Bad Idea, Good Idea

No, no, no, no, no.

Next week, the San Rafael Pacifics–a minor league team in the independent Pacific Association–will conducting a bold experiment.

On second thought, “bold” isn’t the right word. How about “misguided”? That sounds much more accurate.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, balls and strikes at the Pacifics’ games will not be called by a human. Instead, a computer will handle the job. The Pitchf/x system, normally used to allow television viewers to second-guess the umpire, will make the call. The only human involvement will be for a so-called “strike-zone umpire” to relay the computer’s call to the players and spectators.

The experiment is the brainchild of Eric Byrnes, former Oakland A*, who will also serve as strike-zone umpire. It’s part of a fundraiser for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which give educational scholarships to military veterans. A worthy cause, certainly, and I’ll even credit Mr. Byrnes for having his heart in the right place. But it’s still a bad idea.

* I’ll skip the jokes about nothing good coming from the As. Just too easy.

I’m not worried about putting umpires out of work. What I’m concerned about is the precedent of removing the human element from baseball. I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that replay isn’t bad for the game*. But replay is still a judgment call made by humans.

* That doesn’t mean I’m ready to declare it good for the game. I’d still be happier without it. But I don’t think it’s a sign of the death of baseball.

The inconsistency of a human umpire is part of the character of the game. Every umpire’s strike zone is a little different–and they vary from day to day. A pitcher who’s on his game often gets the benefit of the doubt on borderline calls; similarly, a veteran hitter may get a borderline call to go his way against a rookie pitcher. A good catcher can use body language to turn a ball into a strike. It’s all part of the mental game.

Pitchf/x’s accuracy is questionable, but that’s beside the point–the technology will improve–but it isconsistent. Removing that random element reduces excitement. That’s not the way to make new fans.

And, as I suggested above, it sets a bad precedent. From a technical perspective, computerizing the fair versus foul decision and the home run or not call are easier problems than automating calling balls and strikes. Out versus safe calls are harder, but technically feasible. Every time you take some responsibility away from the umpires and hand it over to a computer, it becomes easier to take the next step. And the game gets a little less entertaining.

A while back, I said that if MLB decides to speed up games by shortening them to seven innings, I would stop watching. I won’t say the same thing about computerized umpiring. I don’t have to. Computerized baseball isn’t baseball, and I think the general population will recognize that. Automate judgment calls and nobody will watch.

It’s good to see that there are some good ideas coming out of MLB to counter the really awful ones.

Commissioner Rob Manfred is considering pushing the non-waiver trading deadline* back to give teams more time to make the buyer versus seller decision.

* I talked about the non-waiver deadline a couple of years ago; in brief, it’s much easier to make a trade before the deadline than after.

I think it’s an excellent notion. I hope MLB takes it to the logical extreme and moves the deadline to August 31 (after that date, a traded player can’t be used in the playoffs). If you make it as easy as possible to make a deal up to that point, you not only keep as many fans hopes alive longer, but you also increase the odds of a last-season surge. I can’t prove it statistically, but I suspect a later deadline would increase the number of teams in contention on the last day of the season. That’s the kind of excitement that brings fans into the park.

2 thoughts on “Bad Idea, Good Idea

  1. It was only a matter of time. The only thing that will hinder the adaptation of this technology is the fact that it will not speed up the game, in any way, and I think that’s the only thing driving the changes that people keep talking about. On the other hand, it might become the next big thing just because it is a use of technology, and any technological implementation is a good thing, right? Just because.


    • I fear that the technology might get sold as speeding up the game by eliminating reviews and arguments. A dubious claim, naturally, but it has a superficial plausibility.

      Hopefully, the ‘missioner will see through such ideas and recognize the dark side of automation.


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