Thursday, June 3, 2010

Instant Replay and the Human Element

I'm fairly certain that almost anything that could be written about yesterday's not-quite-perfect game has already been written. Outrage, certainly, has been commonplace, as has, on the contrary, a respect for the class and dignity with which Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga have handled the situation.

For any of my readers who are unaware, Armando Galarraga - an unheralded pitcher for the Detroit Tigers - was perfect through 8 2/3 innings last night, falling one out short of a perfect game. The kicker is that, on the 27th hitter, first base umpire Jim Joyce missed a call, awarding a hit to a batter who was - as replays have shown quite conclusively - out. Galarraga retired the next hitter, but the damage was done. Instead of a perfect game, or even a no-hitter, Galarraga had a complete game, one-hit shutout. Impressive, but not historic.

Amidst the backlash has been a swell in the ranks of baseball fans and, perhaps more importantly, journalists who support instant replay in baseball. The argument is simple and clear: replay cost Galarraga a perfect game, only the 21st in baseball history (and this would have been the first time ever that 3 had occurred in a single season). Just as high-profile missed calls on home runs a few years ago helped to usher in the review of so-called "boundary plays" in baseball, this missed call will likely hasten the already inevitable introduction of replay on safe or out calls at the bases.

For my own part, I have no qualms about the introduction of replay to baseball.* The major arguments against it, as far as I can tell, are that it would 1) cause the game to be longer, 2) cost a lot of umpires their jobs, and 3) eliminate the "human element" from the game. The last of these is the most slippery, and also, not surprisingly, the most frequently heard defense of traditional umpiring.

* Indeed, I'm an advocate of a computer-called strike zone. To me, this is an even clearer case than replay at the bases. Anyone who has watched an NFL game knows that replay is no guarantee that the call will be made correctly. All too often it simply cannot be determined whether a player makes a catch, for example. In baseball, this is equally true. In all of the baseball games I have watched, I have seen countless plays where, even in slow motion, I can't tell whether the runner made it to the bag first, whether the outfielder really got his glove under the ball, or whether that chopped down the line was in fair or foul territory when the third baseman touched it. Frankly, replay is imperfect, and that's before you get into questions about how to handle situations like a ball called foul that should have been fair.

Balls and strikes, on the other hand, are much simpler. Every team in the league, and every MLB television broadcast to boot, is using Pitch-FX data to map the exact location of each pitch. Bloggers and analysts across the Interweb are using that data to build actual vs. rule-book zones, to track how pitchers approach different hitters, and how umpires call the ball differently depending on the count (the zone, for instance, is much much much smaller on 0-2, and much much much larger on 3-0). If we can do all of that complex and interesting stuff, why can't we just let the Pitch-FX computer take over calling balls and strikes? Who loses in that setup? Sure, it would violate some umpire union contract - which probably is the biggest barrier - but it would help batters and pitchers by ensuring a more consistent zone, it would speed up the game by eliminating entirely arguments about balls and strikes, and it would reduce the incredulous cries of "WHAT!" from fans after blown calls behind the plate.

Hey, maybe we fans would miss complaining about poor umpiring behind the plate... But I suspect not. I'll take the correct call over the opportunity to complain when a Aaron Cook sinker gets miscalled any day.

Length of Game

I'm not convinced that replay would significantly lengthen the game. I hardly think that baseball should go to an NFL-style challenge system because there are plenty of ways to do replay that are more efficient. Tennis, for example, has a much faster challenge system, thanks in part to the obvious yes-or-no quality of the calls to be made. But the lesson is the same: don't make replay a big deal and it won't take long. There are a number of good proposals already floating in the blogosphere about instant replay that would specifically mitigate this concern, so if you're unconvinced, I encourage you to look around.

More than that, however, replay eliminates argument. Baseball games would be shorter if managers did not argue so many close calls. In the time it takes Jim Tracy to amble from the dugout to second base and back every time Dexter Fowler is caught stealing, some replay official could check the play, determine the accuracy of the call on the field, and relay that call to the umpires. And then have time to make a coffee and read an article from the New York Times. The point being, efficient replay would probably speed up the game, not slow it down.

Umpire Contracts

In reality, the second of the concerns above is the most problematic. MLB umpires are, in essence, like Supreme Court justices: once appointed, they retain the position for life or until they choose to retire. Whereas MLB players have to continually prove themselves or else face unceremonious release, umpires are essentially given a free pass, thanks to a strong union and, frankly, the comparative simplicity of what they do (compared, that is, to what players do).

If it is impossible to fire umpires anyway, how likely is it that umpires will be willing to accept assistance from technology that takes the hardest, most controversial, and probably most interesting part of their jobs away from them? Umpires are people, too, and they like making difficult decisions about who's safe and who's out at pivotal moments in a game, or else they wouldn't do what they do. Trying to take away a big part of what someone does, even when there's a better way, is hard. Look at how much trouble traditional newspaper journalists have had accepting blogs and Internet reporting and you get the idea.

Moreover, whereas NFL officials have a lot of judgment calls to make, even with replay, MLB officials are mainly enforcers of a fairly straightforward rulebook. There are not that many judgment calls in baseball, especially when you slow the game down on camera. What I mean is, rarely do you get into a situation where a call, after all available evidence has been considered, is still debatable. Oh sure, we have our own perceptions; Rockies fans will always think that Holiday touched the plate, Padres fans not so much, but such situations are the exception and not the rule. And, really, the point is that there still should be an answer to the question: was he safe?

Not so with a charging foul versus a blocking foul in basketball. Not so with a holding penalty or a pass interference in the NFL. The only thing that is comparable in baseball is the check swing, which is defined as, essentially, a judgment on the part of the umpire as to whether the batter tried to swing at the pitch. Everything else is clear-cut, or should be.

I think this is why, in the end, the union will resist replay. NFL officials have embraced replay because it is an aid, not a replacement. In MLB, replay is a replacement. Technology can not only help the people involved do better, it can actually do almost the whole job better. There's a difference, to extend the analogy, between using a calculator to help you solve equations in applied physics and using a calculator to divide fractions for you. In the first case the tool is aiding a bigger goal; in the second, it's replacing a less-capable human. In the first case, the tool feels necessary, in the second case - and especially if we're really good at dividing fractions without a calculator - we see the tool as helpful in ensuring accuracy and speeding up the process, but we can live without it. MLB umpires, undoubtedly, are really really good at their particular kind of division problem, but that doesn't mean the calculator isn't faster and more accurate. The problem is, because the calculator is not needed, per se, it's hard to sell a powerful union on the obsolescence of its members.

Hell, we still demand that kids learn how to divide fractions without calculators.

The Human Element

I've already started to address the third and most nebulous of the arguments against instant replay in the previous section, but I haven't really clarified what I think people mean when they say they want the "human element" to stay in the officiating of the game.

I confess, actually, that this impulse is confusing to me. Almost everyone who wants the "human element," I think, is really saying they want umpires to make bad calls in the favor of their own team. Or at least they want the possibility that such will happen. Having been to a number of baseball games, and having watched some large, barely-finite number more on the TV and computer, I think I can safely say that most fans don't really like it when umpires make bad calls that hinder their own team. I have, not once, heard an announcer or nearby fan say, after a missed call at first or a strike three six inches outside against the cleanup hitter: "Well, I don't like that call, but thank God for the human element." Mostly, there are cries of "BOO!" and "Kill the Umpire!" Indeed, the latter is immortalized in Casey At Bat, baseball's most famous poem.

Nor do I believe that people want to complain about bad calls. As I said in the posterisk above, while complaining is cathartic, the correct call will always be preferable. No, I really do think the human element means the slight chance that my team will be able to do better than it should have, thanks to that variation in consistency in the umpire's strike zone, and the off chance that he'll call Holiday safe, even if he didn't touch the plate.

The ironic thing is, most of the people who virulently support the need for the human element in umpiring and officiating are the most likely to complain about inconsistency among the umpires. Former pitchers - who often find their way to the broadcast booth - rail on consistency. "I don't care where the strike zone is, as long as it's consistent." This quotation, all by itself, is steeped in irony. They do care. They want the strike zone to be consistent. They want it to be where, in the end, it is supposed to be. They may like the game-to-game variation between umpire who calls pitches on the corners strikes versus the umpire who calls high pitches strikes and so on (something we could easily work into a computer, if we really like it that much, but I doubt we would, which goes to show), but the call for consistency, when taken to its logical conclusion, is a call for standardizing balls and strikes, both within games and between games.

And why not? In baseball, we can. I am hesitant, as you readers probably know, to take the human element out of things like teaching and learning, because those are far too complicated for a computer to manage effectively. But baseball is a much simpler thing, a much more quantifiable thing. And it does no injustice to the players or the fans if you get calls right. More than anything, I think replay and a computerized strike zone would add to the human element by allowing the truly remarkable humans who play the game to do it better.

A final thought: if, as is often said, umpires have done best when no one remembers them, then what is so human about the job to begin with? Don't we humans want to do things that are memorable? When we talk about the human element, don't we mean that we want to be able to talk about the glorious successes and the tragic failures and epic struggles that occur when man confronts man, or man confronts self, or man confronts some nebulous force? Perhaps, from that perspective, there's a wonderful human story in Jim Joyce's missed call. Perhaps. But if your best day on the job is the one where you go unrecognized, and if your worst day - the day for which you will always be remembered - is the day that you cost a no-name pitcher from Venezuela what is almost certainly his only shot at a perfect game, isn't time to think about what kind of human element we have in officiating baseball, and whether it is really worth such adamant defense?

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