You Could Have Robots Run Instant Replay In Baseball. Or You Could Treat Umpires Like Everyone Else.

Most of us work for a living, and if you read this I’m 99% certain you’re in that crowd, whether you’re a 99-percenter from the Occupy crowd or the 1% they purport to oppose. We rely on work and the income it provides, whether we love our job and and practice daily our passion, or we trudge away at a job we deplore.

Similarly, we all make decisions at work. Even an otherwise unemployable semi-automaton walking the streets of Chicago slapping parking tickets on cars often is empowered to make a decision now and again.

Ultimately, the decisions we make in the jobs we need define our professional future and financial well-being. A waiter who cannot manage time or orders will collect smaller tips and potentially get fired. A self-employed realtor who is lazy will not earn. A graphic designer who makes the wrong creative choices will not climb the career ladder. Well-funded organized anarchists (a hilarious oxymoron) who throw bottles at Chicago police will get hit with a stick and arrested. Brett Lawrie will sit out a couple games.

It’s not reasonable to expect perfect or correct decisions all of the time from anyone in any profession. Those in a profession that requires constant decisions and judgement should be the people from whom we least expect perfection.

So. Baseball umpires.

Compared to other team sports with officials, baseball is pretty easy. Primarily this is because almost every call happens where the ball is. A pitcher can’t balk without the ball. Tags, force-outs, ball-strike calls, fair-foul calls, it all depends on the ball. With the exception of a runner missing a base (which very rarely happens), officiating baseball is a case of Watch The Ball, Call The Ball.

Football has holding and illegal motion and dozens of other things. The officials have to run to keep up with some of the world’s best athletes to make a call. Soccer the same. The NBA is a blur of athletic movement at times with an official simultaneously looking for traveling, physical fouls, three-second violations, ayers stepping out of bounds and more.

Putting some of the overweight MLB umpires on a soccer pitch would require a threefold increase in medical staff in attendance at games. They have it easy, physically. Stand in your spot. Watch the ball. Call the ball.

However, despite the ease of their job, we should not expect perfection.

The current internet/Twitter/message board vogue is demand for wider use of instant replay. This is fueled by a couple big things. TV technology and Pitchf/x tell fans almost immediately if a call was correct or not. This makes second-guessing or correcting an umpire easy. And, we have had two milestone games–a non-perfect game and a no-hitter that should not have been–swung by bad calls from umpires.

I’d suggest first that a lot of the milestone stuff is fabricated by local fans and media, for local fans and media. Tigers fans and those with general interest need not worry about the legacy of Armando Galarraga. He’s not lost to memory, since he’s easier to recall than many players who did throw an official perfecto. And he has a better story to tell his grand kids. Publicly, he’s fine with the event, and if he’s ok with it, we should all be. Tigers fans can remember it however they want, but they’re no more entitled to it than a Radiohead fan is entitled to something better than “King Of Limbs” or a Coppola fan is entitled to a better “Godfather III.” We need not fret for Galarraga. Or for the Tigers, who won the game.

Same applies to Cardinals fans. The Cardinals didn’t have a bad weekend because an umpire wrongly called a Carlos Beltran batted ball foul, when it clearly should have been called fair, ending Johan Santana’s eventual–and now offical–no-hitter. That no-hitter came over a weekend in which the Cardinals bats went cold, and the team was outscored by the Mets 19-1 in three consecutive games. Cardinals fans will claim embarrassment–one used the word on Twitter over the weekend in rebuttal to a comment I made–but the real embarrassment lies in the butt-kicking the Mets put on the team for three days (before the Cardinals rebounded to win 5-4 in the 4-game set’s last game), and not in the random variance of one single night in which they didn’t (officially, right, wrong or indifferent) garner a base hit.

Like the Tigers win in Galarraga’s ur-perfect game, the Cardinals lost on Friday night. Beltran’s batted ball being a hit would not have changed that. I’m sure there are nits to be picked and hairs to be split with that statement too, and that some will say that it was a 2-run game at the time, and the hit would have changed the dynamic, etc. They lost 8-0. Santana was on, and the Mets were hitting. Whether there was a hit or not, they lost, and would have lost if Beltran had a double or triple on the play.

So if the argument for replay is for the sake of posterity in extreme outlier games, and in the protection of fans’ tribal egos, I respectfully submit that instant replay and umpire imperfection is not worth getting up in arms about. I’ll stipulate though that any Cardinals fan who wants Don Denkinger put on trial can have that one. The closing out of a World Series game that your team goes on to lose is a flawless example of the need for replay to overturn calls when said calls can swing a game or, potentially, a championship. I’ll say the same for any instance, and there have been a few lately, in which a game seems to have been decided late, or could have been decided better. Hold the ump accountable, the way you’d hold a player accountable for a bases-loaded walk or taking the third strike or booting a routine grounder. Employers who hold employees the most accountable get the best employees doing the best work.

I’ll suggest a better path than instant replay, and that’s umpire accountability. As I said above, virtually everyone is accountable for the decisions they make at work. Umpires should be no different.

Here’s the sum total of what I know about umpire accountability: they’re held accountable by baseball in a way that is not transparent and the details of which are not public. That’s what needs reform more than the use of instant replay or Pitchf/x to overturn or determine plays on the field.

If Brett Lawrie is suspended for two days for throwing a helmet and accidentally hitting an umpire while in a blind rage, sure, suspend him. But also suspend the umpire who blew two consecutive strike calls in a close game, reducing the Jays’ remaining outs by one and limiting their chance to win the game. That’s a bigger problem than whether or not Galarraga had a perfect game or Santana had a no-hitter. The actual won/loss game outcome was potentially hindered.

If Beltran’s hit was a hit (and, sure, it was) then let the umpire have his blown call, let the history books show that on one night in June 2012 one of the game’s best pitchers held one of the game’s best offenses hitless, then pull the umpire in for a disciplinary talk. Ask why he blew the call. If it’s a question of his positioning on the field, and it’s determined he was where he was supposed to be but missed the call because, well, it’s hard to get the right perspective from where he was (properly) positioned, let it slide. But if he was out of position, or if he missed the call because he rushed to call it foul without taking a second to let his eyes tell his brain tell his arm which way to point, the discipline him. Why? Because that’s how it works in a job. It’s a given that you’re expected to make bad decisions at work, and it’s expected that your supervisors/customers will respond in kind with discipline or a loss of business or other.

I’d suggest a panel with seven or nine or eleven members (an odd number to prevent ties), a couple umpires at most, managers, a few players, a some front office people, and a few folks from the commissioner’s office. Note: zero journalists. Zero retired “advisers.” No agents. Only people in the game who could potentially be impacted by the decisions made. Players, managers, executives, the commish, and the umpires themselves.

Any process where the umpires (co-workers in the same union, collectively bargaining for the same thing) police themselves via a crew chief is, frankly, dysfunction at the highest level. Non-union supervision by the people employing the umpires and paying their salaries should be a basic, fundamental thing that is not even remotely debatable. And it should be transparent. If Brett Lawrie is publicly suspended for bad behavior, if Manny Ramirez is publicly suspended for substance abuse violations, if Brandon Wood fails repeatedly and is repeatedly sent back to the minors for poor performance, then why is Bill Miller not publicly disciplined for screwing up two straight calls with Lawrie at bat, or Angel Hernandez sent back to the minors until his strike zone is not fixed?

Without getting too sociopolitical here, why do we as a baseball-loving society call vehemently for instant replay instead of directing that energy at the game for failing to do something that any good business worth it’s salt does: hold employees accountable.

One thought on “You Could Have Robots Run Instant Replay In Baseball. Or You Could Treat Umpires Like Everyone Else.

  1. Dave says:

    I believe that we as baseball fans view the change of replay necessary is because this is all we have known. That is not a legitimate excuse, I realize that. But to assume that we don’t want accountability is incorrect I believe. It is as much from fatigue from wanting change in accountability that warrants wanting replay. In addition, I think the success of replay being instituted into the NFL makes it logical that replay be used for fair/foul calls in addition to HR calls. There was a game last year between the Braves and the Marlins that swung on a ball being called foul that was clearly fair. And granted, the Braves collapse was the reason for them missing the playoffs, but that 1 game clearly would have mattered at the end of the season. As far as accountability goes, I believe that (finally) the league is making an attempt to hold the umpires accountable. I don’t recall anything like the announcement of Bob Davidson being suspended publicly. Sure, there are minor disciplinary actions taken, but they are behind closed doors and not made known to the public, like the instances you mentioned above w/ Manny and Lawrie. But the simple minor embarrassment caused by announcing his suspension through the media is a small step in the right direction I believe.

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