Commentators are demanding action following more blown calls by umpires last week. An obvious home run was missed even with the replay. An illegal pitching change was allowed. Is there some way we can help the hapless umpires improve their performance?
The first option is to do nothing. Jeffrey Maier changed the outcome of game one of a 1996 playoff game in favor of the Yankees. The umpires blew the call, and it is still shown in highlight reels. Armando Galarraga will be remembered for his near perfect game more than Philip Humber for his real perfect game. Baseball can simply accept that controversy is great for the game and let it go. Managers make mistakes - having Torii Hunter bunt comes to mind – and nobody stops the game to reverse the manager’s decision. Do we really want a game where every call is correct every time?
But realizing that is somewhere between lazy and rationalization, baseball can man-up and do something. Let’s hit the umpires in the pocket book. Fine the umpires who make bad calls. Suspend them. Take away postseason games which are provide prestige and extra income. Fiedin Culbreth was suspended for allowing the illegal pitching change, so the game is not collectively putting its head in the sand. Now run with it.
The amount of statistics on players and games continues to skyrocket. There are some for umpires, but this can certainly grow and be used for improvement. We can start with statistics on accuracy of balls/strikes and plays at first base. What happens if we compare the fielding percentage of shortstops with the accuracy umpire’s calls at first base? Teams are already evaluating umpires on their strike zone, and pitchers learning to adjust. Bumping the most inconsistent umpires down to AAA at the end of the season would certainly get their attention. The umpires’ union may have say in this, but if Bud Selig can get the Astros into the American league, he can successfully negotiate this.
Replays are allowed for home run calls, and the umpires run off the field to who-knows-where and watch video. This slows the game down, and allowing replays of more types of calls could make a game last 4 hours. How about giving each umpire a handheld device so that they can watch the video on the field? Fans can already watch on their smartphones in the stands, and it is sad if the fans have more information than the umpires. Soon we may see an umpire will go over to the stands for a second look from some hipster in the front row. So give the umps a Samsung Mega smartphone and stream the replays to it. And get them larger pants pockets, or they will rip when they call balls and strikes. On second thought, let the third base umpire keep the screen. He needs more to do anyway.
The most common plea is to add a video umpire to the crew. There is concern about the cost, as the new guy travels with the crew and is set up with a video review station in a booth. Come on folks, this is the year 2013. Hire the most credible retired umps and let them work from their retirement homes in Florida or Arizona. They can watch the game from a recliner with a Nextel in hand. Whenever they see something that needs correction, they ring the crew chief and make the change.
With the MLB Network’s live look-ins, a blown call can be seen around the country within seconds of the occurrence. The replays can be watched in real time. This gets to the heart of the issue; fans have more information than the umpires. These are probably the most dedicated fans, how about letting them vote on the outcome? Votes from areas of obvious bias could be eliminated. Test the idea in late-season games between teams which have been eliminated from the pennant race to give the games more excitement.
Baseball could reverse course and show the replay on the Jumbotron. Close plays are currently banned from replay in the stadium. Instead, they should show all close plays from every angle. Let the umpires watch along with the fans. Everybody sees the same thing. What could possibly go wrong?