The umpire has long been one of the most scrutinized positions in all of sports. Missed balls and strikes cause outrage at the plate. Blown calls have forever tainted legendary performances like that of Armando Galarraga. Despite the apology of umpire Jim Joyce, that perfect game was ruined, and like so many other calls, both big and small, umpires have changed games. The recent implementation of a challenge has been used extensively by managers, challenges remaining around 1400 or so for the last 3 years (1412 in 2016) and remaining at approximately a 50 % success rate for the managers (50.8% this year). So with an effort to make the game more accurate and to avoid costly ejections, why not computerize the home plate umpire to make sure that the balls and strikes are called correctly?
Charts like this emphasize the inconsistencies of many home plate umpires throughout the league. This graph comes from a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants on April 9. The triangles represent pitches thrown by the Dodgers with green being called balls and red being called strikes. Squares represent the Giants. It is obvious that most of the calls are spot on, however, umpire Brian O’Nora clearly made a few mistakes, most notably the two “balls” that were thrown over the heart of the plate. With 2430 games, umps are bound to have a few off days, and for the most part, these off games do not decide the final score let alone the entire season, but when they do it is infuriating.
Now to the solution. On July 29, 2015 the Vallejo Admirals and the San Rafael Pacifics were engaged in a baseball game that had a home plate umpire that was a computer. The PITCHf/x machine called the balls and strikes and relayed the appropriate information to an announcer who announced it to the players and the rest of the stadium. The system that is already used in every major league park not only for the fans at home, but also to grade the umpires on their performances, called an entire baseball game.
This may seem like blasphemy for many baseball purists for taking the human element out of a game that was once reliant on such instability. However, many of these baseball purists scream at the television or at the ump when a perceived wrong call is made. My biggest question is this: Why would you ever want something inferior when you have the choice of something better?
This same debate occurred when instant replay was suggested, yet after being in place for nearly three seasons now, the game is better off for it. Umpires call games more accurately than ever, but what a strike is changes from ump to ump. Believe it or not, it actually changes from batter to batter. Left handed and right handed batters have balls and strikes called differently even if it is by the same umpire. Here is a chart looking at Jim Joyce, who did a phenomenal job in 2013, averaging 0.0 extra strikes per game, but even so, his strike zones for left and right handed batters are different.
While small, this difference especially for a switch hitter can lead to confusion over what is a strike. Now imagine the next night the same teams are playing but they now have Gerry Davis calling the game. In 2010, Davis called five fewer strikes on average per game than he should have, having a strike zone that looked like this:
These differences may not look significant at first glance, but when extending the significance from a singular pitch to what it does to the mental states of both the batters and the pitchers, this smaller strike zone can lead to a more aggressive approach by either side, depending on the umpire’s tendencies. More often than not, the umpire is adjusted to by the players, resulting in very similar walk and strikeout ratios per nine innings: Joyce K/9: 14.0, Davis K/9: 14.1; Joyce BB/9: 6.1, Davis BB/9: 6.1. That being said, do we really want these professional players to have to guess for the first couple of innings how the game is going to be called?
Using the PITCHf/x pitch tracker would allow every batter, every pitcher, at every park, on every day be subject to the exact same strike zone. Gone are the days of speculation. Gone are the days of framing pitches. Here are the days where skill and accuracy truly trump all. We have the technology. The only question is if we are willing to use it to make baseball greater than it ever has been.