By Jackson Heiden
Baseball has been America’s pastime for about 150 years. Just like football, basketball, soccer, and many more sports in the world baseball has evolved. Ballplayers have evolved from chain-smoking, scrawny men to 6-foot-5, 220 pound 18-year-olds who appear out of nowhere and can swing the bat like the next great Mickey Mantle. The nation has seen the introduction of Minor League Baseball, seen men come from all over the world to play in the major leagues without any discrimination behind it, and has seen the game go from a world series only postseason format to a three-round, plus a wild card game, format. While all of these additions and new upcoming players are great, there has been one constant throughout these years that didn’t ever change – umpires.
Umpires have been a constant pain in baseball fans’ side for years and years. Baseball fans have seen a great deal of blown calls that have changed the outcome for their favorite Major League Baseball team. In 2010, we saw Detroit Tigers’ Armando Galarraga retire the first 26 batters of his perfect game. On the 27th at-bat of the game, a ground ball was hit to the first baseman, picked up, and tossed to Galarraga who was covering first base and beat the runner by a mile. Everyone watching the game knew it, but the umpire called him safe and Galarraga’s perfect game was gone. In October of 1996, the Baltimore Orioles played the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS). The score was 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning when Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter came to the plate and hit a long fly ball to right field. It was going to be a routine flyout for the right fielder on the warning track, but instead, a 12-year-old boy reached out his glove and caught the ball. Despite the clear fan interference, the umpires would rule this a home run. The Yankees would go on to win the game in extra innings. These are just some of the many field calls that umpires have missed over the years.
What’s unique and strange about how umpires call balls and strikes is they crouch behind the catcher. When umpires are in that position, they have a good portion of their view blocked and it’s difficult to see the height of the ball and where it’s at. Umpires have to judge the height of a strike zone based on where the player’s elbows and knees are (typically). The problem with this, as the sport continues to evolve, is some things in our body start to give out or they’re not as strong as they once were, especially with our eyesight. A good majority of the umpires in the MLB today are nearing 60-years-old, and some of them are even in their 70’s. As the human body continues to age, the ability to see, hear and even think begins to slowly dissipate. Particularly eyesight around the ages of 40-60 years old. The change in the eyes’ ability to focus is called presbyopia, this problem will progress over time. Presbyopia will cause humans to have to hold materials farther away to read them, remove their glasses when you’re reading something up close, or even have trouble seeing blurred words when reading something in dimmer settings. This condition is raising the level of frustration with baseball fans to a new high over the last few years.
If you were to watch baseball on TV, there is a little box above home plate where you can see where the strike zone is, and it’s exactly where it needs to be. Often, there’s a lot of missed calls where the ball ends up in the middle of the box, meaning it’s a strike, but the umpires call it a ball. The hypothetical missed call could have been a crucial strike three call that would have gotten the pitching team out of a bases-loaded jam, but instead, it gives the batter another chance, and if he does something with the next pitch, that could change the whole outcome of the game.
I was watching when my favorite team (Milwaukee Brewers) in Game 2 of the National League Division Series (NLDS), the Atlanta Braves had a 3-0 lead in the seventh inning. The Brewers had two runners on bases with two outs and there was a curveball thrown by the Braves that was dialed up perfectly to hit the outside lower corner, indicating a clear strike, and the umpire called it a ball. You would think I’d be happy about that, and I was, but I knew it should have been a called third strike to end the inning. Now, the very next pitch the Braves struck the next batter out so it didn’t matter, but the fact is if the Brewers did happen to do something after the bad call, it could have been yet another game-altering bad call.
There was another moment during Game 5 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers versus the San Francisco Giants that ultimately cost the Giants the series and their season. The Giants were down to their last batter with a runner on first as the batter faced an 0-2 count. He checked his swing, but the appeal down to the first base umpire was called strike and ended the game. Yet another (poor) game-altering call that occurs far too often each season.
Close, controversial calls like these have inspired interest in “robot umps,” or in other words, the Automated Ball-Strike System (ABS). Some people might ask how a system like this would work? The ABS system would work in the sense that the home plate umpires would wear an earpiece and every time the ball would hit the strike zone box as described above, the umpires would hear a beeping noise and that would indicate a strike.
In a study done by Boston University, during the time between 2008-18, over four million pitches were tracked. The top 10 performing umpires averaged 2.7 years of experience umping in the MLB as well as the bottom 10 performing umpires averaged 20.6 years of experience. During their deep-dive analysis, they found that MLB umpires make incorrect calls at least 20 percent of the time, that’s one time every five pitches. It has been shown that younger umpires with the age of early to mid-30s with only a couple of years of experience have routinely outperformed veteran umpires who have been in the league for over 20 years and those who have even umped in the world series. The top three youngest umpires between the years listed above and ages in their early 30s have a bad call ratio (BCR) of about 8% while the bottom three umpires, with the age in their early 60s have a BCR of about 14%.
My proposal for the MLB would be to force the umpires with at least 20 years of experience and a BCR of 11% or higher into retirement and bring in fresh younger umpires who are coming up through the minor league ranks. This would decrease the number of bad calls per game significantly. The statistics have proven that younger umpires are better. We need that human element in the game of baseball, it’s something that has revolved around the sport for over 150 years. Baseball is a sport where a batter can hit the ball only 30% of the time and be considered one of the best in the game. Home plate umpires will have watched about 300 pitches combined by the time the game is all said and over with, and if an umpire misses 8% of the pitches that’s only 24 pitches out of the entire game, making that about 12 pitches for each team. Compared to the umpires that miss on average 14% of pitches per game that rises the count to 42 missed pitches per game and 21 for each team.
We don’t need the ABS system. The statistics talk for themselves on why we need to bring up less experienced umpires and kick out the veteran umpires.