A small minority of fans have been clamoring for robot umpires for years now, but this weekend a new voice joined the chorus, one that carries a little more weight than some fat middle-aged guy sitting at his kitchen table (Hello!). Joe Maddon, manager of the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs, who, after witnessing the other night some particularly suspect calls from behind the plate declared, “I’m really vacillating on this right now.” OK, it wasn’t a full-throated cri de guerre, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction from one of the game’s most respected thinkers and innovators.
If it wasn’t clear all along that robot umpires are inevitable, it should’ve been once every baseball broadcast started showing you their version of PitchTrax or whatever they call it. You simply can’t broadcast to millions of fans watching at home the exact location of each pitch, while the actual players involved are subject to the emotional stability of that night’s home plate umpire. What’s the point of showing us a computer generated pitch location if the game is going to play not just by a different set of rules, but a different reality? And the Commissioner’s office already judges its umpires using Questec, their own in-house system that tracks pitch location and compares it to the calls on the field. So the league is currently using this technology to punish umps, players and fans, when they could be using to make everyone’s life better.
There are any number of inevitable human foibles that can influence a ball or strike call, from the umpire’s height, to fatigue, a dislike of the pitcher, catcher or batter, hunger, a hot date… but studies also show that the count of the at bat can change the way an umpire calls a pitch. Etan Green of FiveThirtyEight.com found that about once a game a pitch that should be called strike three gets called a ball, because, presumably subconsciously, the umpires don’t want to be the deciding factor in a game.
University of Florida Professor Brian Mills, who’s obsessed over umpiring for years, says that as of last season, umpires were making the right call about 88% of the time, which is frankly awful. That means one in eight pitches is called wrong, or about one pitch every other plate appearances. In how many professions can you blow it 12% of the time and keep your job? Mills has also determined that the handedness of the hitter effects the strike zone, and not in anyway that’s logical.
Having a human being behind the plate calling balls and strikes also exposes batters to an unfair disadvantage, in that they’re far more likely to get tossed from a game for arguing about how a pitch is called. A pitcher can more or less mumble and curse undetected, but a batter is right in the ump’s ear. Scott Lindholm of SB Nation two years ago built a data viz tool that allows you to break down ejections. His data shows that from 2006 to 2016, 42.3% of all ejections were over balls and strikes, and most of them were batters. If you look at the rankings of the players who most often got tossed, the top ten — Matt Kemp, Yunel Escobar, Milton Bradley, Ian Kinsler, Melvin Upton, A.J. Pierzynski, Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, and David Ortiz — they’re all hitters. Yes, Pierzynski was a catcher (and a notorious pain in the backside) who probably got an early shower or two due to advocating for his pitcher, but it’s pretty clear that hitters are far more likely to be ejected.
Maybe batters are congenitally predisposed to whining, but the fact that John Lackey has only been tossed 3 times suggests that’s not the issue. And the disparity is even greater when you consider that a starting pitcher throws far more pitches than any single batter sees. If they were getting tossed at the same per-pitch rate, pitchers would be getting thrown out roughy five times as often as batters.
None of this is to suggest that umpiring is easy, and that the people hired to do it are simply incompetent — it’s an incredibly difficult job, trying to discern the exact location at a specific moment in time of a 2.9-inch ball of leather that’s coming straight at you at between 80 and 100 mile per hour, needing just 1.7 seconds get from a pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. But imagine if your boss had a tool that she used to measure your efficiency, and that same tool could be used to make your job 50% easier and increase your effectiveness from 88% to 100%, while at the same time greatly reducing the number of times your clients scream, swear and spit at you — why on Earth would you not want your boss to help you out? Yes, the umpire’s union wants to protect good union jobs, but having robots call balls and strikes shouldn’t be the end of umpires. Of course there should be one to make all kinds of calls, from interference, to fair/foul, and on plays at the plate.
Until we master the technology to get those calls right, too.
Monday on ESPN
San Francisco Giants (Moore 1-4, 6.75) vs New York Mets (deGrom 2-1, 3.68) @ 7pm
Wednesday on ESPN
St. Louis Cardinals (Lynn 4-1, 2.04) vs Miami Marlins (Koehler 1-1, 5.40) @ 7pm
Saturday on FS1
Chicago Cubs (Lester 1-1, 3.27) vs St. Louis Cardinals (Wacha 2-1, 3.19) @ 4pm
Sunday on ESPN
Houston Astros (Morton 3-2, 3.97) vs New York Yankees (Tanaka 4-1, 4.46) @ 7:35pm