Winter is officially over: pitchers and catchers begin reporting for Spring Training today. The first games are a mere week away.

And, of course, we’ve got our usual controversies over possible changes to the game.

Earlier this week, we heard that MLB is considering expanding the playoffs to fourteen teams. I’m dubious–it seems like a clear money grab, rather than a way to increase “excitement”.

And really, do we need four teams who’ve been hovering around .500 to make the playoffs? If the system had been in place last year, the final four teams in the playoffs would have been Cleveland (.574), Boston (.519), the Mets (.531), and Arizona (.525). In 2018, we’d have gotten Tampa Bay and Seattle–giving us every AL team over .500 in the playoffs–and St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Let us not forget that the Pirates finished the 2018 season at 82-79, barely respectable.

Reports that MLB will be using “robot umpires” to call balls and strikes in Spring Training are apparently overblown. A few games will have the technology in place, but only for hardware and software testing. And a good thing, too. It’s clear from the results of last season’s extended trial run in the Atlantic League that there are still plenty of problems to deal with before it can be considered ready for the majors.

Even when–and it is when, not if; the commissioner has made that crystal clear–MLB decided robo-umps are ready for their call-up, I expect an approach similar to what we’re seeing with the pitch clock: a couple of years of use in the minors, accompanied by intense negotiations with the players’ union.

It’s a shame, really, that the idea is even being considered. It’s just a further erosion of the umpires’ authority.

I blame TV.

Nobody ever expected to change an umpire’s call in the fifties. They might admit to having made a mistake, but the call would stand, regardless. Bad calls were expected and good teams overcame them.

Nobody ever thought umpires were perfect, but instant replay proved just how fallible they were. That MLB held out against using instant replay to review calls as long as they did is to their credit.

But then they screwed up and moved the review off the field. This is one place where the NFL got it right: reviews are done on the field by the same arbiters who made the initial call. That keeps the responsibility and the authority in one place.

Baseball needs umpires. Without someone on the spot, enforcing the rules, baseball isn’t a sport. At best it’s a game, and at worst, it’s a bunch of guys throwing a ball around.

Someone who’s only present to act as a mouthpiece for decisions made somewhere else isn’t an umpire. That’s called a figurehead, and baseball doesn’t need figureheads, no matter what Commissioner Manfred thinks.

Next time you go to a game, spare a few seconds to appreciate those guys in blue while you still can.

And remember: We Are Umpire.

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.