Monday, August 16, 2010

Shocking but not Shocking

Tommy Lasorda and Earl Weaver were about as famous for their umpire arguing skills as they were for their managerial skills. Both had wonderful tantrums when they felt the umpire made the wrong call. And yet, each are on polar opposites when it comes to Instant Replay in baseball. Lasorda is all old school and wants the human element kept in. Weaver said the technology needs to be used to get it right. All of this, of course, comes from a recent study that found that twenty percent of close calls in games made by the umpires were wrong calls. The study is shocking, but for anyone who watches a lot of games, not shocking at all.

We can certainly see the evidence with our eyes when we watch the television. Just last night in the ESPN Sunday Game of the Week, Jose Reyes was called out at second and the replay clearly showed Reyes to be safe. The Fan watched the Yankees and the Red Sox yesterday and there were two blown calls in those games. You can cry, "human element," all you want, but this Fan seems to be squarely in line with most fans when it comes to having baseball officiated well. The post season last year was abominable when it came to bad calls. It was embarrassing. That's not a human element. That's a crying shame.

There are only two ways you can fix it when one out of every five calls is blown by the umpires. You either get better umpires or you move to technology. Getting better umpires is a problem. First, you have a union to deal with. Second, these guys are already supposed to be the best. Ideally, you would have to look at the selection process and figure out if you have a problem there. You have to weed out those umpires that are consistently poor in their decision making. You have to look at the training that is preparing umpires for their profession. All of that takes time and energy and a will to make it happen. All of that is problematic. After all, humans are involved with natural territorial feelings. Plus, humans are prone to always take the easy way out.

So if the second option is problematic, technology is your only way out. Nobody wants longer games. But you could shorten games with just a few simple rule changes (limit catchers going to the mound, limit time outs called by the batter when there is a runner on second, limit pitching changes in an inning, for just a few). That would take some time that could be used up for replay. The study linked above shows that there are about 1.3 close calls per game. So you are basically adding up to two chances in a game to review a call. That's not a lot and shouldn't take up a lot of time. And it is worth it if it means a correct call.

There is no question for this old school Fan that replay is the way to go.  Perfect it in Triple A if you have to first. Those calls in the Twins - Yankees series last fall were terrible and it took away from what the Yankees were to go on and accomplish because the calls tarnished some of the results. Jeter's famous home run in 1996 had a similar effect. Calls need to be right and if 20% of all close calls are blown and the human element can't do better than that, then another option has to be in place. It is too bad that we can't go back in time and review all those calls say twenty years ago to see if umpiring is worse now than it was then. This Fan would bet that that it is worse now than it has ever been.

In the linked piece that started this post, a telling short interview was given by Doug Harvey, a famous retired umpire who suggested with irony that we replace umpires with robots. He, of course, was defending the current system. But this Fan would be happier with robots  than with today's umpires. The Fan would love it if all balls and strikes were handled by technology. The Fan can't stand bad strike zones. It drives this old writer crazy. Well, you can't give a robot any way to tell if a runner is safe or out on a base. There just doesn't seem to be any way to do that. But that being the case, replay will give you the option of looking at the play again and getting it correct.

The bottom line is that we want ball players to decide the fate of the games and their own statistics, not an umpire.

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