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August 22, 2012

Manufactured Runs

Is the Answer to Imperfect Umpiring Really Robot Umps?

by Colin Wyers

The subject of instant replay is once again in the hearts and minds and throats and fingers of our nation’s baseball commentators, spurred on by the existence of actual news on the subject:

Major League Baseball owners approved the trial of two advanced instant-replay systems to be used in games beginning next week, an industry source confirmed to MLB.com.

Yahoo Sports first reported that MLB will use two different systems -- one using radar and the other using cameras -- to judge balls down each foul line. MLB implemented the technology in Yankee Stadium and Citi Field and will commence the trials next week when the Mets play host to the Rockies and Astros, and the following week, when the Yankees play host to the Blue Jays and Orioles.

            …

For now, the systems will not influence the games. According to Yahoo, MLB wants to establish that the system is accurate and worthwhile before using it in other Major League ballparks.

Now, for those of you who are new to the Internet, opinions on this subject tend (and I think it’s actually a pretty strong tendency) to fall into one of two camps:

1. The human element of umpiring is a vital part of baseball, and removing it would irreparably damage the game.

2.  

Obviously, there is little middle ground between those two points of view. Given the site I write for and the fact that I have been mistaken for a robot myself from time to time, I would suspect that most readers would put me firmly in the second camp. For some time now, though, I’ve never really been certain where I fell, if I fell anywhere at all.

This is my attempt, then, to form a third way between the human element and the robots. Given my body of work up until this point, I leave it as an exercise to the reader to determine if this is me trying to find ground for compromise on a contentious issue or just trying to find a way to disagree with the largest number of people.

What I think every side already agrees on is that something is required to adjudicate the rules of baseball at the professional level. The stakes are too high to trust players to self-police honestly, and the game is played at too high a level and has too complex a system of rules to trust players to be able to self-police accurately even if that weren’t so. There is no camp that believes that some solution isn’t required. What we should establish are the criteria we use to determine what solution to use. Allow me, if you will, to propose the following criteria. Importantly, I am not numbering these, because I don’t want to imply that the order has any significance.

  • Inconspicuous: To the extent that it’s possible, we want whatever we use to determine calls not to interfere with the action on the field. That means we don’t want the presence of umpires to slow the game down, to block our view of the action or draw attention to the umpires themselves rather than the players on the field.
  • Unobtrusive: This may seem redundant after the first criterion, but it’s slightly different in meaning (at least as I’m using it here). What this means is that we want the umpires to have as little actual impact on events as possible. We want umpires to make the right calls as often as possible, and we want the calls they make to reflect what the players did rather than the umpire’s opinion of what the players did.

In order to do this, three things need to happen: something needs to be able to determine what happened on the field, determine what the rules say about that thing, and communicate that decision to the players. I should point out that there is nothing intrinsic to this process that requires it to be done by a human being, and no particularly human element that makes umpiring work. We have umpiring because it’s necessary; if it were unnecessary for the game to be played, we wouldn’t add it.

There are aspects of live, human umpiring that do bring enjoyment to baseball fans, I think—a distinctive call of “strike” or an enthusiastic hand motion when ringing up a batter can be interesting, to be sure. But I think we enjoy these things because of their association with baseball; we do not enjoy baseball because of its association with umpiring. Prizing the human element of umpiring, no matter the effect it has on the game itself, is like prizing a photograph of someone you love above the person themselves. So if we are to decide that human umps are better than the robots, it has to be because they’re better at achieving our objectives, not because we desire human umps for their own sakes.

Let’s just step through the process again:

  1. See the play,
  2. Determine how the rules apply, and
  3. Communicate that ruling to the field.

All of these elements take time. And before you respond that it takes time for players and managers to protest bad calls, too, let’s consider fair/foul calls. There are a few ways you could make these relatively speedy: you could have a replay ump up in the booth who is calling the play live, or you could use some sort of ball-tracking technology to determine fair or foul similar to how “in” or “out” calls are made in tennis. (I will note for a moment that tracking such things on a baseball field is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than doing so in tennis, and leave it at that.) But that gets you through two steps of our sequence; you still need to let the players know about the decision in time to determine their actions, unless you want every fielder and baserunner to play out every somewhat close foul ball until the booth can conclusively determine it was in fact a foul (which would add a fair amount of time to a ballgame).

Or consider a fielder diving for a ball in the outfield. Nobody argues that replay is more likely to determine correctly whether or not a catch was made. Intuitively, this would seem to make it more likely that the players, not the umpires, determined the outcome of the play. However, the other fielders and the baserunners have to act according to the call as it was made in the moment, not as the call will eventually be made. And if the call is eventually reversed, the only recourse is for the umpires to decide what ought to have happened on the play if the call had been made correctly to begin with. I think having an umpire rule incorrectly about what a fielder did is less troubling than having umpires try to determine what they think a player would have or should have done, had things gone differently.

None of this is to say that replay should not be used where it is possible to enhance the game. It’s to emphasize that getting the call correct is not the only criteria we need to consider, and that the time it takes to improve a relatively small number of plays may have other, undesirable effects on the game.

I was at Wrigley Field for Star Wars Day last season (don’t act surprised), and the Cubs were trailing for much of the game (don’t act surprised about this either). It was cold. It was raining. To this point, I had spent most of the game trying to distract myself from how badly the Cubs were doing by paying attention to a bunch of Star Wars characters and various meat and cheese products (that, right there, is a pretty good summary of my life to date). The bleacher section was totally exposed to the rain, so finally I retreated to the concessions stand to get out from under the rain (fine, fine, there was probably also bratwurst involved).

Then Carlos Pena jacked a ball out of the park, and the Cubs had a lead. Everyone was on their feet, cheering, complete strangers were giving each other hugs… and then an umpire trudged into the outfield and vanished through the ivy. And we waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

And the umpire came out, and runners who had presumably scored instead took their bases, and there was no lead anymore.

Was it the correct call? Yes. Absolutely. Not arguing that. And Astros fans were probably as happy to see the call corrected as Cubs fans were saddened. But the larger point I’m trying to make here is that instead of cheering for moments, with enough replay, we are left cheering for reviews instead. And unless you can make those reviews unnoticeable, you are ever so slightly draining the magic away from the moments themselves.

Is that enough of a reason to shy away from instant replay? I don’t know. I think it’s enough of a reason to be cautious and patient in implementing it, though.

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

Related Content:  Umpiring,  Umpires,  Instant Replay,  Robot Umps,  Replay Review

22 comments have been left for this article.

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