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Fay Vincent has some good ideas on improving umpiring

May 24, 2013, 8:53 AM EDT

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim vs Baltimore Orioles Getty Images

And it’s not just saying “robot umps now,” no matter how satisfying that is.  Writing over at Murray Chass’s blog, the former Commissioner of Baseball Fay Vincent says that MLB needs to take total control of umpiring:

  • MLB should buy the umpire schools and take over the training and development of all umpires in professional baseball. The recruitment, training and compensation of minor league and major league umpires should be controlled by the commissioner and modern personnel programs instituted to insure proper professional development.
  • Minor league umpires as employees of MLB should be offered the opportunity to become members of the same union as major league umpires to insure all of them are properly represented and protected by Federal law.
  • The use of technology to improve the accuracy of on field decisions should continue to be explored with the full involvement of the umpires. Additional use of replays should be carefully adopted with careful attention to the risks of further delays in the games.

It’s probably shocking to some that Major League Baseball does not train the umpires, but it doesn’t. They hire them from the private umpire schools and these guys are largely on their own until they’re promoted to the bigs. Which probably has a lot more to do with their often adversarial relationship with the league and with players by the time they’ve got the MLB job.

Odds of anyone in MLB’s offices listening to Vincent? About zero, sadly. You tend not to take advice from people you deposed in a coup.  But he’s right.

  1. heyblueyoustink - May 24, 2013 at 9:27 AM

    Robot umps? Cool beans! When do we get RoboCop, Go-Bots, and robotic bloggers?

    • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 10:22 AM

      Star Trek 15?

      • anthonyverna - May 24, 2013 at 10:30 AM

        Only if we get a coherent plot with no references to old movies in Star Trek 15.

      • heyblueyoustink - May 24, 2013 at 11:00 AM

        “Man bites droid? Rocky 4999 was a joke, hopefully they find some real talent for 5…..000!”

  2. gibbyfan - May 24, 2013 at 9:34 AM

    They need to embrace the available technology which is becoming increasingly efficient. Even a fair number of bad calls on balls/strikes are becoming common. The sad part is that on many of these calls millions of viewers know the right call in a matter of seconds and the umps could too. I just dont see the problem with permitting a quick review from the booth on close calls.

  3. cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 9:54 AM

    I wonder what technology they are referring to? My Iphone gives me the Pitch FX-style balls and strikes pretty quick. Often I’m getting the pitch track as the ump’s making his call. Ump doesn’t even need to use it to make the call. He could just make the call, refer to the track to see if he was right and, within an inning of this, would know where to set his eye such that he and the pitch track were on the same page. As it stands, there is no way for him to know he’s getting it right and he’s subject to catcher “framing”. Pitch Tracking is not.

    This is what slays me about all this. Its a simple fix to get the balls and strikes right and totally unobtrusive. They act like they’re about to enter the animal testing phase with weaponized hantavirus. Careful, fellas! Wouldn’t want that technology to fall into the wrong hands, now, right?

    How hard is it for them to glance at a cell phone, anyways? Jeez.

    • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 10:24 AM

      A phone? Seriously? No.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 10:33 AM

        What? He’ll text while umping? He’ll take game time photos of his junk? He’ll play “Crazy Birds” instead of paying attention to the game? WHAT???

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 10:36 AM

        S/he’s gotta pull out his/her phone each call? What if s/he gets hit in the Iphone? What if s/he drops it and the batter accidentally steps on it or it lands under the catcher’s knee? What if the wi-fi in the stadium sucks? Oh, it does.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 10:41 AM

        Easy:

        DON’T hold the phone. Attach it inside the wrist. You know, like a jogger does?

        Don’t use public wi-fi. Have an Umps Own Wi-Fi. Its called a password protected wi-fi signal. I have it at my house.

        I keep my iPhone 5 in an OtterBox Case. Its taken falls from as high as 4 stories. Works and looks like new, safe in its tough little case. (http://www.otterbox.com/apple-new-iphone-5-cases/apple-new-iphone-5-cases,default,sc.html)

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 11:32 AM

        Oooh, how about a helmet cam? With glasses that automatically lower for visual verification after the throw? I mean, let’s go big if we’re gonna nerd it up.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 11:38 AM

        I totally, absolutely, agree on the helmet cam. BUT, that’s a tech step that ACTUALLY will require extensive testing. What I’m proposing DOESN’T. Run it through AA or AAA ball, see how it goes for a few months, compare results for accuracy before/after, implement if the difference is significant. Cost? Cell phones, modems, OtterCases. You can get it all at a Best Buy today. About $1000/umpire, wholesale: less if MLB pimps for the case, phone & modem supplier. The end.

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 11:42 AM

        You know they won’t do that. They will have to renegotiate their T-Mobile contract and we’ll get those ump watches sometime exponentially after the bullpen phones. (PS Hope they are pink!)

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 11:46 AM

        Are you accusing MLB of being dinasauristic foot draggers with a penchant for screwing up something as simple as sewing on a button while at the same time being more greedy than a 6 year old out on their first trick or treat expedition?

        That’s…that’s…inconceivable…

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 11:47 AM

        I can feel you writing your indignant letter to Bud telling on me from here.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 11:53 AM

        /channels urteamsux52 gotampabay52 . . .

        Dere Budseilgz sum peeple R acusing U of been olde an sloAND mlb to. on of them iz a gurl i no cuzshesays so U CANT LET HER DOES DIS UCAN GET HER KILLZ DOIT BUDZ

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 11:57 AM

        For the record, my name is Alex Rodriguez. Be sure to include that, ya little tattle tale.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 12:35 PM

        Der gurlz nameis AROID. DoSUMTHINABOUT her budz

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 6:10 PM

        BTW, I thought you were in favor of the eye in the sky, which to me seems much more feasible. An earpiece for talking to the home plate ump seems cheaper and easier than your phone solution.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 6:13 PM

        I actually the Eye In The Sky Ump would be sitting in the broadcast booth looking at the game feed. His main use would be to review the close plays like fair/foul homers, trap/drops etc, safe/out and not calling the balls and strikes. The iPhone then becomes a phone for talking to the crew chief to say “Yep, you guys got that right, the call stands” etc.

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 6:18 PM

        It still seems simpler to me to have him watching the pitchtrax, but I won’t argue it with you. I think the phone thing just has lots of room for tech problems.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 6:18 PM

        And that earpiece, as you know from all the kids you see walking around and joggers, it plugs right into that iPhone on the Ump’s arm.

        Seriously, this does not have to be that complicated. Technology that my 79 year old mother can use could be used to aid the umpires, no sweat.

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 6:21 PM

        Ok, I just think it seems bulky and has error potential, but, honestly, any technology you implement will fail sometime and you need to have a fallback or will just have to have umps do it the old fashioned way in a pinch.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 6:25 PM

        That’s precisely it. The Umps do it the old fashioned way if the tech fails. However, a cell phone with a pitch trax app is pretty stable tech. That kind of thing’s been in use going on a decade now. NOTHING I’m suggesting is all that new or risky. Its well established tech.

        By allowing the Ump to use the APP Post Facto of his call, he gets to see how good he is in real time. He can “calibrate his eye” then, and get in sync with the Pitch Track. So the Umps still calls the game (human element), but he has a tool that lets him know if he’s accurate or not. After that its up to him to make the adjustment.

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 6:31 PM

        paperlions will hate that, you know. Also, people will bitch if the ump looks down after every call.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 6:35 PM

        Will people hate it more or less than all the cup adjusting they see? The spitting? The cussin’? The pitches 6cm out of the zone being called a strike?

        As for ‘Lions…I think he’ll cope.

      • historiophiliac - May 24, 2013 at 6:43 PM

        I have no idea what that “cm” stuff is, but, yeah, people will hate waiting on umps. Everyone wants to watch Harper’s cup adjustments. (Don’t say you don’t or yer a fibber.) Not so much with the reference checks. “Why do we even have umps if they’re gonna check their phone to call it, I can do that.” Don’t tell me people won’t say that.

        When paper gets all mad and stomps around, let’s steal his olives.

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 7:31 PM

        Cur: Sportsvision provides a crazy amount of information for every single pitch. For reference, here is the pFX raw data for Clayton Kershaw’s most recent stat provided by Brooks Baseball:

        http://www.brooksbaseball.net/pfxVB/tabdel_expanded.php?pitchSel=477132&game=gid_2013_05_20_lanmlb_milmlb_1/&s_type=&h_size=700&v_size=500

        Most of this (spin, speed, pitch type, etc) is irrelevant for the umpires. Fewer calculations will result in even faster ball/strike decisions and speedier transmission of this pertinent information. I imagine that it wouldn’t be too much work to supply the umpires with a proprietary app that focuses solely on pitch location. Said app could even have text-to-speech capabilities. Shortly after each pitch, either ball or strike is announced into the umpire’s ear (headphones, bluetooth earpiece, whatever), and the umpire can then decide whether or not to comply with the pFX decision.

        With the astounding speed of At Bat app’s pFX capabilities, I can’t see how a streamlined ball/strike only app would cause any noticeable delays. I do like the idea of suggestion of visual cues, but maybe only between hitters.

    • ryanrockzzz - May 24, 2013 at 11:07 AM

      No…just….no.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 11:32 AM

        Why…just…why.

      • paperlions - May 24, 2013 at 12:22 PM

        Why? Because to err is human and apparently so is doing everything possible to ensure that errors keep happening.

    • zacksdad - May 24, 2013 at 12:01 PM

      But but but, you take the human element out of the game. You take out the aspect that pitchers and hitters need to re-learn the strike zone based on the umpire calling the game and what side of the bed he woke up on.

      I got told by one umpire he liked to control the flow of the game by calling balls and strikes. If the hitters were getting too many hits, he may call it tighter. They probably call a pitch different if there is a no hitter going or a blow out game. Maybe we should have all fields movable walls, then based the “flow” of the game they could move the walls in or farther out.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 12:38 PM

        I’d LOVE to tell your ump friend that NO ONE watches baseball for the umpiring…except when Leslie Nielsen does it. Otherwise, call ‘em like they throw ‘em.

        Damn man. Reading what you wrote makes me pretty fed up with umpires.

        ‘Eff the lot of ‘em. ROBOTS NOW!

    • moogro - May 24, 2013 at 12:41 PM

      Why even filter it through the home plate umpire? It could go straight to the display boards/screens, in real time.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 12:48 PM

        Step at a time, man. Step at a time.

      • paperlions - May 24, 2013 at 1:18 PM

        That is exactly the problem with many umps, they are not there to “control” anything about the flow of the game…they are not there to create rules or to inflame conflict. They are there for one thing and one thing only, to enforce the rules as they are written.

    • crackersnap - May 25, 2013 at 1:01 AM

      This kind of faith in tech drives me up the wall.

      You clearly fail to realize that the cute little Pitchf/x graphic you adore actually stops in front of the plate. It does NOT track into the catcher’s mitt. It could. They have the trajectory data to do that. But they don’t. Something to do with visual clutter with all the things moving over the plate itself.

      So the graphic never truly displays what happens as the ball travels through space and potentially into corners of the strike zone. Meanwhile, the umpire is convinced that he sees the ball to the mitt, so he isn’t going to fall back on any Pitchf/x simulation that doesn’t even bother with the strike zone itself.

      {In fairness, though, the umpire doesn’t actually see what he thinks he sees, either. A 100mph fastball moves 15 feet before the human brain can figure out what is going on. The brain uses a predictive system to figure out what should have happened in those 15 feet and pretty much invents it.}

      • cur68 - May 25, 2013 at 1:03 AM

        The tech is consistent. The ump is not. I’m failing to see where the ump is better in any way.

  4. azvikefan - May 24, 2013 at 9:57 AM

    And while the MLB is training them, teach them the G%#damn strike zone!

  5. samu0034 - May 24, 2013 at 10:25 AM

    Honest question: How does Pitch F/X deal with the height of the strike zone? Does it just set up a generic height, or does it make an attempt to base its results on the height & stance of the batter? If it’s the former rather than the latter, then as much as I love Pitch F/X, it’s insufficient to the task of being allowed to call in-game balls and strikes.

    • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 10:48 AM

      Pitch FX doesn’t currently deal with the differing height of the batters. But its also a simple fix to get it to. Assign each batter a code based on their height as reported at BaseballRef or somesuch. Adjust the code to PitchFX depending on the batter. Easy.

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 1:03 PM

        That is incorrect. It is calibrated each PA for the hitter.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 1:11 PM

        That’s awesome. Thanks. We’ll file this under “Things I’m Happy To Be Wrong About”

        It’ll go right after:
        -“Piles: they afflict everyone who ice fishes”

        and right before:
        -“Pityriasis rosea: its worse than chicken pox”

        /hat tip

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 2:02 PM

        There are problems with this (as you can imagine). Here is a link to the article by pFX guru Mike Fast that I mentioned earlier: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=14098. Unfortunately with the Astros hiring him away, his studies haven’t been updated.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 2:07 PM

        It just requires standardized data for the software. Entering the height data by had for each batter is cumbersome. These guys don’t change height day to day or PA to PA. Just get it all from B-Ref, code it to player, and click his name as he comes up. The ump could do it on his cell phone as the next batter strolls up, adjusts gloves, cup, hat, bat, sets feet, spits, repeats steps 1 through 4 and then asks for time.

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 2:21 PM

        The other problem is that the called K-zone still differs significantly from the rule book K-zone. K-rates are already at an all-time high, and transition to a different (and larger) zone would almost certainly hasten this trend. A move towards consistency is beneficial, but we must try to detect and adjust for all possible consequences.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 2:28 PM

        Seems to me, though that the robot’s going to be more consistent, no matter which way the zone goes. The biggest problems with umpires is as paperlions says below. To expand on his point, its not that they are wrong but that their judgement on calls is affected by things not within the scope of their job and can vary throughout the game. The robot will not do that, regardless of how its set.

        Robots: they may want to use humanity as batteries, but they are CONSISTENT.

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 2:55 PM

        As I said “a move toward consistency is beneficial,” but the solution, unfortunately, does not appear to be a quick and easy adoption of the pFX K-zone. The ideal solution would likely use pFX data, possibly with an outlined transitional period from an approximation of the umpires called K-zone to a newly defined K-zone (current one is likely too big for those concerned about rising K-rates). Also pFX cameras differ park-to-park. Those doing the best pFX research make the calibrations necessary afterwards, but MLB must be willing to outbid specific teams for the services of these individuals with the best pFX knowledge.

        I am all in favor of robot umpires. But I’m not sure such a system can be implemented just yet. Having read your above proposals, I think a currently feasible improvement of the K-zone is some simple alert (i.e. vibration) to the umpires after each strike. At this point the umpire can use his discretion, but the alert (or lack of) will be a powerful persuasion to making the correct call more often. I think this would significantly negate the lefty-strike while not dramatically changing how certain pitches at the top and bottom of the zone are currently judged (like 12-6 curveballs that catch the bottom of the zone). And it wouldn’t require an umpire constantly looking at and fiddling with an electronic device.

      • cur68 - May 24, 2013 at 3:02 PM

        Sounds like you’ve though this through far more than I have. Good. I hope its you or someone like you that gets the contract. Be prepared, though. The moment the Old Boys at MLB get a good hold of this idea they’ll “improve it” by selling it to the lowest bidder and then screw it up by demanding “The Human Element”.

      • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 3:38 PM

        FWIW: It was refreshing to engage in a congenial and thought-provoking discussion. There should be more of this in the comments section at this site. And it is always nice to share with someone willing to shy away from inertial reasoning. All fans should be pushing for progress in baseball.

    • moogro - May 24, 2013 at 12:44 PM

      Top and bottom of the zone could be done with a cheap, almost weightless sensor sewn into the uniform.

    • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 1:09 PM

      From the incomparable Mike Fast (now of the Houston Astros): “The top of the zone (sz_top) and bottom of the zone (sz_bot) in the PITCHf/x data come from measurements made from video by the Sportvision PITCHf/x operator. Just before each pitch, as the batter takes his stance, the operator marks lines on the center field camera video corresponding to the height of the hollow of the batter’s back knee and to the batter’s belt. The line at the batter’s knee is reported in the data as sz_bot, and the system adds four inches to the height of the batter’s belt and reports that value as sz_top.”

      This is far from perfect, as Mr. Fast found the heights to vary widely for a specific player throughout a single game.

  6. anthonyverna - May 24, 2013 at 10:28 AM

    Wouldn’t MLB’s purchase of the umpiring schools be an antitrust violation?

    • manchestermiracle - May 24, 2013 at 11:00 AM

      They have an anti-trust exemption for their entire business, so I can’t see why bringing the officiating of the game in-house would be much of an issue.

      • anthonyverna - May 24, 2013 at 11:40 AM

        MLB’s antitrust exemption is only for labor issues in relationship to players. That doesn’t mean that it has a blanket antitrust exemption (it doesn’t) on other areas. Purchasing all outlets of one industry (umpiring schools) so that they would be under control of one owner could very well be an antitrust violation. That was not a part of the exemption given in Federal Baseball Club v. National League.

        (Remember a federal judge ruled that MLB’s antitrust exemption did not apply to team relocation in Piazza v. Major League Baseball.)

  7. Marty - May 24, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    Is there really a training deficiency and a work rules/compensation issue that a union would remedy? This is news to me.

    The issue from my perch is two-fold – a stubborn unwillingness to embrace technology, coupled with arrogance with no repercussions when some</i) umpires when they overstep. Both of these are enabled and encouraged by the union, imo.

    • Marty - May 24, 2013 at 10:31 AM

      Forgot to close italics tag, so sorry!

  8. natslady - May 24, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Would instant replay solve the Nate McClouth dropping the ball in the stands, getting it, holding it up to umps problem? Semi-serious question.

    • manchestermiracle - May 24, 2013 at 11:03 AM

      It certainly could if the camera angle is good. At least some of those kinds of plays would likely have a definitive replay.

  9. tanzkommandant - May 24, 2013 at 12:08 PM

    It’s stunning that there are any issues at all w/ umpires. Union employees are always highly trained, highly skilled & hard working.

  10. tycobbfromfangraphs - May 24, 2013 at 12:44 PM

    Faye Vincent has some good and expensive ideas, while robots are a better and cheaper idea.

    • moogro - May 24, 2013 at 12:47 PM

      Yes. All other schemes obfuscate and derail this. Start with computers where applicable, supplement with umpires where needed.

  11. gbrim - May 24, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    Putting all training in the hands of any one organization is a terrible idea. It would be like having all scientists, doctors etc. trained by one monolithic organization. The key to performance is demanding standards and dismissing underperformers. Also, publish the track records of success achieved by the various training schools’ graduates. Poor performing schools will fade, new competitors emerge. Better all around than one training ground that has no competition.

  12. eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    Why would the umpires union agree to concede any power to MLB? That is the biggest problem with this proposal.

  13. baylj98 - May 24, 2013 at 1:25 PM

    Who cares if the game takes longer to play. We are there to enjoy watching our team win or lose. It’s only a game folks.

    • eightyraw - May 24, 2013 at 2:14 PM

      Time is a valuable and limited resource. I like watching baseball, not the lack of activity occurring during a baseball game. Everyone cares (yes, even you) if the game takes longer. The difference is the individual limit of acceptable added time (of non-action). However, I would wager that no one would object to shorter games caused by the reduction of non-ball-in-play activities. People vote with their feet – look at how many spectators leave in extra innings.

      It’s not only a game. It is how we as fans choose to spend our precious time and money. We are sacrificing other options by watching/attending a baseball game. Shorter games yields a greater net benefit.

  14. malbrecht4 - May 24, 2013 at 2:26 PM

    What about corruption? What steps are taken to minimize it? If they instituted a replay system, what new steps would they have to take? Baseball should be the easiest of the major sports for a replay system. Almost every call is going to be on camera, unlike football, where there is corruption everywhere. Basketball and football are beyond repair. The refs have way too much control in the outcomes. Baseball is different and very unique. I would love to see some system put in place, but you have to be careful. I think the best thing to do would be to wait until Buddy boy is gone. Baseball needs a real commissioner, not some CEO who only cares about $ signs.

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