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Bring on the robots!

August 10, 2009

I Love Tradition! – DRaysBay

Jonah Keri forwards me a good example of the strike zone problem. Observe:


As stated, either they’re both balls, or they’re both strikes. And yet, not. This was a key moment in a 4-3 game against a team that the Rays need to beat. This sort of thing happens all the time. Occasionally, it gets really bad, and you have an umpire who takes over the game with his strike zone. Most of the time, it’s a relative few mistakes. But if an umpire gets ninety-five percent of strike calls right, you’re still talking about ten or fifteen bad calls a game. That can easily be a deciding factor if they come at the wrong time.

The answer, presumably, is a machine. Assuming we can get one that reacts fast enough and can think in three dimensions, anyway. The umpires and their supporters would answer, presumably, (a) that we’re taking the human element out of the game, and (b) that they tried that before and it didn’t work. As for (a), I personally have never been one who thought that the “human element” was necessarily worth preserving when it meant making mistakes; the “human element” is supposed to be the pitcher and the batter; nobody goes to the ballpark to watch an umpire make mistakes. As for (b), they tried it thirty years ago with essentially the same technology as automatic door openers. I think we’ve come a ways since then.

As for tradition, tennis is if anything even more tradition-bound than baseball, and yet they’ve adopted replay and sensor technology for baseline calls. Traditions change.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Bob R. permalink
    August 10, 2009 8:16 pm

    “That can easily be a deciding factor if they come at the wrong time.”

    I think this is the point at which I disagree with you. Every call of the 100s in a game can be a deciding factor, and every moment can be the wrong or right time.

    What makes a call stand out is not that it is at the wrong time but what has happened up to that point or what happens immediately thereafter.

    My standard example is the Tino Martinez home run in the 1998 World Series. On the pitch before, it seems very clear he was struck out looking, but the umpire called it a ball. It became the wrong time for the Padres not because of that call, but because of what Tino did next.

    Do we know that at some other point in the game the umpire did not call a ball for a Padre batter but it did not matter because the batter subsequently made out anyway? Or would it have mattered had the Padres been ahead by 6 runs?

    I don’t know that calls even out. And I do think it important to improve umpiring in many ways. But I think that blaming umpires for a result is too narrow a view. There are simply too many variables in every game to pin a result on a few decisions by umpires.

  2. August 10, 2009 8:40 pm

    In theory, I agree. In practice… Well, one call shouldn’t be that big, but sometimes it is. I would normally focus on a situation where there’s a pattern of bad ball and strike calls. There’s a reason I had Eric Gregg up on the banner earlier. Yes, I’m still bitter.

  3. Grst permalink
    August 11, 2009 12:22 am

    I don’t think traditionalists would be too much of a problem in this case mainly because it’s unlikely anything would noticeably change (beyond the theoretical improvement in calls). There would still have to be a homeplate umpire there to make other calls, and he could also be the one to relay the ball and strike calls to the players. He would receive them through some kind of device, either one he holds in his hand or a headset, then make the call. Basically, the game would look the same to the casual observer.

    One key, as Mac mentioned, would be the need to get the call made near instantaneously. I’d be shocked if modern technology was not capable of doing all this while making better calls than we currently see.

  4. August 11, 2009 2:01 pm

    The concept of the strike zone is interesting one. In theory it’s supposed to be a hard and fast zone, one where the pitch is either a ball or a strike and called as such. Functionally, though, I’ve noticed that it behaves more like a probability model than a hard and fast zone. If you hit the mit, there’s a better chance a border-line pitch will be called a strike, but some pitches are called exactly 50% of the time. It’s Schrodinger’s theory of umpiring–half a strike, half a ball. And 50% isn’t the only ratio, you’ll see a pitcher get the call on some pitches 25% of the time. It’s all probability models. And I now know what my next study is.

  5. Bob R. permalink
    August 12, 2009 1:53 am

    I am not opposed to mechanizing strike zone calls, but my initial response to it is hostile nonetheless. I do not claim any logical argument for my response; it is a touchy-feely response, I know. But here it is.

    I don’t like the idea because it elevates the game into something important. Don’t misunderstand. Of course it is important. There are fortunes involved and millions of people, myself included, riding emotional roller coasters daily for 6+ months and more.

    But it remains a game. I dislike it when people try to make it something more. I don’t like articles about how baseball mirrors life or has some deep philosophical meaning or is representative of the American experience or any of the other myriad efforts to exaggerate its meaning and importance. One reason I have problems with football is that it seems to me to go much further than baseball in representing itself as some sort of test of character. Just listening to the intoning on the game summaries with that sententious musical background repels me.

    I don’t like watching people with headphones on the sidelines consulting with coaches upstairs on the proper plays to run. I don’t like the draft day “war rooms”. I know baseball is increasingly using computer models and statistical analysis, and frankly I like that a lot because it is more behind the scenes where it belongs, and it helps us all understand the game better.

    I simply cringe when it starts to invade the field of play. It begins to take the fun out of the game. It suggests that if we don’t get it right we are violating something important. It suggests we have to eliminate the human flaws because the game is too important to allow them to exist.

    I want the umpires to be monitored, and I want them held responsible for their errors. I want them trained and retrained so as to be as excellent as humanly possible. I don’t want them to be the story of the game. But I remain dubious about giving them mechanical assistance.

    As I said, I don’t oppose the change, but my heart is not in it.

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