Mike Trout is one of the bright young stars in baseball. As a fellow South Jersey native, I'm not only happy for the kid's early success, I find myself rooting for him to succeed. It came with great joy and civic pride, then, when I saw Trout hit for the cycle in the Los Angeles Angels' 12-0 rout of the Seattle Mariners on Tuesday.
I immediately clicked the video on MLB.com to see the highlights and share in the excitement.
Well now, Trout sure looked out on that infield single, didn't he?
Trout's first hit of the four-hit night was a bang-bang play at first base in the third inning. While he may have looked safe at live speed, the replay sure as heck looked like Aaron Harang got his foot on the bag before Trout.
Was Trout out? More importantly, should we care if Trout was out?
Yes and yes, if you ask me. (Note: My editor and I have both watched the video many times, and he thinks Trout is safe while I see him out every time. Good thing for me, I'm writing this story, not him.)
Trout looks to be out, but with the play coming in the third inning of a game that was already 3-0—and ended up a one-sided laugher—the call had little impact on the outcome. In fact, the play had almost no impact at all, as Trout was stranded on base after Harang struck out Albert Pujols and forced a pop out from Mark Trumbo to retire the side. No harm, no problem, right?
Well…in a way, sure. The call didn't impact the outcome of the game, but it did change everything that happened after it. Pujols would have been at the plate with two outs and nobody on instead of one out and a man on first (Trout eventually stole second base).
Trumbo would have led off the fourth inning, which might have changed the horrible outcome of that stanza for Harang, who started the fourth by giving up a triple, a home run and a double to the first three batters. Not to get all Chaos Theory on Harang's outing, but the guy couldn't get out of the fourth and left the game giving up seven runs on nine hits in 3.2 innings. Things could only have been better for Harang had Trout been called out in the third.
This story, however, isn't about Harang. In a way, it's not really about Trout, either.
This is about getting the calls right.
Even if you think Trout was safe, the play was really close—so close that if he needed a single at the end of the game for the cycle (and not the home run he hit to complete the cycle), the story of the game would be as much about the call at first as the cycle itself.
It's much easier to forget about a questionable call when it doesn't have much impact at the time, but had the play come in a more significant moment, we would surely be scrutinizing the call with as much zoom and frame-by-frame video technology as we can find.
Why? Because bang-bang plays at first do matter. When a close play at first happens, all roads lead back to Armando Galarraga, don't they? What if Trout wasn't running to first base in the third inning of a blowout win where the kid eventually hit for the cycle?
What if Trout was trying to beat out a throw to first in the ninth inning of a perfect game?
Would Trout have been out then?
What if Trout was trying to beat out a throw at first that plated the game-winning run against a division opponent that, come September, could be the difference between making the playoffs or not? Would Trout have been out then?
The goal of the umpires—sorry, the strictly defined role of the umpires who are employed by MLB—is to get the call right. Out or safe. That's it. That's their job.
It has been proven time and time again that it's impossible for a human being to get every call right when the game is as fast as a professional baseball game can be.
Replay is faster and better than ever, and it has been used time and again to show how often umpires miss calls at first base.
Of course, instant replay challenges are the easiest way to correct umpire mistakes—or validate the calls they get right—but truth be told, this particular play at first probably wouldn't have called for replay, especially given the circumstances of the game.
The only real answer is robot umpires.
I say that somewhat in jest—as someone working on a fictional book about robot umpires taking over baseball, my brain immediately goes to that joke every time—but the fact remains that some sort of artificial intelligence to aid the human umpires is the only way MLB is going to ensure all the bang-bang plays are correct.
What if the batters and infielders had sensors on their shoes they could easily snap in place before going out to their position, and whichever sensor touches the bag first lights up a signal to the umpire like a game of laser tag?
What if MLB allows calls to be left in the hands of the umpires until a manager chooses to challenge a bad call, and that call then gets handled by the league office like the NHL does its replays, completely taking the decision out of the hands of egomaniacs (like Angel Hernandez) who refuse, despite clear visual evidence, their call was wrong? The challenge system isn't perfect—just ask the NFL—but it's better than what baseball does now.
What if the first-base umpire was replaced by a robot? What if all the umpires other than home plate—where there is still some nuance to calling balls and strikes—were replaced by a tennis-like Hawkeye system where we could all see on the big screen whether a guy was safe or out?
None of this, of course, will happen anytime soon. For now, we have to rely on the human umpires getting most of the calls right and hoping that when they get the call wrong, it doesn't impact the outcome of that contest, or the history of the game.
Trout is in the record books as the youngest American League player in history to hit for the cycle. He was called safe at first, so he was safe at first. The hit was a single, even if maybe, just maybe, it wasn't. I suppose we all just have to be OK with that for a little while longer.