Regardless of which time period you examine in baseball history, there are always big issues that surround how the game is played. Right now the most talked about issue are the abundance of home runs being hit, why that is, and if the game should take action to restore some balance. But perhaps an even more important issue is one that’s most fundamental to the game – the calling of balls and strikes.
It has to be said that calling balls and strikes is probably an impossible task for human beings and that umpires do a better job today than what they did 20 years ago, when each umpire seemingly had a different strike zone. While recognizing the improvements that have been made, we still get daily reminders of calls that were simply wrong. So, what – if anything – should be done about that?
Before we get to that, let’s try to inject some context into things. Of all places, BloombergBusinessWeek keeps track of umpire calls. Unfortunately, they don’t provide a lot of information on how these rankings are compiled. It appears that all calls, not just ball-strike calls, are included in their lists. According to Bloomberg, all umpires get between 85 and 90% of calls correct. This seems pretty good until you consider the number of calls that are pretty cut and dried, like the pitch that bounces at the plate or the call at first base where the runner is out by 3 steps.
While the Bloomberg lists may not be exactly what we’re looking for, they do provide a section called “Worst Calls,” which lists the worst calls of the day and how much they missed by. On the Dodgers-White Sox game of August 16, Bloomberg notes: “With a 0-0 count in the bottom of the 6th inning, umpire Mike Muchlinski called a strike on a pitch that missed the strike zone by 7.62 inches.”
The latest call involving the Mets on this “Worst Call” list happened on July 20 in the game against the Cardinals. Bloomberg reports, “With a 2-0 count in the bottom of the 2nd inning, umpire Joe West called a strike on a pitch that missed the strike zone by 7.72 inches.”
There are always going to be calls that could go either way, ones right on the edge of being inside or outside the strike zone. But when pitches that are seven inches away from the zone are being called wrong, that’s an issue. It seems we can all agree that these types of calls just shouldn’t happen.
Back in 2016, HBO’s Real Sports ran an episode entitled, Man vs. Machine, in which it made the case for using technology to call the strike zone. Star-Telegram reporter Gil Lebreton wrote up a piece of the episode and he said the following in his piece:
They asked Yale professor Dr. Toby Moskowitz to study the Pitch f/x data from MLB games in recent seasons. Moskowitz analyzed every pitch called by major league umpires – nearly a million in all – over the last 3 ½ years.
MLB claims its umpires call 97 percent of balls and strikes correctly. But according to Moscowitz (sic) and HBO, the study showed that only about 88 percent of the calls were accurate.
Roughly one of every eight pitches, in other words, were called incorrectly. As Frankel pointed out, that adds up to more than 30,000 bogus balls or strikes each season.
That figure includes the obvious calls where the pitches are right down the middle or way outside. When Moscowitz (sic) narrowed his analysis to pitches that were within two inches, either way, of the corners of the plate, the umpires got the call wrong 31.7 percent of the time – nearly one of every three pitches!
That last figure is the most damning. On close pitches, the umpires are calling the pitch incorrectly nearly 1/3 of the time. Again, calling these pitches is an incredibly hard thing to do. We’re asking humans to do a job that they’re not ideally suited to do. This is not a problem of either effort or willingness. No one should look at the umpires as lazy or not caring. Just like we don’t expect a batter to get a hit every time up, we can’t expect an umpire to get every close call right. It’s just not realistic.
The ideal solution would be for an electronic system to call the balls and strikes and instantly send a signal to the umpire on the field, so that he could officially make the call. It seems unlikely that we have that technology for that right now. It seems even more unlikely that the umpires’ union would allow such a system to be used without a fight.
For non ball/strike calls, we have a replay system in place right now which almost no one likes. It allows teams the chance to use technology to decide if a call should be challenged and then the replay itself takes way too long. Instead of being used on obvious blown calls, it’s being used to question bang-bang plays.
Perhaps we can kill two birds with one stone and fix the current system while also mixing in the ability to challenge ball/strike calls.
Taking a page from the NFL, all scoring plays should be reviewed without a challenge. Close play at the plate? Instead of taking 30 seconds to decide whether or not to challenge, this decision is removed from play, with the replay being automatic.
Additionally, on all challenges, the manager has to decide within five seconds whether he wants to challenge the call. This will go a long way towards eliminating the reviews on bang-bang plays and get back to the original purpose of fixing the truly blown call. Sure, managers will continue to challenge bang-bang plays but hopefully these will be limited to ones at extremely important times, rather than at any time at all during the game like we see now.
How to handle replay on ball/strike calls is not so easy to handle. What’s a bang-bang play at first base is not the same as what’s a borderline pitch. Some hitters, like Joey Votto, know their strike zone amazingly well. What might be a borderline call to me and you might seem like a clear ball to Votto. Picking numbers out of the air, if we view a pitch three inches out of the zone as a blown call but Votto views a pitch one inch out of the zone as a blown call – why should he be penalized?
Perhaps there could be a separate challenge category for ball/strike reviews, allowing each team a set number, say three, per game.
It’s important to recognize that we’re trying to implement a system that’s better than what we have now, not one that’s foolproof. If umpires are missing 31% of close pitches and we can introduce a replay system based on efficiency that reduces that to 25% – that’s a good thing.
Of course, we’ve seen how a system is designed and how it’s instituted are two different things.
Personally, my goal is to see the calls be made right as often as we can, with the understanding there will have to be tradeoffs. We’ll never be able to have all calls both right and quick. And even with an electronic strike zone, it’s unlikely that accuracy would reach 100%. My preference would be not to have a gimmicky challenge system. But that may be the most efficient way to handle things, at least here in the short term.
The goal is to always move towards a system that’s better than what we had previously. We can debate what makes something “better.” But hopefully we can all agree that what we have now can use improvement.