Baseball, more than any other sport, values its tradition and origin of the league. There have been very few rule changes and some fans even complain about the use of challenges in today’s game. However, with ongoing advancements in technology, when will accuracy finally trump tradition?
Pitchers in the league today, especially closers, reach speeds of over 100mph on a regular basis. It is very difficult for umpires to make the correct call in the split second that the baseball crosses home plate. Studies have shown that batters alone have 0.380 seconds to react to a ball being thrown at 100mph. With the speed of pitches increasing, and the variety of pitch movement constantly broadening, how long can Major League Baseball rely on the eyes of a human umpire?
Today, cameras are already in use at every ballpark throughout MLB. Various well known apps and websites provide live trajectories and locations of pitches to fans, analysts, general managers, and even opposing coaches thousands of miles away. However, the person baseball relies on to call balls and strikes, the umpire, uses only on his eyes. MLB claims that their umpires get 97% of calls correct, however a study done by Yale University professor Dr. Toby Moskowitz, shows that umpires are hovering closer to 88% accuracy. This results in more than 30,000 mistakes per year. While this may seem like a small number compared to the near million pitches thrown per season, it only takes one mistake to completely change the outcome of a game and a team’s postseason fate.
Perhaps the most alarming stats found in Dr. Moskowitz’s study, was the accuracy of umpires regarding pitches around the “black” of the strike zone. Arguably the most important area for balls and strikes, pitches located either 2 inches immediately inside or outside of the strike zone are called incorrectly 31.7% of the time. This means almost one in three pitches in this area are miscalled. If expanded to 3 inches on each side, umpires are still wrong 25.9% of the time (more than one in four pitches). Certain pitchers possess such skill and accuracy that they can precisely locate their pitches in the most difficult locations for the batter to make contact. However, with these inconsistent zones, the outcome of the game is put in the hands of the umpires, instead of in the hands of the players.
While most fans would agree that home field advantage can definitely be a factor in deciding games, they may not understand how unfair it can actually be. Besides the speed and movement of which the ball is approaching the plate, social factors such as 30,000 screaming fans also influence the way umpires call games. There is an average of eight more strikes/balls called incorrectly in favor of the home team per game. In Game 7 of the 2011 World Series, the St. Louis Cardinals had 14 missed calls in their favor, while the Texas Rangers only had 3. Its no coincidence, the game took place in St. Louis.
Umpires also suffer from another psychological factor called the omission bias. This is shown when counts are heavily favoring either strikes or balls. For example, if the count is 3-0, then the following pitch is called a strike 89% of the time. However, if the count is 0-2, then a pitch in the exact same location as the 3-0 count will be called a strike only 59% of the time. This is a 30% difference in calls, all because an umpire is unconsciously committing a human mental error. Most Major League teams even provide umpires with film of the games so they can view the calls they got wrong and learn different pitchers trajectories. However, umpires have confessed to disregarding the tapes and throwing them in the trash rather than watching and learning from them. So how can this problem be solved to improve the future of baseball?
When most fans hear the concept of using technology to call strikes and balls, they conceive some type of giant robot replacing the umpire behind home plate, but this would not be the case. It would actually be a very simple, and virtually invisible solution. Since cameras are already implemented in every stadium, teams would simply need to hire an operator who would track each pitch on a computer screen. The operator would then relay the correct call to the umpire behind home plate via an earpiece the second the ball crosses home plate. This allows for split second, 100% accurate umpire calls. In fact, this system has already been used in some minor league games and the reviews from both the umpires and players, “Flawless”. Pitchers and hitters alike said they did not notice a camera in use. They also agreed it felt comforting to have the game left in their hands rather than an ump guessing at the location of a pitch. One player even described the game as flowing faster than normal because no one complained about calls.
So for a game that is often criticized for being too long and too boring, could this new system help bring viewership back to the sport? The implementation of cameras could dramatically change the outcome of games, playoff races, and even world series champions. MLB has already added challenges to prevent another Armando Galaragga blown perfect game situation, but how long will it be before a ball or strike call results in the same issue? Perhaps it is time to find a happy medium between tradition and technology.
Author – Ryan Gorecki firstname.lastname@example.org