UMPIRING IN MLB HITS A LOW POINT

What a week for umpiring in major league baseball, according to a feature story on Yahoo! Sports. Tim Brown, one of the premier baseball writers in America, succinctly recaps a couple of days that saw unthinkable blunders by major league umpires in that piece. One screw-up ultimately didn’t matter, as the Los Angeles Angels defeated the Houston Astros despite the umpiring crew having an unforgivable lapse of knowledge of the rules regarding pitching changes.

The other gaffe negated a game-tying homerun for Oakland’s Adam Rosales in a game against the Indians that Cleveland ended up winning.

I’m not going to reset the game situations, as they are widely known and the details are readily available all over the web. Wide-angle view: Angels manager Mike Scoscia corrected the umpires on Astros manager Bo Porter’s illegal pitching change but got turned away, and Rosales’ home run was ruled a double despite a video review that had to show otherwise.

My view on human umpires in major league baseball games concurs with the notion that they get 99%, or whatever high precentage rate that is thrown out there, correct. The remaining number of calls that they blow is the issue and how they deal with those calls caused both of these problems this week.

Umpires get calls wrong and this is not breaking news. Obviously they are human and the game is played at ever-increasing speed. Out/safe, fair/foul, ball/strike. It’s a tough gig sometimes. But I can sit in front of my television and computer screen and gain insight that is not available to these on-field arbiters in real time. Then, when they are allowed to take time out and consult the video evidence, they sometimes render a wrong verdict anyway.

That’s insane!

I have instant replay for the out/safe and fair/foul or homer/double stuff. I have MLB.com’s Gameday graphics or, for crying out loud, BrooksBaseball.net’s Pitch FX tool to show me pitch locations in the balls/strikes area.

Baseball, fairly or not, is saddled with a reputation of being old, out of date and too in-love with outdated tradition. Various recent developments in the game would prove that stereotype wrong (interleague play, 3-division realignment, new playoff format, etc.) and the fans are still flocking to stadiums while TV contract money is escalating.

But that stereotype could be smashed like a ball Prince Fielder sends to the upper reaches of the outfield bleachers by embracing technology and, unlike the NFL, using it effectively.

We’ve all watched an NFL game as it is stopped for a review of a crucial call. Time stops. Birds stop singing, freeways and interstates come to a halt and bears go into hibernation. Meanwhile, the television audience sees, within seconds, what the correct call is. Then, the referee emerges from behind the curtain and marches to the middle of the field where he declares…

Inconclusive. The bad call stands.

America knew the correct outcome a long time ago. Technology captured it. Humans charged with making a tough decision got nervous and upheld a bad decision.

Baseball doesn’t have to do this. Baseball, whose fans are on the leading edge of technology as it applies to the fun and games of a professional sport, can do much better.

The “human element”? It’s a necessary evil of the game. Like a line drive that injures a pitcher from 60′ 6″, it is something that is going to happen no matter how much players and fans and everyone else involved dislike it. But if you can correct it…?

No one and nothing can divert a scorched baseball from hitting JA Happ or Brandon McCarthy or any other pitcher who has been involved in a scary moment like these two endured. But bad judgement calls captured cleanly on video can be rectified, can’t they? Why not?

Rosales’ ball was a homer. No doubt whatsoever.

And the mess in the Angels-Astros game, a matter of rule-book knowledge? Somebody on the premises had to be in contact with someone in a position of authority that could quickly correct that abomination. Scoscia knew the rule, but the crew chief wouldn’t accept that knowledge. That is unacceptable.

The “human element” argument is what 80’s rock icons Twisted Sister would call “worthless and weak.” And to stick with a system of “sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but that’s just the way it goes, man” is lame in this day and technological age.

Back in the 1800’s when railroad travel was being engineered, there were learned observers who thought that the human body couldn’t travel at “high speeds” (i.e. 60 mph or more) because passengers would be unable to breathe and die of asphyxia. (The gentleman credited with that line had the title of “Dr.”) When motion pictures with sound came out in the golden era of silent films, experts at the time thought of the “talkies” as a fad, never to replace the artistry of silent films.

If major league baseball continues to support the authority of an on-field judge who may have a bad angle, a bad day or just a bad attitude, while scores of fans viewing on television or over the internet see the true result quickly, the stereotype of being slow to adapt that has dogged baseball will be born out. The perception will become reality rather quickly after such high-profile incidents as those we saw this week have added to the negative image.

And, while these two events got a lot of press, there are many more inconsistencies and inaccuracies that take place in major league parks that just don’t get blown up. It didn’t get any national press, but the Dodgers’ LF Carl Crawford caught a ball for the first out in the top of the 5th inning against Arizona on Tuesday night, then dropped the ball as he transferred it to his throwing hand. The umpires that night called it a drop and awarded Arizona SS Didi Gregorius a double. It cost a run as Dodger starter Chris Capuano yielded a homerun to the next batter, Paul Goldschmidt. Despite the obvious judgement error on the part of the umpiring crew, it didn’t decide the game as the Diamondbacks ultimately won 9-2.

But it was a blown call and video replay clearly showed that. The fact that it didn’t provide the winning margin doesn’t excuse the fact that it was a correctible error.

MLB can get on the leading edge in this super-charged issue of correcting bad calls. The technology is there to have the plays reviewed quickly and have the decision relayed from wherever the ultimate decision is being made to the on-field staff in a timely manner. We have video, immediate playback, state-of-the-art communication and, most importantly, common sense available at this time. To endure negative stories like those we’ve seen this week and ignore the chance to eradicate them from the sport would be to say that fans don’t care what gets called on the field and who it effects. That simply isn’t true.

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