Kill the Umpires

The sports-and-stats-obsessed geeks over at Deadspin (one of my favorite sites) put together a series called “Better Know an Umpire” to acquaint baseball fans with the people who make the calls that determine the course of the game. As part of it, they often include graphics that show how the strike zone called during a given game by a given ump compares against the actual strike zone as specified by the rules of major league baseball.

And it ain’t pretty.

Here’s a particularly bad example (from a playoff game, no less, when the ‘best’ umps are supposed to be working). To read it, all you really have to know is that the solid line box is the true strike zone, red dots are pitches called strikes by the ump, and green dots are pitches called balls by the ump.

What you’d want to see, of course, is only red dots inside the box and only green dots outside it, but the reality is sadly different.  This is the case to varying degrees game after game.

Calling balls and strikes correctly is truly hard work, as detailed by Bruce Weber in his great book As They See ‘Em. It requires unflappability, great concentration, and the ability to accurately track small objects thrown at great speeds by pro athletes who more than anything don’t want their pitches to be tracked accurately. It’s amazing that human umps do it as well as they do, but they shouldn’t be doing it at all now that we have sufficiently advanced technology.

The graph above, from Brooks Baseball, relied on data from  PITCHf/x, a pitch-tracking system using two cameras that made its debut in 2006 and is now installed in every ballpark in the majors. It tracks the speed and trajectory of every pitch thrown, with an accuracy of about one mile per hour and one inch, respectively.

This is simply better than humans can do, so the humans should now get out of the way and let the machines call balls and strikes. If and when this happens, there will be several benefits. First, the strike zone will become completely consistent, which is what pitchers, hitters, managers, and fans alike want. Inconsistent calls are maddening for everyone involved in the sport.

Second, biases will also be eliminated. Umpires have a reputation as a thin-skinned bunch, willing to exact retribution on players and teams that they feel have disrespected them. As a fan, I don’t want any ump’s sense of grievance to affect games. And biases apply even when pride and ego aren’t involved. Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim demonstrate conclusively in their book Scorecasting that home field advantage is due just about entirely to the fact that umpires skew close calls in favor of the home team as a game comes down to the wire. They apparently do this because they get caught up in the emotion of the home crowd, and unconsciously make calls that keep the positive energy flowing. I understand this, but I don’t like it. I’d be thrilled if the artificial portions of home field advantage went away in baseball, and the better team had a better chance of winning no matter where the game was played.

Whenever I talk about technological progress and the race against the machine, someone bemoans the loss of ‘the human element.’ I get them to define what they mean by this term, since it’s too vague for me. Sometimes I agree with what they come up with, but often I don’t.

In baseball the human element of umpiring detracts from the game by introducing inconsistencies and biases that worsen the experience for players and fans. Whatever pleasure I get from watching an ump make an emphatic safe or out call on a close play is greatly outweighed by the pain I experience at blown calls.

I don’t know if MLB is going to move to automatic calling of balls and strikes any time soon. Umpires are a powerful constituency in the sport, and large, successful, antitrust-immune organizations tend to be conservative ones. As Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs wrote

And of course nothing will change, no matter how much “debate” ensues, except maybe a carefully constructed blue-ribbon “replay” commission will be empaneled, and George Will again will drape himself over the proceedings like a horrible lace doily, and the rest of us will go on waiting patiently for the removal of the human element known as Bud Selig.

This issue reveals a larger, somewhat uncomfortable truth that I’ve written about many times already: in many domains, if we want better outcomes we need to replace the human element with cold, hard machines, algorithms, and data. We’d get better baseball games if switched over to automated calling of balls and strikes now. Hardware and software might not be good enough at present to make all the other calls in the field (tag outs, caught vs. trapped fly balls, etc.), but eventually gear will improve to the point where it can handle those tasks, too.

When it does, we’ll have the possibility of baseball that’s played by humans and umpired by machines. And that’ll make the sport even more beautiful, won’t it?