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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.

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