boots a player from the game too quickly; we did, after all, tune in/pay to see that player play. Otherwise, though, the "just blend in" philosophy ignores that one of the great parts of watching sports is hating the umpires. For years we've dehumanized them, blamed them, belittled them. Now we've stripped them of their actual power by installing a a veto point that makes them almost irrelevant, and suddenly the dehumanizing, blaming and belittling is in danger. How much can we really scream at an umpire whose terrible calls are overturned? How can we hate the men in blue when they're just blending in, barely a part of the game? Therefore, I'd actually like to see umpires do less to blend in. I like the umpire who jaws at the player. I like the jerk who motions "keep walking" or who spits right back in the manager's face. Now that umpires are increasingly powerless administrators whose second biggest role (other than calling balls and strikes) is stamping "approved" on obvious paperwork, I'd embrace them taking on a role as the game's rodeo clowns. In short, I'd like to see more umpires like Bob Engel:

Sure, Engel looked like a jerk. But the game needs jerks. And as much as I love that umpires are finally getting the calls right, I'll miss screaming at them for getting them wrong. —Sam Miller

2. Obnoxious Klaxon in the Umpires' Ears for Incorrect Calls
To this point we've been handling the umpiring issue with a delicate hand, so as not to embarrass the men in blue, while also trying to avoid disrupting the game itself for the sake of getting the call right. I'm sure there's a good reason for all of that, but I'm going to go ahead and cut through all the formalities and politeness and offer up a simple and crude solution:

Really loud noises, all in the umpires ear, when they mess up a call.

That's it, no robot umpires (who will no doubt be hellbent on taking over the world once they become sentient), no holographic renderings of the strike zone for the umpire to see live, no frills and flash. Just, a loud and blaring klaxon that sounds off as soon as an umpire misses a call. I think this would make umpires more alert and less likely to get a call wrong. There'd be no "personal strikezone" for umpires because seriously, who would want to put up with the blaring alarm that accompanies one's personal preference for giving the outside corner to lefties? Everyone would be absolutely on top of check swings and bang bang plays at first. Umps would be running wind sprints out to center to make sure a catch is a catch.

I really do think that these blaring, annoying sounds that would ring for wrong calls could succeed where our sophisticated and fancy technology has not. —Mauricio Rubio

3. Legalized Umpire Bribing
There are three categories of instant replay outcomes. There are the calls where the video evidence affirms the decision on the field and the calls where the video evidence shows conclusively that the umpire got it wrong. Then, there's the third subset where the umpire guesses and the video evidence isn't really all that helpful. If the goal is to get things right, but there's no proof either way, what to do? At this time, the umpire's call stands when the evidence is inconclusive, but why not try a more market-based approach? Upon the call being declared inconclusive, a fully sanctioned auction takes place on the field in view of everyone in which the managers (or perhaps their official consigliaries) pull out a wad of dollar bills and begin bidding for the call. Proceeds benefit the umpire (and oh yeah, that would totally incentivize the umpires to find a lot of "inconclusive" calls). $25 says he was safe? Well, $30 over here says he was out. Do I hear $35? What would teams really pay for an out? A run? A win? A World Series championship...

Yes, I know that this would never happen (and that's certainly for the better), but it sure would give us some nice information about how teams really value things on the field. —Russell A. Carleton

4. Legally Blind Umpires
Umpires make mistakes. That has been possibly the one constant in baseball since the sport was invented over 150 years ago. Since that time baseball has, in fits and starts, labored to make umpires better. Umpires have gotten quicker, smarter, and better trained. They’re professionals who make a great salary and are better equipped than anyone ever has been to tell whether a fastball was on the corner or just off, or whether or not the runner’s foot touched the base before the fielder caught the ball.

And all of this is futile. There is a limit to how good an umpire is as long as he has human eyes and a human brain. Even with instant replay, the umpires (on the field or in a room in New York) are left to interpret what the computer sees and still, even with digital replay technology, they mess the calls up.

This leads me to ask: is baseball going in the wrong direction? Is trying to get correct calls from 99 percent to 99.1 percent worth all the effort? I say no. I say more human element. Eliminate instant replay? Yes, but that’s not enough. Outlaw umpire schools? Not enough.

The time has come for legally blind umpires.

Think about it (but not too hard):Tthe underlying assumption behind every single baseball argument is that one team was unfairly burdened by a bad call. The umpire was trying, so the thought goes, to get the call right, but made a mistake. For players and managers, that’s grounds for being upset. But, what if all umpires ever did was make mistakes? What if making a mistake, a horrible, nonsensical, almost randomly generated mistake was so commonplace it was the expectation? All arguments would cease, replaced by resignation and, one assumes over time, a growing and generalized love for humanity. And the fans? They’d get to love it. It’s the human element! We all love the human element! It’s a sport for humans so the more element of humans elementalized by and for humans, the more human the elements of the sport. The founders of baseball had always intended the sport to be played this way! Right of course!

Fans of the Twins and Royals and Mets—especially the Mets—would love it, because never before did grounding into a double play carry with it the possibility of a three-run home run.

So, baseball, listen up. The only way to fix umpiring is to make it worse. Hire umpires who can’t physically do their jobs and let’s all see how perfect this wonderful sport can be. —Matthew Kory

5. Ask the Fans
#AskTheFans is more of a principle than a specific idea, at the moment. Despite the hashtag format, it harkens back to the very earliest days of professional baseball in the 1870s. Umpires were known to occasionally ask fans for help on plays they did not see well. Today’s technology allows even greater fan engagement. Fans could, for example, register their cell phone number to vote on plays for one specific team for a season. A manager could then “ask the audience” once a game to send a simple text message deciding whether to overturn an umpire’s call. Numbers could be compiled in real time for a minute or so, like broadcast networks’ “Who is your player of the game?” questions. Perhaps a supermajority would be appropriate to overturn a call, rather than 50 percent-plus-one vote.

The system would have its own biases to confront, but democracy is messy. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers complained last night that referees made a call that “everyone in the arena” could tell was wrong. Well, let’s see if the fans can do a better job than the umps. —Dan Rozenson

6. Strike Zone Buzzers
Buzz. Buzz.

Taking away the calling of balls and strikes from the human is impractical (where is the top and bottom of the zone, and when is it established?). But why not help the umpires out a little—right now left-handed batters get a wider strike zone than right-handed batters. We also know the zone changes size during at-bats, and so on and so forth. Let's make the zone a bit more consistent, shall we?

Buzz. Buzz.

That's all it takes. A little buzzer in the pocket of the home plate umpire. The sides of the plate offer the easiest (only?) place for the use of the proverbial robot umpire.

So where's my idea? Use it spring training: Put a remote buzzer in the umpire's pocket that simply vibrates any time a pitched ball is detected to have crossed the plate. This will train umpires to better recognize the edges of the strike zone, leaving the top and bottom for us fan types to fight over.

Buzz. Buzz.

Don't like it? Then let's go talk about pressure sensors inside first base and home plate. —Harry Pavlidis

7. Preserve Unprecedented Mistakes
One of the joys of subscribing to Craig Wright’s Pages from Baseball’s Past is finding out about ultra-rare umpire screw-ups that led to unprecedented events, like the time in 1959 when two balls were in play or the incident on September 24, 1964 when Ernie Banks recorded an at-bat without playing in a game. I am, of course, completely in favor of calls being correct, but I also (somewhat inconsistently!) support occasional chaos. That’s why I want baseball’s brain trust to ensure that whenever something super-strange happens as a result of an umpire error—they’ll know when they see it whether it satisfies the "strange enough" standard—the original ruling be allowed to stand, however erroneous. Sure, we could wipe any anomaly away with the aid of instant replay, but which would enrich baseball’s tapestry to a greater degree: a lone correct call, or an incorrect call for the ages? The fans of today might be mad about the blown call being upheld, but judging by my delight at discovering the two mistakes I mentioned above, fans 50 years from now will thank me. —Ben Lindbergh

8. Clarify the Collision Rule
The great Jayson Stark went long on this subject on Monday, and I’d recommend that you read what he wrote. The one-sentence summary: Everyone on the field is confused about the current home-plate collision rule, so Major League Baseball is searching for a solution. According to former manager and current MLB exec Tony La Russa, the original rule (which was softened this spring at the players’ request) “prohibited catchers from blocking the plate under any circumstances and dictated that runners had to slide into home under all circumstances.” That might be too drastic for your taste, but it beats the present ambiguity and could be put back into place. Whatever its decision, MLB’s swift response to the transfer rule debacle earlier this year gives me faith that the league will soon find a satisfactory fix. —Ben Lindbergh

9. Stop the Stalling
This sort of sight was amusing on Opening Day,

but the “walk slowly and make small talk while glancing back toward the bench coach” stall tactic most managers employ to buy their replay personnel time has grown tiresome. Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix. The most obvious alternative—forcing managers to make a decision immediately or forgo their chance at a challenge—would likely lead to fewer accurate calls. And while it’s not too late to scrap the challenge system and decree that every close call trigger a review at MLB’s centralized replay hub, that method would present problems from a presentation perspective. Would we ever feel free to celebrate if we never knew whether a completed play was about to be overturned from afar?

Here’s one idea: MLB could shorten the time allowed before a challenge but also give each manager one more of them. With more margin for error, managers would be more willing to challenge with less knowledge about the outcome, but not so willing that they’d waste time with frivolous requests for reviews. And if they did ask umps to go to the videotape more often, the resulting increase in game length would be balanced out by the reduction in boring bench coach Kabuki. —Ben Lindbergh

10. Enforce Existing Pace-of-Play Rules
Last season, the Nationals’ Adam LaRoche expressed puzzlement about why anyone would mind that games keep getting longer:

I don’t know why anyone is concerned about it. Fans are paying to come out here. I would assume when you pay to go do something, you want to get your money’s worth. If you got guys rushing off the field and ‘let’s get out of here,’ what’s the purpose of it? We have nowhere else to be.

While the players might not mind logging another 10 or 15 minutes in uniform, many of the fans watching in person or from home would prefer to put that time to better use, especially because much of the additional length is attributable to the athletic equivalent of dead air. While we could come up with any number of exotic proposals to quicken the pace of play, the most practical would involve enforcing two existing dictates that are often ignored.

First, there’s rule 8.04, which limits pitchers to 12 seconds before delivering his next pitch, after receiving the ball and after the batter is “in the box, alert to the pitcher.” (I’m working on something about the percentage of pitches this season that have violated this rule, so stay tuned for that.) Second, there’s rule 6.02, which says that the batter “shall take his position in the batters box promptly when it is his time at bat” and also forbids him from removing both feet from the box, except in certain circumstances.

While part of baseball’s appeal is its identity as the sport that frees spectators from the tyranny of a ticking clock, it might be time to equip more umpires with one. The second-base umpire already carries a stopwatch to monitor the time between innings; why not task him (or another crew member) with tracking the time between pitches, too? Or perhaps a high-tech alternative: install an LED on the inside of the home-plate ump’s mask that displays PITCHf/x timestamps and automatically calculates the time between them. After a warning or two, offenders would start to suffer the penalties laid down by (neglected) law.

Strictly regulating the time between pitches wouldn’t do anything to reduce the bloat arising from advertising breaks and frequent pitching changes, but it would still slow or even reverse a worrisome trend. This fix had the intended effect in the Atlantic League; now it’s time for the same process to go pro. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Umpiring,  Rulebook,  Rules

7 comments have been left for this article.

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