Sunday, August 11, 2013

How To Fix Umpiring

The Yankees were in Chicago this past Tuesday night, playing the White Sox, when it happened. There were two outs in the top of the third inning, with Brett Gardner on second and Alex Rodriguez on first, Robinson Cano slapped a ball to left fielder Alex Rios. Gardner was sent home, and Rios came up firing...

Although White Sox catcher Josh Phegley missed the tag, home plate umpire Alan Porter called Gardy out. To be fair, it wasn't obvious upon first viewing, as the ball got to the plate around the same time Brett did. And since Gardner didn't slide, that made things a bit tougher.

Now, missed calls happen in all sports. They just do. But in this case the problem was in Porter's positioning. Instead of moving off to the side, in order to see the play better, he stayed behind home plate where there was no way he could have seen whether or not Phegley made the tag. In essence... Porter guessed, and he guessed wrong.

I'm a certified basketball official, and they stress positioning to us all the time. Not a meeting goes by (and I go to about eight a year) in which the people running basketball referees do not say something about where we should be on what type of play. And that doesn't include the rules books and such that also stress positioning. And I get why... if we're in the best position to make the call, then chances are we're going to get the call right.

For example, this is not the correct position to call balls and strikes.

The one thing I don't have to deal with, and what umpires such as Mr. Porter do, is multi-camera replays proving you right or wrong on every call. Well, that's why I get paid $55 for doing a varsity basketball game, and rookie MLB umpires get paid $120,000 a year.

I've softened up on the subject of instant replay in MLB. At first I hated it. The idea that myself, or my fellow officials, weren't good enough filled me with rage. I work hard at being the best I can be, so to tell me I need a robot to do the job properly ticked me off. But after reading article after article on the subject, experiencing more and more situations during games in which I wish I had instant replay, and watching more close plays get blown by even the "best" umpires, I've come around to the idea.

I don't mean robots should take over officiating sports, but adding them to the game would not be a bad thing. It's worked in football for years, and as long as the term "replacement refs" isn't brought up, I don't hear anybody wanting to get rid of human refs in that sport.

So here is how I would like to see it done in Major League Baseball...

Along with instant replay being used on all questionable home runs and "traps", it should also be used on boundary calls (aka fair/foul calls). I'm not just talking about where a ball lands between 3rd base and the outfield wall, but on ground balls that go by the third base or first base bag as well. Face it, those are really hard calls, as the home plate ump is not in position to make the call, and the third/first base ump needs to make sure he's not going to get killed by the batted ball. So replay in those situations should be allowed.

And it's not like they happen often enough that it would make the game longer than some already are. Heck, being allowed replay would probably quicken things as there would be less arguments about such calls between umps, players, coaches, and managers. Instead of screaming for a couple minutes, a manager would just say "let's go to the tape...".

Except Earl Weaver. Earl would have still scream for a couple minutes.

One place in which replay is not currently allowed, but where calls are sometimes botched to the point that they change the game, are safe/out calls. You know, like the play with Brett Gardner I described in the opening of this post. Unlike with home runs, "traps", and boundary calls, these would come up more often. Allowing replay on every one of these type of plays could result in longer games. Which is why I propose a system like in the NFL, where managers are allowed two "challenges" a game.

I'm not saying this is a new idea. You've likely read or heard about it many times before. I just want to say that I agree with the idea (at least now I do).

Whether it's a speedy guy like Ichiro trying to beat out an infield hit, Eduardo Nunez trying to steal second base, you see these type of "bang-bang" plays all the time. And to their credit, umpires more often than not get the calls right. That's pretty darn amazing if you ask me, and umpires don't get enough props for the job they do. But like myself in basketball, they are going to miss a call. And it's not fair that that call may affect the outcome of a game. If Gardner was called safe as he should have been Tuesday night, then the Yankees may have won the game (it was only the third inning, after all).

One place where the idea of instant replay has been pushed hard against the most is when it comes to strike/ball calls. The thought was that there were just too many questionable pitch calls during a game. There were 263 pitches in Tuesday night's Yankees/White Sox game. If managers were allowed to question strikes and balls, then there's a good chance that game wouldn't have ended until last night. But allowing a manager to "challenge" a strike/ball call seems perfectly fine to me. It's strategy. Should he throw challenge this safe/out call, or hold onto that challenge in case the ump blows a ball/strike call later in the game?

It seems like a fine compromise to me. You may not ensure that each and every call is 100% correct, but you give managers the ability to have a key call corrected should it need to be.

By the way, I'd love to see some managers and players proven wrong. Therefore, after the game, the media asks them why they challenged a play that was clearly called correctly, instead of saving that challenge for another time.

I want to make one thing abundantly clear... I do NOT agree with the idea that robots should call balls and strikes. Not because I'm afraid a lot of good umpires will be out of a job, but because they would give a big advantage to the batter.

As if batters need another advantage.

Think about it, batters today are never sure whether that pitch on the corner of the plate will be called a ball or strike. An umpire may be squeezing the pitchers for most of the game, so that a ball on the outside corner would not be called a strike, but a batter has to "stay alive" in case the umpire sees the pitch a bit differently the next time. If a batter knows exactly what is going to be called a strike or a ball, then they have a big advantage. Especially at the Major League level, where hitters are that good at recognizing pitches.

So here's a breakdown of what I'm proposing...
  • Instant Replay can be initiated, by the managers, on all questionable home run, "trap", and boundary calls. It's not up to umpires to question other umpires, it's up to the managers to ask about replay should they deem it necessary.
  • Instant Replay can be used on all other calls, including safe/out or ball/strike calls, but under the "challenge" system like in the NFL. I'm not set on 2 or 3 challenges a game, but go ahead and implement it.
  • Robots will not be used to call balls and strikes. 
Finally, I want to say one more thing regarding questionable calls. Players, coaches, and managers get way too much rope when it comes to arguing. In no other sport are they allowed to hold up a game for more than a few seconds, without any penalty. I understand it to a point, because you can't give a baseball manager a technical foul for arguing too much, like I can give a basketball coach. And you don't want to throw a manager out of a baseball game every time they question an ump. Perhaps something like penalizing that manager's team an out, or something on par with getting a technical foul in basketball, or a yellow card in soccer. But it bothers me how some managers are allowed to go off for a couple of minutes, and then return to the dugout like nothing happened. 

Clearly changes need to be made when it comes to umpires, and it should happen sooner rather than later. The first thing that should happen is easy, and doesn't require more cameras and such put in stadiums. That is this... make sure the best umpires are in MLB. Forget seniority, just get the best out there. That right there would likely lead to less issues, but even the best make mistakes, and that's where replay can come in.

No, CB, it doesn't matter how high you jump when you make a call.

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