Most people would consider me a “traditionalist” when it comes to baseball, and in many ways I am. But in one significant way I want to revolutionize the game: It’s time to launch a movement to get umpires out of the ball-and-strike business.
First, let’s dispense with the clichéd piety that “they get it right 99 percent of the time.”
No, they don’t.
Watch any game with a QuesTec or other digital batter’s box. What you’ll see is that rather than getting it right 99 percent of the time, the typical Major League umpire is lucky if he gets it right 50 percent of the time – “it” being the most fundamental part of the umpire’s job, calling balls and strikes.
It’s a hard job. I’ve done it, and it’s hard even in Babe Ruth ball. It is exponentially more difficult in the majors, with 100 mph fastballs and exploding breaking pitches. Which is precisely my point. It is much too difficult – and much too important – to be left to fallible humans.
Use the technology, put an umpire in the booth with a PitchTrack, and let him get it right 100 percent of the time.
Home plate umps get called balls and strikes wrong, by my reckoning over several seasons of watching games almost every night, just about half the time.
And getting it wrong means umps are virtually determining the outcomes of at bats, and thus of games. The 1-1 pitch is the most important pitch in baseball. The MLB average for a hitter with a 2-1 count is .339. For 1-2 count? .171.
Think about that. A 168-point difference. And the ump making that call gets it wrong almost half the time.
Are they crooked? No. Incompetent? Some are. But the truth is that what they’re being asked to do is almost impossible for the human eye. It always has been. We just didn’t know it until the advent of instant replay and laser technology. We put up with wildly inconsistent strike zones from umpire to umpire, from inning to inning, even from pitch to pitch, because we had to.
We don’t have to anymore.
Add an umpire to each crew and put him in the booth. He can use the technology to get the call right (he could also be the replay umpire, which would speed up those calls that need to be reviewed and thus speed up the game, but that’s another post). No more arguing about balls and strikes. Fewer players thrown out of games. More consistent strike zones. Happier hitters. Pitchers who know where to work the ball.
The technology exists in every ballpark. It’s easy and reliable. Communicating from the booth to the plate would take less time than it takes Tim McClelland to call a pitch, and much less time than it takes Joe West to get into position to make a call on the bases.
You’d still need an ump at home, to make calls on plays at the plate, check swings, hit batters, foul or fair on balls before they reach a base, and to take the calls from the man in the booth.
But get them out of the ball-and-strike business. They’re not up to the job, and the job is too important.