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DC Comments: What's up, ump?

The main problem with the human element is that humans tend to care how they are being perceived. Robots don't have this problem. The one, and only, job for an official should be getting the call right and keeping the game fair for everyone.


Over the past few weeks you've probably heard some commotion about umpires. The players featured in the main two incidents are David Price and Bryce Harper. Mike Bates' SB Nation piece succinctly sums up the situation:

"Robot umps could be dangerous, but their human counterparts are already on the rise."

There is a common theme in the defense of both Tom Hallion and John Hirschbeck, and almost every other umpire who has acted in this manner before, that I take a real issue with. What does an umpire really mean when he says a guy is "showing him up"? If you're being shown up isn't there then a presumption that you are somehow a part of the show? This is the ultimate flaw in the overanxious umpire's argument. Being outwardly disrespected is one thing, but being "shown up" by a display of emotion or even a rolling of the eyes shouldn't be enough to shatter the massive ego some of these guys clearly have.

When was the last time you saw and NBA or NFL official (not named Joey Crawford) act as the instigator in a conflict or getting in a player or coaches face? There are a ton of missed calls in the NBA that result in loud and oftentimes even semi-violent gestures toward referees that are met mostly with shoulder shrugging and then the technical foul. There is almost never any yelling. An official's No. 1 goal should always be to keep things from escalating at all costs, but too often MLB umpires are willing to make their antics a part of the show.

Once you start throwing people out of games from 90 feet away, you've crossed a line.

A more and more common debate among baseball enthusiasts revolves around the idea of putting more technology into calling the game and minimizing the "human element." Our own Jay Tymkovich gave some greats thoughts on both sides of this issue earlier this year. An automated strike zone may have its issues, but it certainly wouldn't toss players for hurting its feelings. One of the most common arguments you hear against incorporating more technology into sports is that doing so would result in delays and draw the game out even more. But machines would spend zero time arguing or making a point of proving that they are in charge. Replays are one thing, but an automated strike zone during the David Price incident would have cut down on a hefty delay and no player would need to worry that their own frustration over the results of that play would be met with taunting (i.e. "throw the ball over the bleeping plate!") or be held against them later in the game.

I mentioned in last week's PHI that we need to get over the narratives behind officiating. From that piece:

If one team earned 40 free-throws and the other earned zero, then the box score should read 40 attempted free-throws to zero... Too often, people and journalists feel the need to even out these numbers in order to show even-handed justice. But that's not how it works. A pitch thrown in the zone is a strike whether or not the hitter is a star, the pitcher missed his spot, or if the ump was fooled by its movement. A team getting more calls does not necessarily mean that they are being favored. And if the other team is earning it, I really don't want the "make-up call." If the pitcher has thrown seven straight out of the zone and the next pitch is only an inch outside, it is still a ball. Let's please stop trying to placeboize officiating. I don't want it to look fair, I want it to be fair.

The main problem with the human element is that humans tend to care how they are being perceived. Robots don't have this problem. The one, and only, job for an official should be getting the call right and keeping the game fair for everyone. Certainly there are times that some discipline needs to be in place, but a quick way to cut down on all of that would be to eliminate the thoughts of bias and prejudice from a player's mind. A robot doesn't distinguish between stars and non-stars. A robot doesn't plant the seeds in your mind that maybe this umpire/official/ref just has it out for a particular player or team.

Someone in the comments section asked a few weeks back why it always seems like his teams can't get any calls. There was a long string of mostly correct responses that argued that almost every fan feels that way (though I wonder about Lakers and Yankees fans). But doesn't it still tell us something that almost everyone feels as though calls are going against their team? Just from playing video games I can tell you from a personal perspective that even though it's still frustrating when you thought you had a strike and it gets called a ball, it's way less frustrating when a machine makes the call because it doesn't shake your confidence that the next call will be correct. You don't assign reasons for the missed call; it's easier to accept as a simple mistake.

Automated strike zones and more replays are not perfect, but then again neither are people, as these most recent events show. At least a robot would know it isn't a part of the show.