ALCS Coverage: The Umps

The final score of last night’s game necessarily means that, in retrospect, the umpiring wasn’t a big deal. Tim McClelland could have called every play at third base in favor of the Angels and New York was still going to win that game. However, the amount of plays that were just totally missed is still a serious problem, and understandably, the performance of the umps has pushed the issue of replay back into the limelight.

There’s no way the status quo is the best we can do, right? I would imagine most of us can agree on that. There’s some combination of technological improvements with the current human subjective rulings that would give us a higher level of accuracy without sacrificing some ideal of purity – the arguments are more over how much technology we should be using. I can’t see too many people who watched the performance of the men in blue last night and said “I’m okay with this happening in a playoff series.”

The game should be decided by the players. It usually is, but as we saw last night, there’s potential for one team to outplay the other and still lose due to one umpire having a really bad night of judgment. That’s something that should be fixed.

If the umps are okay with two extra bodies being added down the lines for the playoffs, we can infer that they’re willing to trade some of the authority they have during the regular season in an attempt to improve accuracy of calls in the playoffs. They are not so defensive of their positions that they won’t make sacrifices in order to get more calls right.

They’re also willing to defer to each other. The home plate umpire asks the base umps for help on check swings. They gather to talk about home runs down the lines, with the guy who thinks he had the best view usually convincing everyone else to go along with him.

So, why wouldn’t they be okay with a seventh umpire that’s just watching the game on TV like the rest of us? It took us about five seconds to figure out that Swisher was out at second base on the pickoff play, and maybe twice that to figure out that he didn’t leave early from third base. It was plainly obvious that Cano was standing off the bag when Napoli tagged him. These are not decisions that required a five minute conference call under a hood.

Give an earpiece to the crew chief, and let the replay ump just tell him “hey, Tim, you missed that one. Cano was out, no question.” It is fundamentally no different than the home plate ump pointing down to third base on a checked swing. They’re getting help from each other in order to increase accuracy.

This is the kind of thing that could be implemented in a day. Bring in an extra ump and give him a room with a couple of TVs and a two-way communicator, and we won’t have scenes like last night again. We don’t need a complicated system with flags and challenges. Just have an ump watch TV and talk to his peers.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


48 Responses to “ALCS Coverage: The Umps”

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  1. DavidCEisen says:

    Totally 100% in agreement here. This is the most logical solution that I’ve seen. The umps aren’t even risking looking like they are being ‘shown up’, as viewers likely wouldn’t even be aware that the up stairs ump corrected him.

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    • Doug Lampert says:

      Oh, I think the fans will still know there’s been a review when the Ump reverses himself without conferencing or the Crew Chief overrules someone on something he couldn’t possibly have seen himself.

      But I don’t think that’s a problem. It will slow the game down less than the arguments already do, and produce a more accurate result. It’s not going to shock any fans of the game that Umps are human and occassionally miss a call. As the anouncers pointed out on the start from third, it’s nearly impossible to see both the runner’s foot and the catch at the same time, much less concentrate on the detailed timing of each.

      Realistically this actually reduces the crew from 6 to 5 Umps for the playoffs (the extra men on the line are doing a job that can typically be done BETTER via TV).

      I’d do it in the regular season too. Just use the man usually standing on second as the review guy and go with three men on the field like the minors or college. The booth guy can do both homerun appeals and review of other plays.

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  2. Rob in CT says:

    Sounds good to me.

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  3. Jerry says:

    A-FREAKING-MEN!!!

    I really don’t understand what the hold-up is. This should have been done already. Unfortunately, Selig’s attitude of “Well it’s been broke for hundreds of years! We’re not fixing it now!” doesn’t bode well. My fear is if he does implement some technological change he’ll make it as complicated as possible – ala the retarded homerun replay method. Oh well… I think it will inevitably change. I just hope it’s sooner than later.

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  4. PJ says:

    It’s time for an age cutoff for MLB umpires, the same way there’s an age cutoff for pilots. If you watch Tim McClelland umpire, you’ll know that he’s one of the best in the game, but let’s face it… the guy is 58 years old, and maybe it’s not fair, but there should be some sort of an age limit here. Pilots are forced into retirement at age 60, so let’s do the same for umps.

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    • Steve says:

      what about doctors? what about everyone who drives a car? can we take your license away at 60?

      b/c surely all of the consequences of these jobs and activities are of infinite more importance than getting a call right during a baseball game…

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    • Bryz says:

      But those umps are also considered the best in MLB. Remember how there was an outbreak of questionable home runs right before instant replay was added? I think this is the same case….like a hitter in a slump, it’s just a string of bad luck.

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  5. Nestor Chylak says:

    Great. By 2015 will we have cyborg set-up men with remote-controlled pitch arsensals?

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  6. matthew says:

    What about the strike zones or should we be ok with iconsistency there because that can change the out come of the game more than a missed call on the pads and would the umps have their own cameras or would they watch the feed from the local broadcast

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  7. Seideberg says:

    Far too simple to be implemented.

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  8. Jack says:

    The final score of last night’s game necessarily means that, in retrospect, the umpiring wasn’t a big deal.

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/baseball-events-isolated-and-guaranteed/

    There’s no way you can know that the game plays out exactly the same after the umpire miscues.

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    • Rob in CT says:

      Perhaps true, but even before the umping screwups, the Yankees were out to a solid lead. It’s highly unlikely that the Angels would have won. In the end, the total impact of the plays on the game was 1 extra out for the Yankees (the two Swisher calls cancelled out). Psychologically, could that have hurt the Angels? I suppose it could have. But then they were flailing away at CC without any results before the umps starting screwing up.

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    • Bryz says:

      It’s not a matter of if the outcome would be different, it’s a matter of getting the correct calls. My team could win by 10 runs, but I could still be upset if the umpires blew 3 calls that went against my team.

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  9. Chad says:

    Dave,

    Please baby jesus, let this happen.

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  10. EnglishMariner says:

    We already do this in professional cricket. They can be called to for run outs, which are very difficult plays to call correctly – much like whether Swisher was safe at 2nd last night.

    I think Dave makes an excellent suggestion, and MLB should contact the ICC for some tips. Cricket is an even more traditional and snotty game than baseball [you think the traditionalists are bad in the States? Try convincing the Nobility and ex-Prime Ministers at Lord's that technology is a good thing] and if they can impliment it for that, surely they can do it for baseball as well.

    I also long for the day when calling balls and strikes are taken out of the hands of umps and placed in the hands of computers, but that’s an other story.

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    • EnglishMariner says:

      By ‘they’ I meant to put the TV Umpire. No need to walk off the field and view a video.

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    • Nats Fan says:

      Balls and Strikes could not easily be done this way because each hitter has his own individual strike zone based on his own body size. Plus the number of sensors and camera’s needed to get a very accurate 360 degree view of such a small space would be expensive. Lastly, you might have to put something on or in the ball so the senors could sense it.

      But besides balls and strikes everything else could easily be done.

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  11. Nate says:

    This solution is so simple and it addresses the problem so thoroughly that MLB will never implement it.

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  12. neuter_your_dogma says:

    I am all for adding technology to ensure that a game’s outcome is left to the players. What is wrong with an automated strike zone? Ball touches a LASER-type strike box and voila! Strike One. Still need the ump around at home plate to make other calls (foul tips, interference, etc.), so he or she can shout out balls and strikes the box records. Also, LASER-type lines along first and third to aid with foul and fair balls. Personally, I would think it fun to see Bobby Cox argue balls and strikes with a LASER.

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    • Nats Fan says:

      A box does not work because all ball is a strike if it crosses any part of the plate in the strike zone. Thus a ball could be a strike when is crosses the front of the plate then hit the dirt behind the plate and still be a strike. Or it could go across the plate from right to left and wind up well left of the box and still be a strike. Sensors to detect this and triangulate it would need to be designed is as a half sphere around the plate (open MRI), and would need to be adjusted for each hitters own individualized strike zone. The batter would not be able to be seen by the crowd from all the technology needed. Balls and strikes just can’t be done this way.

      But every other call in the game could use technology.

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  13. Mike D says:

    This is the perfect system and I wrote about the same idea on my blog back in August. Of course, I remain skeptical that baseball would ever implement something like this, since they’ve shown little inclination to establishing a logical replay sytem. It does get a little complicated once you start considering plays where something else occurs in succession, but that would not have been a problem for the plays last night.

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  14. Daniel says:

    Hey, this is a Really Good Idea (TM). Brilliant. So simple that I can’t believe I’ve never heard of it or thought of it before.

    Get ‘er done, Bud.

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  15. Logan says:

    Great article! Dave for commish!

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  16. walkoffblast says:

    HD and other technological advances have clearly been a nightmare for baseball. A few problems I see though are you will not really be able to correct certain calls. Kind of like the problem in the NFL where they accidentally do not call something a fumble and blow the play dead, what can you do about all the other events happening not specific related to the safe/out call. You would start ending up with weird things like “ground rule” blown call singles(?) and how you begin to deal with that who knows.

    One other point I noticed Dave misconstrued is the 6 umps meaning an increased desire to get the calls right. From the umpire perspective I think its at the very least equally about getting paid.

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    • Kevin S. says:

      You deal with it the same way you deal with other dead-ball situations, such as ground-rule doubles and fan interference.

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  17. aweb says:

    Heck, even Hockey has managed to get this right. They have a centralized room (in Toronto?) where goals are reviewed by a set of standard people. When they first did it they tried the NFL system (guy looking at TV screen), which works very very slowly. But the other ump doesn’t even have to be there at the game, set up a room in one place with people watching every game. As noted above, it should be quick and easy. The biggest problem is games where TV coverage isn’t good or thorough, but MLB could set up special cameras at the trouble spots that always run. For a multi-billion dollar business, spending a few hundred thousand would seem like a no-brainer.

    Blown calls on balls called foul are easy, just a new part of the game for MLB. Looked like a single, it’s a single. Ground rule doubles have been around forever (well, for 100 years), and no one gets bent out of shape about them. Ghostrunners are pretty well known to anyone who played without enough people as a kid – they advance as many bases as the batter.

    Oh, and computerized strike zones – I want them. Make the system even more accurate and get rid of that part of the game. No fan, ever, tunes in to see if there favourite team can adjust to strike zone that night.

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    • MPC says:

      The NHL has the right idea, but the “war room” in Toronto is awful. They’re consistently inconsistent with their rule interpretations.

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  18. Nate says:

    The key to this system would be the trust between the field umpires and the video umpire. I doubt that that trust would develop without the umpire on the field being able to see the video that shows he was wrong. So I can see how this could take more time than just a “hey, you were wrong” in an earpiece.

    I think it’s an easy sell to the umpire’s union, since it adds an additional umpire. Umpires should rotate through the video position, just like any other, and that would also help the trust factor.

    Regarding strike zones, it’s quite obvious that a human must be involved to determine where the top and bottom of of the strike zone is for each batter. Furthermore, where the instant replay is a “backup” system (if it malfunctions, the game can continue), an automated ball/strike calling system would have to contain redundancies to prevent games being delayed or called “on account of technical difficulties.” I don’t see this kind of system being implemented any time soon.

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    • Tom B says:

      it wouldnt take much effort to set every batters strike zone in the system during spring training.

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      • Nats Fan says:

        a batter can change his strike zone during a season, or theoretically even during an at bat (Change from a rick Henderson stance to a Craig counsel). Granted it is rare.

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      • Wally says:

        I find it hard to believe that we do not have the technology to easily, quickly and accurately calculate the size of a strike zone on a pitch by pitch basis.

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      • Tom B says:

        and if the player adjusts his stance they can easily update his strike zone. why are you fighting this so hard?

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  19. Dave says:

    I think it’s excessively hopeful to think that these things can be resolved quickly. In order to reverse a call, a booth umpire is going to have to be sure – to look at more than one angle of replay, which can often play tricks with perspective. A quick decision like a check-swing call is liable to end up with the occasional correct calls overturned because they initially looked wrong. I’m fine with advocating review, but it’s cutting corners to authoritatively state it would be simple. I recall that when NFL replay was instituted, it seemed to people that most of the calls would be easy to quickly determine, but soon found themselves watching constant, interminable delays, even over calls that seemed clear at first. I am in agreement with Joe Posnanski that the real crime of replay in the NFL is the suffocation of drama, as pretty much any game-deciding play has to be subjected to scrutiny before we can cheer.

    I certainly understand the argument for getting all the calls right, but the only replay system I don’t mind is tennis, which is automated and immediately accepted as truth. Like the NFL, baseball has a problem with pacing.

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  20. tyrone says:

    A replay ump system would solve the awful calls in yesterday’s game without much trouble, so that would be a good thing. Not so sure about certain other calls though. Right now, runners are routinely called out on plays in which “the ball beat him to the base” even though a tag wasn’t strictly applied. Middle infielders are (for the most part) given the benefit of the doubt when turning the double play at second. The popular rationale seems to be that giving the defense those calls helps to prevent injuries, and players and managers seem pretty much okay with that state of affairs.

    How replay would affect those types of calls and if/how the players would change their behavior to get those calls isn’t completely clear (at least to me) and might be something to consider.

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  21. Bah! says:

    To be sure, it’s the ump’s job to get the calls right and I would hope that MLB wants to do everything it can to ensure that they get calls right. However, it is not clear to me that the increased use of technology will necessarily solve the problem.

    At the heart of this issue is, I think, both the way that MLB treats umpires and our understanding of what the umpires’ job actually is. Remember, umpires are not trained by MLB and are often seen as a another piece of equipment, like bases and bats. A “necessary evil.” Furthermore, there is a certain perception that fans have of umpires that is…well…murderous. Puts ‘em in an impossible position. They get a call wrong, and they are excoriated. They get a rightly call a runner safe because the base was not tagged (Ayebar not tagging 2B while turning a DP), and Joe Buck and Tim McCarver say that that the ump made the “wrong” call. The ump can’t win: make the wrong call and fans are all over them; make the correct call, and we invoke “give ‘em the benefit of the doubt…”

    There are a host of things that we need to take into account (that Bruce Weber’s recent book and Fay Vincent’s New York Times op-ed piece show) about not only how we think about what umpiring should be but how we understand and perceive those people in blue and those practices and institutions that are responsible for umpiring.

    The increase of technology may be part of the solution to this problem, but let’s at least say that it is only “part” of the solution to a much bigger problem.

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    • Eric M. Van says:

      Re the Aybar DP: the point there was that that play is never called, and it seemed arbitrary and capricious to suddenly start calling it then. Compare the HBP of Mike Napoli by Josh Beckett in the 7th inning of Game 2 of that series, which was as blatant a case of a batter making no effort to avoid being hit as you’ll ever see. That wasn’t called, and the only justification for not calling it was that the umpires virtually never call it.

      I agree that both plays should be called consistently, by the book, but the umpires have no one to blame but themselves for these controversies because they’ve made a habit of calling them wrong.

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  22. Logan says:

    They’re also willing to defer to each other. The home plate umpire asks the base umps for help on check swings.

    You run into an umpire every now and then that refuses to check with the base umps and get help. That is a huge pet peeve of mine. It usually precedes a guy getting thrown out.

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  23. Eric M. Van says:

    Dave’s suggestion is terrific and should be implemented for the WS.

    I’ve got a list and WPA analysis of all the blown calls this post-season at

    http://sonsofsamhorn.net/index.php?s=&showtopic=50363&view=findpost&p=2640764

    Regarding the automatic calling of balls and strikes, something I’ve been dreaming about for thirty years: pitch/fx already does a better job of calling balls and strikes than human umpires. But there are several problems with it, and one of them is that the top and bottom of the strike zone are set manually, by operators watching video, and can be very inconsistent from PA to PA or even from pitch to pitch. But it might be possible to implement a better system.

    The other thing worth noting is that the average de facto strike zone is not the rulebook zone. It is wider than the plate, and wider to the umpire’s left than right, and it doesn’t go down as far as the rulebook says it should (basically, umps require all the ball to above the knees rather than any part of the ball), and it’s not rectangular — the expansion off the plate is usually not called for pitches at the top and bottom of the zone. But an average de facto strike zone could be determined and easily implemented.

    Finally, the impact of inconsistent and/or idiosyncratic home plate umpiring is probably much greater than the impact of blown calls on the bases. Based on the analysis I’ve done with pitch/fx I don’t think it’s at all unusual for one team to be given a edge of over half a run over the other (measured by WPA * 10). And the argument that any strike zone is OK as long as its consistent is bs — why should the ump determine that it’s going to be a bad night for a pitcher who works down in the zone but a good one for his opponent who works up?

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  24. Patrick says:

    My God, Dave! What a good, and what a SIMPLE, idea. Wow. :)

    I haven’t read any of the comments, but gosh. What a good idea, and it’s so simple.

    It’ll never fly. *sigh*

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