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Why Robot Umps Aren't the Best Solution to MLB's Umpiring Problem...Yet

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistOctober 20, 2021

Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora argues a call with home plate umpire Laz Diaz during the third inning in Game 4 of baseball's American League Championship Series Houston Astros Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2021, in Boston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Death, taxes and fans complaining about calls that don't go their way.

As long as sports have existed, there has been an element of error that comes with living, breathing human beings officiating those sports.

However, this MLB postseason feels different.

At a time when the on-field product should be a showcase of the best and brightest the sport has to offer, the focus of the 2021 playoffs has instead drifted to missed calls and the impact that human error could have on who is crowned World Series champion.

The checked-swing strike call on Wilmer Flores to end Game 5 of the heavyweight NLDS clash between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants was arguably the first-round's defining moment.

Flores was 0-for-17 with eight strikeouts in his career against Max Scherzer. If that pitch were called a ball, there's a good chance the next one would have sent him packing anyway. Nevertheless, it was a tough way to end a series, and it provided an enduring visual representation of poor umpiring.

He didn't swing.
He didn't swing.Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

With that moment still fresh in the minds of baseball fans everywhere, home plate umpire Laz Diaz picked a less-than-ideal time to have an awful day at the office Tuesday night.

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His blown strike-three call on a 1-2 curveball from Boston Red Sox right-hander Nathan Eovaldi to Jason Castro with two outs in the top of the ninth inning opened the floodgates for the Houston Astros in Game 4 of the ALCS.

FOX Sports: MLB @MLBONFOX

Before the go-ahead base hit, this was the 1-2 pitch to Castro. https://t.co/3PVLW8FFnt

Castro delivered a go-ahead RBI single later in that at-bat, and the Red Sox unraveled in what devolved into a seven-run inning en route to a 9-2 Astros victory.

While it was certainly the most memorable, that was far from the only ball-strike call that Diaz missed.

Jeff Passan @JeffPassan

Home-plate umpire Laz Diaz has missed 21 ball-strike calls tonight, according to @ESPNStatsInfo. That is the most of any umpire this postseason. The green dot in the upper RH corner is the Eovaldi curveball that would've ended top of the ninth with the score 2-2. It is now 9-2. https://t.co/VzdyL4lth3

That wasn't the only impactful missed strike-three call Tuesday either.

Atlanta Braves outfielder Joc Pederson should have been rung up on this pitch from Los Angeles Dodgers starter Walker Buehler in the fourth inning of Game 3 of the NLCS:

Jomboy Media @JomboyMedia

The Dodgers would have liked to get this strike three call on Joc Pederson He ended up driving in Atlanta's first run and the next two batters gave the Braves a lead https://t.co/BTaTaQ8fhN

Instead, it was called a ball, and Pederson ended up driving in Atlanta's first run of the game later in the at-bat. The Braves scored four runs in the inning, chasing Buehler from the contest. The Dodgers came back to win, but it was a game-changing call nonetheless.

It's a bad look for baseball on a national stage, but are the umpires really that big of a problem, or are they just an easy scapegoat?

Case in point: Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.

      

The Most Memorable Blown Call in MLB Playoff History

It was a play that almost certainly would have been overturned in today's game thanks to replay challenge. The expansion of instant replay is a good example of how the human element of the game can be improved without being removed entirely. More on that in a bit.

With the St. Louis Cardinals leading the series 3-2 and up 1-0 entering the ninth inning of Game 6, rookie closer Todd Worrell came on to try to slam the door and deliver a title for the Redbirds.

Pinch hitter Jorge Orta led off the ninth inning for the Kansas City Royals, and with an 0-2 count, he hit a slow dribbler to the right side of the infield. First baseman Jack Clark charged in to field the ball and flipped to Worrell, who was covering first, seemingly beating Orta to the bag by a step.

However, umpire Don Denkinger called him safe.

Without today's technology available, the play stood as an infield single. Another single, a passed ball, an intentional walk, and a two-run single from Dane Iorg later, and the Royals had walked it off to force a Game 7.

The call defined Denkinger's career, but should he have been the story?

Dan Greene of Sport Illustrated wrote:

"In the three decades since what has become known as The Call, what has often gotten lost is how much transpired between Denkinger's safe signal and his scapegoating—how the outcome of the game and Series did not instantly swing in that moment, how thoroughly the Cardinals unspooled thereafter, how few favors they did themselves at the plate throughout the Series."

No one talks about the fact that there was a rookie on the mound who lost his composure, or that the Cardinals were steamrolled 11-0 in Game 7. The play made things harder on St. Louis, but it didn't lose the Cards the series.

            

The Future of Umpiring?

We've reached a point where whether umpires are deserving of blame is a moot point. It's become a discussion of whether a living, breathing human really is the best choice to fill the role of umpire.

The idea of robot umpires would have been laughable in 1985. How was Rosie from The Jetsons going to solve the problem of missed calls?

Now it's more than just a futuristic concept.

After trial runs in the independent Atlantic League and the Arizona Fall League, automated strike zones officially came to affiliated ball in 2021, with the TrackMan system implemented at a handful of parks in the Low-A Southeast League.

However, there exists a middle ground where umpires are held accountable for their performance but the game is still in their hands, and that's worth exploring before making the transition to robot umpires.

The latter is a move that once it's made, there is no going back, so any viable alternatives should be explored before taking that leap.

           

A Potential Solution

The way umpires are judged and graded by the league is not public knowledge, and that seems silly in a sport that is driven by statistics and data.

There is a Twitter account, @UmpScorecards, that does an excellent job of providing hard data to fans on how an umpire performed. Here's a look at their scorecard for Diaz on Tuesday night:

Umpire Scorecards @UmpScorecards

Umpire: Laz Diaz Final: Red Sox 2, Astros 9 #DirtyWater // #ForTheH #BOSvsHOU // #HOUvsBOS https://t.co/PZ6Ei08Q84

If MLB were to lean into the idea of making umpire "statistics" available to the public, it would help fans better understand the idea of a good umpire having a bad day. Most don't knock a superstar player going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts, because you can point to his cumulative stats and see that he's great at what he does. It's hard to do the same with umpires.

The postseason crews could also then be 100 percent merit-based, using hard statistics that fans have at their fingertips. It could even make for some fun leaderboard tracking down the stretch if two umpires are battling to get above the postseason cut line.

On the other end of the scale, it would also be an easy way to weed out underperforming umpires. It could be as simple as setting a statistical threshold that must be met in order to stay on a big league crew.

Will Middlebrooks @middlebrooks

I don’t want Robo Umps… I just want umpires to be held accountable. If a player doesn’t play well, he gets sent down to the minors to work on his craft. These umpires, especially the ones with tons of time in the game, have to answer to no one.

Players are sent to the minors to work on their game. Why can't the same be true of umpires?

It's an outside-the-box idea with less instant gratification, but public-facing umpire statistics and a relegation system could be a simpler way to quantify performance than diving head-first into the futuristic world of robo umps.

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