Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Rage Against The Non-Machine (Umpire)

The recent spate of blown home run calls in MLB has led many to call for instant replay on those calls, since they are so important in the course of a game, and no one wants to see a playoff game ruled in error.

The problem that I have with this isn't that it would emasculate the umpires (even though, of course, it would). Rather, it's far simpler than that: I don't trust MLB to find it's junk with both hands and a map, let alone do this well.

Review of home run calls seems to be the obvious and easy first step... but what about the tag play at home? That's as important as a solo home run on the runs count, and it's even more important in the larger scale, since the blown home run call doesn't result in an out.

Once you've established the need for replay on plays at the plate, well, you've got the technology at place, and you've established the idea that we need to review for outs, since outs are precious. So with the elephant in the room, you'll want to review stolen base tag plays, and bang-bang plays at first, and fair/foul plays down the line, since you already go the extra mile in playoff games to put umpires in the outfield for just that purpose. The slippery slope of reviews on two strike (and maybe three ball) counts is next, and once that Rubicon is crossed, well, any hitter or pitcher worth his salt will tell you how much easier it is to hit when the count is 2-0 or 0-2, so boom goes the dynamite -- defensible review needs for over 400 moments in a 3-hour period. And you thought those post-seasongames were already too long.

A small aside to the folks crying for replay now, under the idea that no one should suffer the horror of a blown game over a home run call, or the 25-year memory of Donn Denkinger costing the Cardinals the World Series.... jeez, it's like you've never really gotten the gist of what being a sports fan is like. There can be only one team that wins at the end of the season, and the odds are exceptionally high that it won't be yours. How your team lost doesn't really make your pain any more noble or meaningful than anyone else's. You see Dennkinger in your nightmares; I see Mitch Williams. And by the way, in the time since then, your team has a trophy, and my time doesn't. So get over it.

If you were to look at MLB from a future perspective, the reality is that neither fan nor player really wants a human umpire, and the technology exists to eliminate them today. All you'd really need is a Questec-like system to show balls and strikes, and a uniform technology set-up for every park, so that you could ensure quality control. You would also, of course, need a core majority of players that accepted the situation, and a slow end to human umpiring, perhaps with lifetime buyouts for the current labor force. You'd accomplish this over a 5 to 10 year period, starting in the minor leagues and working up, so that when you are finally ready to throw the switch to a robo-game, it would be a simple matter of evolution.

That's not, of course, how MLB will do it. First, it will be used only for playoff games, because those are Important, dammit. Then, it'll be brought in only in places where there is suitable technology, which gives us the same issue as NFL games that don't have the benefit of SNF/MNF extra cameras... so right away, we've got game inequities. When it is ready, it won't be beta-tested for long in the sticks, because it will be expensive to implement, and the Lords of Baseball don't do anything for the long-term (witness the steroid era, the lack of meaningful revenue sharing, the work stoppages, and on and on).

In the hands of a competent organization, the slow road of human progress that will eventually lead to robo calls with dramatically higher accuracy (and, dare I dream, shorter game times) would be more or less smooth, with a plan in place to take us every step of the way. MLB will half-ass and debate and half-measure and pule and cry all the way there...

And if you don't believe me, I have only one thing to say to you: Designated Hitter. 35 years of different rules for different teams, arbitrarily enforced for no real purpose. So why would you think replay would be any better?

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