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New baseball science fiction short story (free to read)

I have a new short story, free to read online at SABR.org! It’s a piece of near future science fiction told from the point of view of a female baseball pitcher making her debut on the mound at Fenway Park. It’s one of the few times I’ve gotten a chance to mix my baseball writing with my sf/f writing!

You can read the story here: https://sabr.org/journal/article/signs-of-the-times/

I also wrote a detailed breakdown of all the many threads of research, facts, commentary, etc that went into crafting the story in my Patreon, which is free to read here: https://www.patreon.com/posts/54679583

The Patreon essay was prompted by a Twitter thread I did about why I wrote it and The National Pastime, the publication that it’s in:

Playin’ the Blues: Umpiring, MLB Public Relations, and QuesTec

Today I’m re-posting an old relic, mostly because I know you will all find it hilarious to see how antiquated the state of baseball technology was 20 years ago. I wrote this piece for Mudville Magazine (now defunct), after attending a session on umpires and technology at the SABR convention in 2002, when the QuesTec system was new:

In the olden days umpire-baiting and shouts of “Kill the umpire!” were as much a part of a spectator’s experience at a baseball game as the National Anthem and hot dogs. Grumbling about poor umpiring is a time-honored tradition in itself. But in a sport suffering severe public relations problems, could improving the umpiring quell fan unrest?

Major League Baseball, it seems, has always had just as touchy a relationship with its umpires as it has with its players. But in recent years that relationship has changed drastically since the old umps’ union was broken. Under the new union and the new rules, MLB has much greater oversight of umpires than ever before, and much more control. But fans have yet to see much in the way of change on the field. Why?

Think about the gripes you hear—and undoubtedly say yourself—from time to time. How about this one: the time when a single umpire’s decision carries the most weight—in the postseason or World Series—is the time when we want the best umpires, not the ones with the most favors to call in with their boss. Baseball is a ruthless meritocracy in so many ways. It appeals to the fan sensibility of the cream rising to the top, and would mollify us to know that if an umpire blew a call in the seventh game of the World Series, well, at least he was one of the best umpires in the business. Why isn’t there a merit system to choose who works these plum assignments?

And then there is ball/strike calling. This is by far the most widespread source of griping, especially among TV announcers and fans at home watching. ESPN went so far as to introduce a special technology (the “K-zone”) for its Sunday night broadcasts, to definitively determine whether a pitch indeed touched any portion of the strike zone. Why hasn’t Major League Baseball implemented a system like this to evaluate umpire accuracy?

Well, guess what? Major League Baseball does have an umpire oversight program that uses a technology that is even more advanced than the K-zone, at least according to Kevin O’Connor, an umpire evaluator who spoke at the 2002 SABR Convention in Boston. In ten of the thirty Major League parks, electronic equipment evaluates every pitch of the game. After each game, a compact disc of data is burned and given to the home plate ump to review his mistakes. The CD shows every pitch, the strike zone, and marks those that were called incorrectly. Also, according to O’Connor, most umps will only miss 5-6 ball/strike calls per game, which means an accuracy rate above 98%. Not only that, the results of these umpire evaluations are monitored by MLB and (supposedly) do influence who is chosen to work postseason games.

If every fan knew this, would there be less grumbling? Perhaps. We’ve now answered all my questions except for one: why haven’t fans seen this change on the field? The real question is, why hasn’t Major League Baseball made this system common knowledge? Why has MLB preferred to suffer the accusations like those of devoted fan Bob Williams (in Mudville’s letter column) that “it is obvious that umpires do not obey the rules which state the strikes must be over the plate” and play-by-play announcers everywhere? I can only speculate as follows:

1) Maybe MLB is not interested in doing anything to antagonize Television, which is its Golden Goose. To announce that most of the ball/strike replays you see on television are inaccurate (and they are, because of camera angles and distances) would undermine the illusion that the networks carefully preserve that its better to watch the game on TV than to see it live (or listen on radio).

2) Maybe MLB would prefer that the ire of the masses about bad ball/strike calling continue to fall on the umpires, as it has done since time immemorial. If fans thought MLB might be responsible, we’d have yet one more reason to call for Selig’s head.

3) Maybe MLB’s “control” over the umpires is not quite as complete as they would like it to be, and if the use of umpire evaluation were common knowledge, this fact might be exposed.

4) Maybe Kevin O’Connor wasn’t being truthful, and actually umpires are a lot worse than he stated. Maybe the gripers are right and MLB would be in a pickle if we really knew how bad things were.

5) Maybe MLB is just clueless about what makes fans happy and doesn’t realize that fans would universally approve of objective evaluation of umpiring skills? We know umpires have to work their way through the minors, just as players do. Technically, that is supposed to make those who reach the majors the best at what they do. But we also know that there are other factors besides raw talent that can get one to the top. As with players, so it is with umpires–a certain amount of stick-to-it-iveness, putting up with low pay and constant travel for years on end, conformity, toeing the line, and even nepotism can serve to advance one up the ladder. Knowing that to stay in the majors, umpires have to keep performing, just like players, at the top level, might set some fans’ minds at ease.

6) Maybe MLB is trying to respect the umpire’s prerogative, which is “he sees what he sees.” We have never before been able to look inside an umpire’s head to find out if he thought he got a call wrong, and the fact that an umpire’s decision stands no matter what in baseball (no ridiculous “consulting the replays” as in football) is one of the few things that is still sacrosanct. If word of this system were widespread, how long would it be before writers started wanting to put a “box score” for the umpire in the paper? The best umpire is supposedly the one you don’t notice is there. By bringing even closer scrutiny on umpires by the public and sportswriters, would MLB be violating this principle?

As I said, this is all speculation. Whatever the reason for MLB’s seeming reticence to discuss or inform the public about umpire oversight, I hope the program is here to stay even if it stays in the background. I approve of MLB’s human and electronic watchdogs but I, for one, do not want to see an umpire “box score” every day. No matter how good an umpire is, there will still be blown calls. Human umpires are a part of the game, they are part of its fabric. Some long for “pure” baseball, where there would never be a question, where the outcome of every game, of every play, would be determined purely on physical success. But that wouldn’t be baseball, where we have so many influences on the richness of the game, from playing fields of different sizes to mounds of different shapes, not to mention sign-stealing and many other forms of sanctioned cheating. I’m not saying we should stop griping about umpires, far from it. But will you be able to pick out which are the five pitches missed on Opening Day? I can’t wait to try.

Of course, since the publication of the piece 19 years ago, we’ve seen the QuesTec system give way to PitchF/X – Trackman and now to Statcast – Hawkeye, video replay be introduced first for fair/foul calls and then expand to include on-field “challenges” issued by managers on safe/out calls, the “K-Zone” type box become ubiquitous on TV broadcasts, and of course the experimentation with ABS — Automatic Ball-Strike calling — in the Atlantic League. And yet some umps who shall remain nameless but who have still has a job and the seniority to work the postseason. Some things change, some things stay the same…

We also know that they were not being truthful when they said five pitches were being missed. The average NOW is around 14 pitches per game, and umpires have gotten MORE accurate since 2002, thanks to the feedback they get from the technology!

For further reading:

  • Pursuit of the Perfect Umpire Game“, Ben Lindbergh, The Ringer, August 9, 2019.
    Ben notes in this article that the introduction of QuesTec in 2002 led to an increased in umpire accuracy. However, “MLB’s current rubric for scoring umpires’ performance on pitches, the Zone Evaluation system, claims that umpires are 97 percent accurate, a number that Scott also cites. That seemingly inflated figure—which may stem from MLB’s decision to discard certain pitches when the catcher blocks the ump’s view—is something of a mystery, considering that public research consistently yields lower figures. (An inquiry to an MLB spokesperson didn’t clear up the discrepancy.)”

  • MLB Umpires Missed 34,294 Ball-Strike Calls in 2018. Bring on Robo-umps?, Mark T. Williams, BU Today, April 8, 2019.
    This study noted that not only were there an AVERAGE of 14 missed ball-strike calls per MLB game, but that the older the umpire, the less accurate they were, not more. “The top 10 performing umps averaged 2.7 years of experience. The bottom 10 averaged 20.6 years of experience.”

  • Robo Strike Zone: It’s Not as Simple As You Think“, Wayne Boyle, Sean O’Rourke, Jeff Long, and Harry Pavlidis, Baseball Prospectus, January 29, 2018. This rundown of difficulties for systems like PitchF/X may be of interest, but as we’re seeing with ABS in the Atlantic League, the problems can be overcome.

  • The Karma Series

    The Washington Nationals have won the World Series and the nation could not be happier.
    (Continued)

    2019 ALCS Games 4 and 5: Tale of Two Nights

    I’m writing this in the car on the way back to Massachusetts after the Yankees slayed the dragon known as Justin Verlander. It’s 2:30 in the morning, and this dark drive would be very different if they had lost the game.

    We did this drive the night Joe Torre’s career as a Yankee ended, with Suzyn Waldman crying as she described how the whole coaching staff knew that elimination from the postseason would spell the end for Joe’s tenure.

    But tonight the Yankees were not eliminated, even though they could have been.
    (Continued)

    The Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR49

    The Women in Baseball Panel at #SABR49

    Wow, has this panel has grown in stature as the field of women in baseball has grown. I was on this panel myself at a SABR convention back in the 2000s… over ten years ago. (I retired from playing women’s baseball when I turned 40, so it had to be around 2006… this blog probably has an entry on that panel but I’m having connection issues and can’t load my own blog…) The panel has upgraded drastically from me (a women’s park-league player and occasional baseball instructor for the AAU and Girl Scouts) to multiple women who have both played and coached actual professional men’s baseball.

    On the panel:

    Perry Barber, well-known former pro umpire

    Janet Marie Smith, who now works for the LA Dodgers, best known for leading the design and building of Camden Yards in Baltimore, as well as the renovation of Fenway Park and the conversion of Turner Field from Olympic venue into baseball stadium

    Ila Borders, former professional pitcher with the St. Paul Saints and other men’s independent teams

    Justine Siegel, founder of Baseball for All and coach for several men’s teams including the Oakland A’s

    Kelsie Whitmore, current pro pitcher with the Sonoma Stompers and member of USA national women’s baseball team

    Jewel Greenberg, documentary filmmaker, just finished a documentary on women in baseball (now called “Hardball: The Girls of Summer” coming out September 24th)

    Moderator: Jean Ardell, author of several books relating to women in baseball

    (What follows is a partial transcript of the panel discussion, which I typed in real-time as the women spoke. This only captures about half of what was said. Any errors are mine.)

    Jean: In 1993 I attended my first SABR convention right here in San Diego. There were exactly 2 women presenting, me and Barbara Gregorich. [*Note: there are enough this year I couldn’t count them easily. 6-8 at least.] Where were all of you in 1993? Well, Kelsie you weren’t even born yet…

    (Continued)

    Pride Project: LGBTQ Pride and Organized Baseball: History in the making?

    Those of you who’ve followed my career through my various gigs at writing and editing in the baseball sphere, from the early days of the New York Yankees’ attempt at a website, stints at Gotham Baseball and Baseball Prospectus, to my current position as Publications Director for SABR, may have heard me say this before:

    Every day in baseball something historic can happen. Sometimes it’s noticed at the time, like when the highly anticipated breaking of a record occurs. Other times it isn’t until some sabermetrician or historian goes back and looks at the facts and concludes that something happened. At the time that things are going on, the participants tend to be too wrapped up in doing the thing to also be leaving a written record of what they did. If the newspapers (or later, other media) didn’t create a record, players, teams, and even whole leagues can disappear without a trace.

    I’ve been bookmarking and screencapping and noting articles, tweets, and other online mentions for a while now relating to how MLB teams celebrate Pride Month. I started making notes in 2016, when I went to Petco Park in San Diego and received a Pride rally towel as a freebie.
    (Continued)

    Nine Things About the Yankees 2018 Home Opener

    I couldn’t think of one single thematic thread to tie up the story of the 2018 home opener, so I’m going to fall back on that baseball blog trope of a nine-element list.

    Nine Things About the 2018 Home Opener:

    1. SNOW & RAIN

    This isn’t the first time we’ve had snow for the home opener at Yankee Stadium, and it isn’t the first time it’s been postponed to a second day. I was there for the Hideki Matsui grand slam in the snow–that was on a postponed day, if I recall correctly. I wasn’t there for the postponed home opener in 2005 because I thought I should go home to get more work done, and I ended up crying the whole four-hour drive home. So I vowed not to do that again. This year we planned for a possible postponement because the weather prediction for snow was well telegraphed. We stayed over with a friend in the city and packed extra clothes. I wish I could say that the second day was sunny and warm, but it wasn’t. (Continued)

    2017 ALCS Games 3-4-5 at Yankee Stadium: Impressions

    Writing this in the car on the way back to Boston after three wins in a row at Yankee Stadium. Three raucous, amazing wins. I feel like we’re watching the “baby bombers” grow up before our eyes. At the end of September, I don’t think they were a better team than Cleveland or Houston. After Tuesday night’s come-from-behind win, I felt they had proved that they belong on the same tier with them. With each win, from the Wild Card, to the comebacks in the ALDS, to the past three days in a row, the team got better. They gained confidence. They bonded with each other.

    And Judge learned to hit the breaking ball. (Continued)

    A Series of Miracles (2017 ALDS Games 3 and 4)

    It struck me as we were walking from the parking lot to the Stadium today, for the second night in a row, that most successful postseason runs appear, in hindsight, to be a string of miracles. Sometimes they seem to be a series of small miracles, other times one or two big miracles come in a timely fashion. And sometimes when you lose, it feels like it’s because your luck ran out.

    Last week we were here for the Wild Card game and I wrote that it was the loudest I’ve ever heard the Stadium — the new Stadium, I should specify. The new place has milder acoustics as well as milder fans. Or at least they were milder fans until a couple of years with no postseason caused attrition among the bandwagoners. The result is that for ALDS Game 3 and 4, each a must-win elimination game, the Stadium was packed to the rafters with die-hards.

    Yesterday, in an intense pitchers duel between Masahiro Tanaka and Cleveland’s Carlos Carrasco, I heard the two-strike clap louder than I’ve ever heard it since the days of Ron Guidry. I’m not kidding. It was louder than it used to be for Roger Clemens in those showdowns with Pedro Martinez. The two-strike clap is a tradition that started at Yankee Stadium for Guidry, but in the past 10 years it has dwindled. Not yesterday.
    (Continued)

    The 2017 AL Wild Card Game

    It was very freeing, somehow, to go into a winner-take-all postseason game with low expectations. Or maybe no expectations would be a better way to put it? We were expecting a rebuilding year. We weren’t expecting Aaron Judge. We weren’t expecting Brett Gardner to have a career high in home runs. We got excited about the young kids last year, but we didn’t expect them to run away with the AL East.

    Although that’s what they did at the start of the season–run away with it. They built up such a lead that when they came back to earth and played under-.500 ball for much of the middle of the year, they nevertheless kept the Red Sox in striking distance. The possibility of a one-game tiebreaker loomed all the way through Saturday, when the Sox finally won one of the two remaining games of the season in order to clinch.
    (Continued)