Umpires have the most unforgiving job of anyone on a baseball field. Whether it's judging if a spinning ball thrown 90 MPH passes through a theoretical area, trying to see two events at once, or managing the flow of a game, umpires are rarely praised. After all, their job is to be invisible.
Many (including myself) think that there is a whole lot of room for improvement over the current system. There are too many missed calls, too many "real" strike zones, too many egos among the men in black. But even a complete conversion of the umpiring job isn't the answer. Why? Because the human element is always going to be there somewhere.
As O's fans, we all know how painful an incorrect HR call can be. Last night, the A's felt the same way (sort of). In the top of the 9th, down 4-3, Adam Rosales hit a long fly ball off the top of the LF wall and pulled into second base with a double. He and A's manager Bob Melvin felt that it had hit the railing over the wall and would thus be a game-tying home run. In accordance with the rules, Melvin requested that the umpires review the call (the HR of course being the only reviewable play). During the review break, every broadcast team watched the tape and saw - a HR. Yet when the umps came back, crew chief Angel Hernandez signaled a double. Melvin stormed out of the dugout to argue the call and was quickly thrown out of the game.
So progress has been made. We've moved from having umpires make uninformed mistakes to making the same mistakes, but with video. Even full implementation of video review on plays at the plate, catch/traps, or whatever else doesn't mean perfection. This is the human element, and as long as the game will be played, there will be mistakes and blown calls.
So what does (or should) this mean for the future of umpiring? Probably not much. But this incident has made me think about other changes I'd like to see made to the game in this regard. For example, Pitch f/x. It's an excellent system, very accurate and in every ballpark in the majors, but still has a margin of error (MOE) (I've found several different claims on the exact error, most say it's ~1 in.). Of course, margins of error are impossible to eliminate, so those who support eventual robotification of calling balls and strikes will have to live with it. But more pressing than the natural MOE there is the issue of the vertical definition of the strike zone. MLB defines the strike zone as such:
The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.
Unfortunately, no one has really come up with a good way of managing that with Pitch f/x. Brooks Baseball just uses 1.5 ft. and 3.5 ft. as the designated lower and upper boundaries. Obviously this is a wrong approach since not all players the same height, and even the same player may change his batting stance. Either the boundaries will need to be entered into calculations in real time by (gasp!) humans, or maybe sensors sewn into the uniforms in the appropriate spots. Even the more theoretically accurate, computerized method is inaccurate as it would compound MOE issues along with any malfunctions that may occur.
The bottom line for me is this: sometimes the pursuit of perfection may mar the thing we are trying to perfect. The human element isn't going away, ever. There's no reason to embrace it, as some traditionalists have, but maybe we should all accept it.