Does baseball need umpires?

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Or at least so many, especially in the postseason.  That’s the question Jonah Keri asks in today’s Wall Street Journal in the wake of some shaky officiating in the first round of the playoffs:

The idea, of course, is that more umpires means better play-calling.
But this isn’t necessarily true. After Friday’s game, Tim Tschida, the
umpire crew chief on duty that night, told reporters that while there
was no excuse for Mr. Cuzzi’s blown call, there was one contributing
factor. Umpires spend so little time working in the outfield during the
season that it can be a challenge in the postseason. “Getting into a
position is a little bit foreign,” Mr. Tschida said. “It’s a little bit
uncomfortable.”

In an interview with the Newark Star-Ledger, Mr. Cuzzi also said the
positioning was a challenge. “We’re not used to playing that far down
the line,” he said. “The instant the ball is hit, we usually start
running. I think I may have been looking too closely at it.”

Keri goes on to note the accuracy of the Pitch-f/x zone evaluation system, and the use of the Hawk-Eye cameras in tennis for line calls, and asks whether, rather than throwing six umpires out at a playoff game, we couldn’t limit that number and rely more on technology to get balls and strikes and line calls right more often.

The usual battle lines of this debate end up being those who want every call to be right with no excuses whatsoever vs. those who are wary of taking the “human element” out of the game.  I’m sympathetic towards the latter viewpoint, especially when it comes to calling balls and strikes — I get a lot of enjoyment out of the cat and mouse game pitchers, catchers and batters play with the strike zone — but I can’t help but think that we’re on an inevitable course towards technology playing a larger role in the game.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to have a digital camera system make accurate line calls, so what’s the argument against it?  And once you go there, how long can those of us who like to see a little human variance in the strike zone really hold off the advance of progress?

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: