Are Missed Calls Bad for Baseball?

As a rule, Mondays suck, but as Mondays go, this is always a good one, as the Red Sox play a frightfully early home baseball game. On 2013’s Patriots’ Day, the Red Sox hosted the Rays, and it was 2-1 Boston in the top of the sixth when Evan Longoria batted with two down and runners on the corners. In a full count against Ryan Dempster, Longoria returned a grounder up the middle, but Stephen Drew made a diving stop and threw to Mike Napoli for the out. The inning was over, the Rays didn’t score, and the Rays would end up losing by a run a few innings later.

Things were that simple, and things were also a hell of a lot more complicated. Longoria was upset with the call at first base, because the play was close, and had Longoria been ruled safe, the game would’ve been tied. This was one of the higher-leverage moments of the game. Below, you can see it all for yourself:



One of the facts of the matter is that this was a bang-bang play, and an umpire can’t watch the baseball and the base at the same time with his complete attention. One of the other facts of the matter is that, when you pause the motion, it’s evident that Longoria beat the throw. Not by much, but there’s nothing about margins in the rule book. Longoria was more safe than not safe, and the game should’ve been tied. It’s impossible to say how things would’ve gone had Longoria been called safe, and maybe the Rays still lose anyway, but things would’ve gone differently, and this play was taken out of the players’ hands.

This isn’t the best example for what I want to talk about, but this is a recent example so we’re going to make do. I’m not blaming the umpire for this. Umpiring is hard work most of the time, and no one would’ve gotten this 100% correct, given a bunch of repetitions. We’re not very good! But this call was wrong. Probably a bunch of calls were wrong on Monday, I don’t know, but this was a major one. This cost the Rays a run. The Rays lost by a run. There’s reason for Rays fans to be upset.

Think about all the arguments in favor of expanded instant replay. Think about all the arguments in favor of an automated, PITCHf/x-based strike zone. The core idea is that baseball is a game played between two teams of 25 players each. The winner should be the team that scores the most runs, thereby having out-performed the opponent. There shouldn’t be any room for missed calls, in theory, because then it isn’t about the players performing. A missed call rewards the wrong side, and we should always want the right side to prevail. What is baseball if the umpires are incorrect? Why should we accept imperfection? The game should be left up to the players, and their performances should be their performances, with nothing left up to subjective interpretation. Baseball should be a game of absolutes, not a game of gray areas.

I have believed all that. I might still believe all that, truth be told, and the counter argument is: human element! Tradition! It’s anti-science is what it is, but then, there’s a scientific argument in favor of the current model. Or a philosophical argument, but there’s an awful lot of overlap between the two. Everything is science, turns out.

Baseball is not just a competition wherein the best teams are rewarded and the other teams are not. The World Series trophy is not given to the best team in the league. We know that and we accept that. Baseball is as much about the process as the result, and most of the process is the experience. The drama, the highs and lows, the various conversations we can have with other people that all weave together to make baseball the extraordinary diversion that it is and always has been. We can feel feelings about baseball that objectively we shouldn’t feel about something that doesn’t matter, but that’s the purpose, just as that is the purpose of most entertainment.

I was talking with Carson about this on a podcast several months back. About the nature of missed calls, and whether or not they’re better for the game. We know that a missed call is wrong. It is one call, instead of the other call, the other call being the correct one according to the rules. When there’s a missed call of significance, people respond, and they oftentimes respond emotionally. People remember being slighted, and everybody gets to feel like umpires have it out for them, since people remember the missed calls against them more than the missed calls in their favor. It’s an experience, to complain, to feel like you’ve been wronged. To know that you’ve been wronged. It becomes a part of the story, and baseball’s nothing but a collection of stories. That’s why so much ends up getting reduced to narratives.

The upside of getting everything right is that you get everything right. The best team still doesn’t always beat the worst team, but it’s all at least left up to the players. The upside of having room for missed calls is that you increase the emotion, and you increase the discussion. People have more to talk about, they have more to be emotional about, and there’s a certain community aspect to the shared experience of frustration and disappointment. For fans, there’s more bonding and more emotion, and for players, while events matter more to them, as a group they don’t seem particularly motivated to change the existing system. Fans are the people arguing most often for reform, against the wishes of the baseball establishment.

As an obvious example, in one universe, we have Armando Galarraga throwing a perfect game. It’s an incredible achievement for a fairly ordinary pitcher. In another universe, we have Armando Galarraga throwing a perfect game*, actually retiring all 28 batters instead of all 27, with the story of Jim Joyce’s blown call immediately branding itself into the nation’s consciousness. Instead of an extraordinary moment, we were given another extraordinary moment, and now Galarraga’s perfect game is unforgettable. It’s not like Phil Humber’s perfect game, where it just happened and didn’t matter after a week. The story of Armando Galarraga and Jim Joyce is an all-time tale of imperfection and redemption, insanity and character. It’s insane that that happened, but one could argue convincingly that baseball’s better for it having happened. As counter-intuitive as it is, baseball might benefit from getting things wrong.

Missed calls make people care. They stir the emotions, and where there are emotions, there’s a stronger connection. It’s possible that missed calls actually bring people closer to the game, rather than pushing them away. They certainly keep people talking about the game, for longer than they might otherwise.

Of course, there’s a tipping point. Right now, instead of 100% correct calls, we get X% correct calls, where I honestly have no idea what X might be. X is a very high number, but it sinks quite a bit if you limit things to just the borderline decisions. Baseball with 0% correct calls wouldn’t make any sort of sense. It would be unplayable. So would baseball with 50% correct calls. If you believe that baseball’s better with some mistakes, you can allow for only so many before there are entirely too many. Missed calls have to feel reasonably infrequent, otherwise they’ll start to be expected and baseball will feel like a mockery of itself. That’s when you do push people away. People need to believe that the competition will usually be decided by the players on the field, that the umpires will only seldom turn themselves into a factor.

But I’ve come to believe more and more than some missed calls are healthy. Not that they’re ever okay in the little picture — I can’t fathom losing an important game because an umpire incorrectly ruled a hit ball down the line. That would gnaw at me for weeks, or months or years, were the stakes sufficiently high. Ask me sometime about the Seahawks Super Bowl. But in the bigger picture, that dull agony is a part of the emotional experience. And everybody else has something to talk about, something to argue about, something to think about instead of life’s more pressing concerns. Is baseball is to entertain and distract, then missed calls are both entertaining and distracting.

I don’t know how I would feel about a perfectly accurate version of baseball. I do know how I feel about the current version of baseball.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.