Friday, June 04, 2010

A modest proposal

(This piece was originally posted at Ditching Otis.)

There has been a small outcry in the sports world over the past few days after a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game on the very last out. Replays shown by broadcasters clearly and immediately showed that first baseman Miguel Cabrera’s throw beat Jason Donald to the bag. Joyce reviewed footage after the game and admitted as much to Galarraga in a tearful apology. Calls to institute instant replay into the game of baseball have been insistent and widespread. This was an objective error, fans and commentators say, with concrete consequences that could have been corrected immediately. In fact, if he so chose, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig could still reverse Joyce’s error, erase the subsequent batter groundout to third, and award Galarraga a perfect game. Fortunately, Selig has rightly declined to do so.

Galarraga’s game is irrevocably tainted by Joyce’s error. If placed in the record books it would be entered with an asterisk. It, at this point, cannot be perfect. Joyce’s error cannot be corrected, and is an essential expression of the inherent failure of asking a subjective umpire to make an objective determination. If we can electronically time bobsled runs to the hundredth of a second, we can objectively determine who got to the bag first. Baseball fails as a game because of its reliance on umpires, and we should get rid of them.

Major League Baseball relies on umpires because baseball, in its current form, is a deeply subjective game. There is perhaps no better expression of this than the strike zone, upon which every pitch, every play of the game is entirely dependent, and which exists as an imaginary box in the head of the home plate umpire. Major League Baseball defines the strike zone as “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 knee cap.” The home plate umpire bears sole responsibility for determining and enforcing this magical imaginary set of boundaries, and is accountable to no review of his determination. Even more ludicrous is that this set of boundaries, upon which the entire game hinges, is different for every single player. A taller player will have a larger strike zone than a shorter player, which was famously exploited by the Cleveland Browns when they sent a 3’7” Eddie Gaedel to the plate on August 19, 1951. Gaedel, whose strike zone was less than a foot tall, walked on four pitches. In a more respectable and more objective game like basketball or football, this would be equivalent to lowering the basket for shorter players, or adjusting the length of the field depending on each player’s 40-yard split time. In addition to variations based on differences in physical size, the batter himself can alter the strike zone by changing his stance at the plate, since the official rules state that “The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter's stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.” Thus, a player who stands at full height at the plate, like Craig Counsell will have a larger strike zone than a player like Ricky Henderson, who crouched at the plate.

Left, Craig Counsell; right, Ricky Henderson.

Baseball’s current reliance on human judgment is a relic of its antiquated, rustic origins. While precision electronics may not have been available in 19th century Cooperstown, we have them now, and it’s time to fix baseball. Basic touch sensors can be used to determine whether a runner or a fielder has made contact with a base, and motion-sensitive devices in both the ball and the mitt can exactly determine when a fielder has possession. Playing fields should be standardized, with the distance and height of the outfield fences dictated in the rulebook. Fenway’s green monster need not be torn down, but it would need to have a line set above which any ball which strikes the wall would be ruled a home run. Alternatively, left field walls identical to the green monster could be built in every stadium. Objectivity demands not that the field be symmetrical, only that like a basketball court, a football field, or baseball’s own infield diamond, its dimensions be identical in every park.

The crowning glory of this plan, however, will be the strike zone. Dictated by the rulebook as a precise and specific polygon suspended above home plate, identical for every player, we can embed laser proximity sensors around and in the plate itself. We will not rely upon the umpire to judge that a pitch hit the inside corner. We will know. There will be no arguments over a called third strike. There will be no inconsistency. There will be no variation based on player size, stance, or umpire’s whim. Every pitcher and every batter will have the same target. With the right eyewear, we can even make it visible, if we wish. Imagine every player and spectator wearing glasses in which the lenses are polarized screens, making the laser-determined strike zone clear to all, and perhaps even programmed to illuminate the ball if and when it passes through this no-longer-subjective space. The umpires can even remain on the field if we wish, nearly invisible headsets informing them of what has just happened, allowing them to give voice to an objective, correct result. There would be no more perfect performances marred by subjective error. There would be only perfection.

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