Thursday, February 27, 2014
Bring Instant Replay to Balls and Strikes
So, MIT has produced a study looking at how umpires call balls and strikes depending on the count.
Before we get to their findings, let's look at their sample size. It's effin' impressive. They looked at 75 umpires, each with a minimum of 2,500 pitches seen between 2009-2011. In total, they analyzed over 1 million pitches.
So what did they find?
They found that when the batter had two strikes against him, the size of the called strike zone significantly decreased, In some cases, the strike zone was 19% smaller.
They found that the strike zone expanded when the batter had three balls against him, albeit not as dramatically as the 19% inverse.
They found that umps are reluctant to call two strikes in a row — the strike zone again shrunk if the previous ball was a strike.
But here was the data that jumped out to me the most. In how many of those 75 umpires did we see these trends, and for it to be significant enough to not be inconclusive?
All of them. All 75, without exception.
So if it seems like the ump is not raising his arm on that 3-1 pitch that you just know he called a strike a couple inning ago, it's not your imagination.
In a strange way, this actually kind of gets umpires off the hook. If all 75 of them are doing it, it's hard to argue that it isn't human nature. And better still for the umps, sort of, it means they are reluctant to put themselves in the middle of the action. They want the game to be played, and decided on, the field.
But that's about all the good I can glean out of this. We have the technology to have infallible strike zones. So then it becomes a question of which is more important: tradition, or calls that are always correct?
I'm firmly in the latter camp. But I realize it's not that simple. Home plate umpires are a centerpiece of American sports like no other adjudicators. Head refs in the NFL come close, but they are only in the spotlight 10-20 plays a game.
I'm also not keen on the idea of remorselessly sacking them all.
So I offer a compromise: Bring the challenge system to baseball. Give teams a certain amount of challenges a game, let's say four, and they only lose them when they are wrong.
Oh god, you are thinking, the game will take forever if we do that. Look at how long it takes for NFL reviews to go down.
But football should not be the model for replay technology for baseball. Tennis should be.
On ATP and WTA events on hard courts and grass, they utilize a technology called "hawkeye" to determine if a ball is in or out. It's only used when a player challenges a call, which he or she does simply by raising their hand. At that point, almost immediately, a computer animation displays, based on the trajectory of the ball, where it necessarily landed. The crowd gets into it, seeing it on the big screen, and it's fast.
That could easily be implemented identically in baseball. No need for umpires to go under hoods. No need for "the booth" to look at something from 100 angles. It's all technology-driven, and done in an interactive and exciting way.
It also represents a compromise between the traditionalists and the futurists, if you will.
Failing that, show all the umpires the MIT report. Maybe they can be a little less intuitively biased if they are aware of it.