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Does baseball need umpires?

Oct 13, 2009, 8:20 AM EDT

Or at least so many, especially in the postseason.  That’s the question Jonah Keri asks in today’s Wall Street Journal in the wake of some shaky officiating in the first round of the playoffs:

The idea, of course, is that more umpires means better play-calling.
But this isn’t necessarily true. After Friday’s game, Tim Tschida, the
umpire crew chief on duty that night, told reporters that while there
was no excuse for Mr. Cuzzi’s blown call, there was one contributing
factor. Umpires spend so little time working in the outfield during the
season that it can be a challenge in the postseason. “Getting into a
position is a little bit foreign,” Mr. Tschida said. “It’s a little bit
uncomfortable.”

In an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger, Mr. Cuzzi also said the
positioning was a challenge. “We’re not used to playing that far down
the line,” he said. “The instant the ball is hit, we usually start
running. I think I may have been looking too closely at it.”

Keri goes on to note the accuracy of the Pitch-f/x zone evaluation system, and the use of the Hawk-Eye cameras in tennis for line calls, and asks whether, rather than throwing six umpires out at a playoff game, we couldn’t limit that number and rely more on technology to get balls and strikes and line calls right more often.

The usual battle lines of this debate end up being those who want every call to be right with no excuses whatsoever vs. those who are wary of taking the “human element” out of the game.  I’m sympathetic towards the latter viewpoint, especially when it comes to calling balls and strikes — I get a lot of enjoyment out of the cat and mouse game pitchers, catchers and batters play with the strike zone — but I can’t help but think that we’re on an inevitable course towards technology playing a larger role in the game.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to have a digital camera system make accurate line calls, so what’s the argument against it?  And once you go there, how long can those of us who like to see a little human variance in the strike zone really hold off the advance of progress?

  1. Aarcraft - Oct 13, 2009 at 9:36 AM

    As a Greg Maddux fan, I’m sure you are a big proponent of a very malleable strike zone. Sorry, bitter Astros fan, and I couldn’t resist.

  2. doyle wheat - Oct 13, 2009 at 10:42 AM

    Just let the announcers call it ,they know everything

  3. Dr. Yogi - Oct 13, 2009 at 10:56 AM

    “I think I may have been looking too closely at it.”
    Seriously? Is that a real quote?

  4. sticksnstones - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:16 AM

    You confuse technology with progress. They are not always the same. Baseball is a game played by humans and umpired by humans and that’s the way it should stay. Of course, this means there will be human errors. So what? That’s part of the game.

  5. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    It would be the easiest thing in the world to have a digital camera system make accurate line calls, so what’s the argument against it?

    The only arguement I’ve heard against it is whether it can adjust from batter to batter (in the balls/strike situation). Considering the zone is adjusting for each hitter, how fast can the system recognize* the new batter?
    * – maybe a huge database with measurements for each batter? Would make it interesting for september call ups though.

  6. Doug Sinclair - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:30 AM

    a hitter deserves a hit when he makes a hit. imagine if he only needed on more hit to move his average from .399 to .400. or if he needed that hit for his 200th hit. you telling me the batter needs to just deal with it? oops sorry and my bad. hitters work too hard in a season to not give them props when props are due

  7. PilotHawkeye - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    I must qualify my statement by saying that I have been a softball umpire for close to 30 years. I was shocked to see the ump call that ‘foul’ for I saw it live and knew it was fair. At umpire school (yes, umpires do go to school), we were taught that you get as close to the play as possible, STOP, look at the play, allow yourself to see the play, let it register in your mind, and THEN make the call. Trying to make a call while running, when your head is bouncing around, will lead to blown calls. In my opinion, this was not a close call, as it was at least 4 inches fair. If the ump was running at the time he made the call (I do not recall), then he might have seen it hit 4 inches foul. It is very true that 6 man umping teams are the exception, and the mechanics of calling fair/foul down the lines are a little rusty, put PLEASE, remember the basic mechanics, and apply accordingly. The field is very well lit, and it is very easy to see a white ball relative to a white line. No ump ever in his heart blows a call, and it is very unfortunate that this call occurred at such a critical junction in the game. Yes the announcers kept harping on that call the rest of the game, but, isn’t that what announcers do?

  8. ecp - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:42 AM

    Cuzzi was definitely NOT running when he made the call. He had stopped and crouched to look down the line to (presumably) watch the ball as it came down. Pretty much as the picture shows above.

  9. PimP MasteR - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:54 AM

    REPLACE THEM WITH CHEERLEADERS DANCING IN CAGES, LIKE IN DALLAS.

  10. Tac Bonney - Oct 13, 2009 at 11:55 AM

    That was s stupid question. Does football need referees?

  11. rdm - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    Yeah, my thoughts exactly. It’s like these guys are trying to take themselves out a job. I mean, I’m all for the human element, but not if the human element is made up of boneheads who figure they can blow calls and just eject anyone who disagrees with them.

  12. Bill - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:06 PM

    He is human, but that was pretty much his only job. Most other sports have come to grips with technology and mixed the two elements. Why couldn’t they use replay and say make it a ground rule double. There are other times when the ground rule doesn’t perfectly award the play, but it comes closer than this blown play. Baseball appears to be avoiding using technology. BTW I don’t understand why replay isn’t used for ‘did he swing’ or not. Currently the plate umpire is not required to check with another umpire, and when he does, I sort of think he asks the wrong one. As I see it, it’s the other line umpire who best sees the wrist or/and the plate.

  13. Joe D - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:23 PM

    Let the manager challange like they do in Football

  14. CTS - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:24 PM

    BLOWN CALLS BY UMPIRES?!! SAY IT AINT SO!! IT HAPPENS FROM TBALL TO THE MAJOR LEAGUES. THE REPLY, TO PEOPLE WHO COMPLAIN ABOUT BAD CALLS, IS ALWAYS THE SAME, “EVERYONE BLAMES THE UMPIRES, THE PLAYERS NEED TO ADJUST”. HUH? HOW CAN A PLAYER ADJUST TO A PITCH 6 INCHES OFF THE PLATE BEING CALLED A STRIKE?! ESPECIALLY IF THE SAME PITCH HAS BEEN CALLED A BALL FOR THE FIRST 5 INNINGS OF A GAME. TOM GLAVINE DOESN’T WANT TECHNO-UMPIRES, HE MADE HIS LIVING ON GRACIOUS UMPS. AS FOR THE BAD CALLS ON FAIR/FOUL. GIVE ME A BREAK. LET’S USE THE TENNIS TECHNOLOGY. IF WIMBLEDON CAN MOVE THEIR HISTORIC REARS TO USING IT, SO CAN THE IMMOVEABLE POSTERIOR OF MR. SELIG. WHY NOT USE TECHNOLOGY? BECAUSE WE CAN’T STAND A GAME BEING CALLED AS CLOSE TO PROPERLY AS POSSIBLE? IS IT TOO ANTI-HISTORICAL TO HAVE A GAME CALLED AS CLOSE TO CORRECT AS POSSIBLE? DO WE PREFER THE CONVERSATIONS THE NEXT DAY AFTER A BIG GAME IS BLOWN BY AN UMPIRE? “SEE THE GAME LAST NIGHT”? “YES”. “PRETTY SORRY CALL BY THE UMP”. “UMPS SUCK”. WOW, NOW THAT ADDS TO THE “HISTORY” OF THE GAME.

  15. Bob Dumon - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:28 PM

    Instant replay works in other sports, why not baseball? But… if the argument is to retain the “purity” of the game, then dump those stupid Designated Hitters. That change took an enormous amount of strategy out of the sport, and for what? So some old guys who can’t play in the field any longer can continue to play past their prime? Play BASEBALL! Geesh!

  16. Chris - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:29 PM

    I agree with Joe D. A challenge with constraints as in football. If the challenge is incorrect, then the manager loss the option of another challenge or however many chances they may have during the game. This forces the replay issue without losing the human element. Wouldn’t you hate to have to lose the sight of a manager standing toe to toe with an ump and being thrown out! Now there is a baseball tradition! :)

  17. Bob - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:39 PM

    Rule 902c states: “Appeals on a half swing may be made only on the call of ball and when asked to appeal, the home plate umpire must refer to a base umpire for his judgment on the half swing. Should the base umpire call the pitch a strike, the strike call shall prevail.
    Notice the wording of “MUST”

  18. Church of the Perpetually Outraged - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:47 PM

    While I hate to put words in people’s mouths, I think he was referring to having to appeal to get the home plate ump to check with the first/third ump, rather than doing so on his own accord.

  19. siramazing - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:48 PM

    When umpires get too close to a play they say it “explodes” on them and they don’t have a proper perspective as to the play in question-If he was already up the line, he probably got too close to the play or he was still moving when he had to make the call. They are taught to get their angle and then STOP and be motionless when they have to make the call, so that the head is completely still.
    Bill

  20. Dano - Oct 13, 2009 at 12:51 PM

    As a purist, I stil can’t stand the DH. The human element must exist in the game. The Angels received some hilarious calls to their benefit at home, and so did Boston. Phantom catches are made (Clint Barmas),and other catch’s are blown,(Matt Holiday/Billy Buckner).It’s what makes the game of baseball intriquing, you never know what’s going to happen. As “Tom Hanks” once put so elegantly, “Their’s No Crying in Baseball”.

  21. Jeremy - Oct 13, 2009 at 1:11 PM

    I want to put together a youtube video of every blown call from this post season (there were a lot for many teams). From the NY game where the ump (10 feet away) gets confused to which side is fair territory, to the runner at third for the Angels being called out. I love having umps instead of a computer telling us what’s right or not, but on such a high level of play (post season) you need umps that aren’t going to drop their pants on the field and crap all over the game.

  22. thevirginmarcus - Oct 13, 2009 at 1:16 PM

    I would like to see a computer calling balls and strikes and one human umpire in the broadcast booth with access to all network camera feeds to call everything else. I don’t buy that having bad calls as a part of baseball enhances the game. You can use whatever euphemism that you want (‘human element’, ‘tradition’, ‘integrity of the game’), what some of you are defending is the ‘blown call’.
    Riding in horse-drawn carriages had it’s charms too, but eventually we all bought cars. It’s time to let technology into baseball.

  23. Jim A - Oct 13, 2009 at 1:17 PM

    I think you are confusing the line with the strike zone..

  24. Rob - Oct 13, 2009 at 1:23 PM

    The human element. The game is played by humans, who will undoubtly make mistakes. Umpires are there to make calls not get credit; so bring on the cameras, robots, etc and let move on!

  25. Jim A - Oct 13, 2009 at 1:33 PM

    When I umpired, I was taught there are basically only six calls – ball or strike, fair or foul, safe or out. (I know, it’s a bit more complicated than that on the field, but basically that’s it.) The extra umps down the line have only two responsibilities, that I can see: calling the line beyond the bases, and verifying close homers. MLB already has replay for close home run calls. I see the line as being no different. I say, lose the extra umps (“uncomfortable” in a “foreign” position? Really?), and let the usual 4 call the game like they do the other 162 games (or 163, for us bitter Tigers fans).

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