MLB umpires balance good, bad of technology advances
If you tuned into any Major League Baseball game on television in 2018, you surely saw it.
The strike zone, either digitally highlighted over the plate or just off a corner on the bottom half of your screen, appeared in the majority of broadcasts. Both national and local broadcasts offered some form of the strike zone live on screen.
In the eyes of Jim Reynolds, a 20-year major league umpire who worked both the 2018 All-Star Game and the 2018 World Series, a pretty big flaw exists for fans using that strike zone to judge whether or not the home plate umpire is calling a good game or not.
That on-screen graphic is not the real strike zone.
“It’s there for entertainment, and it’s close enough for entertainment,” Reynolds said. “But for evaluation it’s 50-50.”
The disconnect between the representation and reality is one of the ways technological advances have been a positive and a negative for umpires.
When speaking to GlobalSport Matters at the UMPS CARE 2019 Golf Classic, the annual golf event staged by the umpires’ charity to raise money for their youth programs, Reynolds said one of the biggest misconceptions about umpiring is the advances in technology are only now leading to detailed breakdowns on each call made.
“There hasn’t been a call I’ve made in 20 years in the big leagues that isn’t checked, evaluated, critiqued,” Reynolds said. “Everything that I do is cataloged. Every single call I make on the field — ball, strike, safe, out. There’s nothing that’s not cataloged and determined by somebody other than an umpire whether I got a play right or wrong or a pitch right or wrong.”
But the umpires are human, and humans make mistakes. For Adrian Johnson, who is entering his 10th season as a full-time umpire in the majors, making that mistake leaves a feeling every umpire knows, dreads and tries to never repeat again.
“It’s just a bad place to be, and it’s a lonely place to be,” Johnson said. “It’s the only job where you’re expected to be perfect on the first day and get better every year after that.”
But what happens in the public discourse when those mistakes happen, as Johnson himself experienced during Johan Santana's 2012 no-hitter, has changed over the years. As various social media platforms have grown, the voices critiquing the umpires have become more instantaneous, wide-ranging and degrading.
“I’ve seen the screenshots, and it can get pretty vile out there,” Johnson said. “People forget that we’re human and we have families, too.”
That feedback is why most umpires stay far away from social media. In fact, Reynolds believes the constant coverage and interest in the sport has increased the scrutiny by “tenfold,” even in times you wouldn’t expect.
“The biggest thing that’s changed, for us, is the importance of every pitch,” Reynolds said. “Every single pitch matters to somebody. It feels like the seventh game of the World Series even though it’s April. Or even February, as we’re starting to figure out now. It seems like the season’s getting longer and longer.”
MLB has taken steps to help umpires, starting with the installation of the instant replay system in 2008 and the expansion of it in 2014. In fact, 18-year veteran Paul Emmel believes the instant replay system has lessened the scrutiny umpires get from fans in the stadium.
“I look in the stands during those replays, and a buddy is talking to a buddy, betting on whether it’s going to be overturned or confirmed,” Emmel said. “It’s almost like they’re the umpire for a second, which is a really cool thing that is an unintended consequence of replay.”
While there was a lot of discourse over instant replay before it was expanded, most in the umpiring profession feel positively about it. The statement, “We don’t care if we’re wrong; we just want the call right,” is repeated often.
But one element of the way MLB uses the replay system has been surprisingly positive for Reynolds. After years of never watching baseball when he was off the clock, the week he spends in the replay center has opened his eyes to the quality of officiating.
“When I’m in replay, I am absolutely in awe of how good our guys are,” Reynolds said. “I sit there and go, ‘How did he get that right?’ and, ‘How’d he get that right? And ‘How’d he get that pitch right?’ and, ‘God, our guys are good.’ It’s intimidating to sit in there and watch our guys umpire. They’re just extremely talented.”
The players acknowledge this, too. Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Caleb Joseph remembers how difficult it was to umpire Little League games back when he was “trying to make a little gas money” in his teens. He sees ways in which technology can be really useful for the umpires to use in fine-tuning their craft.
“Sometimes, our eyes can trick us, and sometimes, a glove can trick us,” Joseph told GlobalSport Matters. “And it’s not necessarily seeing how well you did, but now I think there’s a possibility of figuring out and be able to see a pitch in their mind, see it on video, replay it again in their mind, and then record the data, versus, ‘Well, 40,000 people booed when I called this a ball, but my brain really thinks this is a strike.’”
One area Reynolds feels the sport hasn’t tapped into yet is what technology can do for umpiring. Reynolds sees vast potential growth in building some type of training machine — something like a flight simulator — for umpires.
“Police officers go to the shooting range; they don’t live fire at bad guys,” Reynolds said. “That’s not their training. ‘Well, you hit him in the hand; we’ve got to work on it.’ There’s an aspect of that that I think is missing right now that I’d like.
“There’s so much data out there and there’s so much technology. If they could come across something that could help in the training aspect, I think it could go a long way. It’s a lot easier to get better at things when there’s not 50,000 people screaming at you and the game’s on the line.”
Technological advancements could, in fact, make the home plate umpire unnecessary. In February, Baseball America reported an MLB agreement with the Atlantic League will allow officials to test the use of 3D doppler radar system Trackman to call balls and strikes.
While speaking at SportsTechie’s State of the Industry conference, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said, “I think there will be a time when we will experiment with an automated strike zone,” but he added the change will not happen soon.
But Joseph believes it’s going to be tough to remove the human element because having an umpire physically there matters to players.
“It seems like there are less arguments because these umpires know that, in a matter of seconds, we can go back there and look, and they know, in a matter of seconds, they can have their report on their desk as well,” Joseph said. “So, it actually opens up a conversation versus an argument. I’ve heard it and I’ve seen it and I’ve had it where, a day later, umpires will make a comment to a player or myself or whatever about a certain pitch in the game.
“They want to get it right, and anything that allows them to get it right more consistently — not only for the players but for the game and for them, most importantly — I think it’s a nice addition.”
And it seems to have worked, as MLB’s umpires collectively call a more accurate strike zone on average, according to a 2015 report from FiveThirtyEight. Reynolds said internal numbers given to the umpires by MLB show increasing accuracy with each successive year. Joseph assumed the numbers would indicate a high consistency from umpire to umpire.
“The evolution of technology into the evaluation system for umpires has certainly standardized the strike zone more than it did when I was starting 20 years ago, 22 years ago,” Reynolds. “Players would talk about guys’ individual strike zone, ‘Oh, he’s a low-ball umpire, he’s a high-ball umpire, inside, outside.’ That’s certainly not the case anymore.”
Even with the continued improvement in accuracy and standardization of the strike zone, the implementation of the “robo-ump” in the Atlantic League and an analysis of its impact will be watched closely. Manfred acknowledged the technology will get good enough to one day prompt a discussion by the owners about the need for a home plate umpire.
No matter what happens with Major League Baseball, its umpires and its strike zone, Emmel believes a big picture focus will keep everyone’s mind at ease for the time being.
“At the end of the day, games get played, money gets made and everyone’s happy,” Emmel said. “So, let’s not worry about one inch here and there.”
Alex Simon is a graduate assistant in the Sports Knowledge Lab and a master's student at Arizona State University.
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