Bases loaded, one out, top of the 7th, 1-0 game. Casey Kotchman, the worst .335 hitter in the history of baseball, hits a pop-fly to right. Magglio Ordonez camps under it, makes the catch, unleashes a looping throw to the plate. Alex Avila blocks the plate with his left leg. Running hard from third, Justin Ruggiano‘s left leg briefly collides with Avila’s, as the catcher makes a swipe tag that catches nothing but air.
Home plate umpire John Tumpane, wisely, withholds his signal. Having slid past home, Ruggiano swings his left leg back, taps home plate. Avila half-heartedly tags Ruggiano’s leg a couple beats later. Now, Tumpane’s ready to make the call.
Here’s a still shot of Ruggiano’s leg on the plate, with Avila leaning over to make the tag, his glove still touching nothing but air.
Here’s the video of the play, shown from multiple angles, at full speed and in slow motion.
You make the call.
Baseball has its share of problems. We’ve seen a major push to curb the use of performance-enhancing drugs in the game; it’s unlikely that PED use is down to zero, and there’s plenty of (often ugly) residual doubt left, even with players who’ve repeatedly tested clean. We’re waiting on a new playoff system and potential new divisional alignment, because the current system is unfair to several teams, especially those in the NL Central. R.A. Dickey Face hasn’t yet taken over the world.
But the one problem that would be easiest to fix, while still offering major benefits, is expanded use of technology in baseball. Use it to augment umpires’ decisions. Or override them. Or eliminate them. Just use it.
I’ve tackled this subject before. Phil Cuzzi’s call during the 2009 playoffs triggered the first piece, in which we wondered, “Does Baseball Need Umpires?” If Grand Slam tennis tournaments can use Hawk-Eye to track the lines with digital cameras, while still keeping officials on the court to make final decisions, why can’t baseball do the same with fair-foul calls? If Major League Baseball could use QuesTec as a way to track balls and strikes and help umpires improve their pitch-calling, why couldn’t that tool be used to make calls in lieu of umps? MLB has allowed Sportvision to install cameras in every stadium, giving us an incredibly robust tool called PITCHf/x, which measures everything from a pitcher’s arm angle to velocity to pitch break to precise location; why can’t we use this tool to call balls and strikes in a game?
The league, particularly during Bud Selig’s tenure, has often been reactionary in making changes, unwilling to break with tradition or take on the slightest risk for fear of… something or other, unless something truly extraordinary happens. When MLB finally instituted instant replay on home-run boundary calls, it did so only after a series of mistakes that gave umpires, and the game, a black eye.
But even the most traumatic baseball plays can fail to stir any action on Park Avenue. We’ve seen few worse miscarriages of justice (in baseball terms) than Jim Joyce’s flubbed call at the end of Armando Galarraga‘s would-be perfect game. There’s no known technology that would have been 100% reliable in getting the call right the first time. But replay could have nailed it the second time. Replay aside, you’d think a call that triggered thousands of death threats for a hard-working, veteran umpire, who did nothing wrong other than make a basic human error, might have triggered a move toward some sort of fix at first base. If they’re working on it, they’re keeping it pretty quiet.
A reasonable person can debate the extent to which technology should be introduced into a game. Go too far and you risk an ugly battle with the umpires’ union. Nitpick over too many plays and you risk making a random Yankees-Red Sox game into a four-hour affair…OK, a five-hour affair.
But something needs to done. The easiest fix would be to widen the scope for instant replay usage. Want to copy football by further watering down the playoffs with two more teams? Cool. Then why not adopt the NFL’s system of red-flag challenges. Let each manager contest X number of plays per game. Hell, one play per game. NFL refs have fine-tuned the process to where play can resume after one commercial break. Let a major league manager challenge once per game, and you reduce the risk that one colossally bad call in a big spot will change the outcome of a game and sour more fans on baseball and its arbiters — plus more ad revenue to boot! All for the cost of two-to-four extra minutes. Win-win.
That’s the least the league can do. Were it up to me, I’d experiment with having some combination of base sensors, line sensors, replay, and ball/strike-calling technology replace one or more umpires. Even the best umps are still human, and technology, properly applied, is going to fare better. But since that’s a pipe dream (for now), try rolling out incremental change and see what happens. Here’s an idea: If a Triple-A fill-in with little big league experience like John Tumpane gets assigned home plate duty during a major league game, use that game as a testing ground for enhanced technology.
Obviously, veteran umpires boast unimpeachable judgment, both in their play-calling and their remarkable restraint in dealing with players and managers. They get a pass.
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