Are Umpires Murdering Baseball?

Human umpires are no longer the best way to judge balls and strikes, and we need to make the change to save baseball.

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For the century and a half that baseball has existed, few things have stayed constant. Everything, from the team names to the number of balls in a walk, has changed. For decades, baseball has been the nation’s true national pastime. At some point, every rule has been tweaked, taken away, criticized, and changed again. However, those rules have always had a constant—a need to be enforced.

That enforcement has always come from the 31st team in the MLB, the umpires. Umpires have witnessed every great play, every error, every no-hitter, and every walk-off in baseball’s storied history. For a long time, umpires were the closest thing to fair, accurate adjudicators that we had at our fingertips. However, that is no longer the case. As camera quality has risen past the level of the human eye, we now have alternatives. Those alternatives may go against the traditional tendencies of baseball’s increasing old fan base, but they are too important not to address.

There is a Twitter account called Umpire Scorecards that releases reports on every home plate umpire’s performance in terms of strikes and balls. The account provides a percentage of correct calls and adds a metric for runs added or taken away from a team. The profile also does us the great convenience of putting all the data it has collected into customizable CSV (comma-separated values) folders. From the data, one can discern that umpires this season turned in a 93 percent success rate and a 96 percent rate of consistency. Additionally, they influenced the game by about 0.4 runs each.

The alternative to traditional umpire roles is a new system called TrackMan. TrackMan is an advanced camera system that uses image processing to establish the correct strike zones and determines whether a pitch is a strike or not. TrackMan and other technologies like it are being used in the minor leagues, and early returns have been positive. Currently, this technology can measure the strike zone to one-eighth of an inch, declaring virtually perfect calls every single time. This accuracy means 100 percent success, 100 percent consistency, and 0.0 added runs. This performance begs the question: how important are the runs the umpires unintentionally add?

Umpires changed the outcome of 52 games this season. While this number seems minimal since it adds up to fewer than two games per team, not all teams were affected equally. According to the analysis, while five teams did not lose a game because of poor calls, the Chicago Cubs were the most unfortunate, losing a whopping six games because of them.

Were these calls made correctly, the league would see many changes in the AL playoff picture. The biggest change would have been the Wild Card Game, which in reality saw the Yankees play the Red Sox. After the changes, we would have instead seen the Mariners take on the Blue Jays. While this situation is a large difference in and of itself, we can see this effect trickle throughout the playoffs. At the time of writing, the Red Sox have already won their series over the mighty Tampa Bay Rays and are battling the Astros for a spot in the World Series. If these changes were made, none of these games would have happened. However, these changes are not an exact science. We cannot say for sure that the umpires stole the season from anyone because none of these takeaways are definitive.

The only definitive takeaway is that umpires have a massive effect on the game of baseball. While we can never eliminate the umpires, as they are needed to judge out or safe and deliver the robot’s verdict, we can’t keep relying on them when a better alternative exists.