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Improving Home Plate Umpires

Umpires Kieth Allison/ via Flickr.com

 MLB

Home plate umpires, and the strike zone, have been one of the most argued over, and discussed, facets of baseball, since it began.  Most of these arguments and discussions are based on the umpires ability, or inability, to call balls and strikes.  The problem is, people are not perfect, so neither are umpires.  However, Major League Baseball has been seriously looking into ways to improve umpires.  Some people think the only way to make it better, is by going to all electronic, ‘robot umps,’ but that is far from reality.  Technology could be the solution, just in a more practical application.

Accuracy of Umpires

Umpires generally do a good job, in the field, on plays at the plate, and on fair or foul calls.  In fact, a 2011 study showed that umpires get 99.5% of these calls right.  Instant replay has also helped to improve these areas of the game.

Unfortunately, though, umpires are just not very good behind the plate.  In the most recent study found available, from 2013, 13.2% of pitches inside the strike zone, were called balls.  That means only 86.8% of pitches in the zone, were called correctly.  The percentages were similar for pitches outside the zone.  Compare that to the 99.5% accuracy on all other plays, and it is easy to see an area that needs improving.

Out of all the MLB umpires, who saw more than 10,000 pitches, during some span between 2008 and 2013, 38 had a missed call percentage of 15% or higher.  That may not seem so bad, until you take into account that there are only has 70 umpires on the MLB’s permanent staff.  So, from 2008-2013, over half the umpires in baseball had a missed call percentage, of 15% or higher, when calling balls and strikes.  Now, it should be easy to see why the MLB is looking at ways to make this better.

How to Improve

As mentioned early, robot umpires are not in the near future.  They are likely not even in the distant future.  But, the answer does lie within the realm of technology.  It is as simple as an earpiece, and an extra official.

Everyone is familiar with ESPN’s “K-Zone,” and Fox’s “Fox Trax.”  And if you are not, they are a simple concept.  ESPN displays a box, next to the batter, over the plate, during games, that represents the strike zone.  Fox’s version is similar, only shown off to the side, rather than over the plate.  Each uses dots to show where pitches were thrown, making it easy to see balls and strikes.

The problem with “K-Zone” and “Fox Trax,” like the umpires, is their accuracy.  The exact numbers are not available, but Major League Baseball has discussed the issues with these virtual strike zones.  Are they more accurate than the umpires?  Probably, but not often enough to make the MLB comfortable with using them for actual calls.

Major League Baseball does, though, possess their own technology.  It is currently being used to help umpires improve themselves, and give them feedback after games.  This electronic strike zone application, is known as Zone Evaluation, or ZE, for short.  ZE was said to have operated successfully in 99.8% of 2,430 games played, in 2010.  Again, these are the most recent numbers available, and we can only assume this percentage has improved since.

The Idea

The idea for improving accuracy is simple.  Given the accuracy of the technology that the MLB has, it could easily be used for in game use.  In theory, an extra official is situated somewhere within the ballpark, with a monitor, and a one way radio.  On the monitor is a real time strike zone, provided by Zone Evaluator.  The radio is used for communication with the home plate umpire, via an earpiece.  As soon as the pitch is completed, the official tells the umpire, ball or strike.  The umpire, traditionally, makes the call aloud, and gives the proper signal.

Implementation

Like other new rules, this one could be introduced at the Minor League level.  This allows for the working out of any flaws, without jeopardizing the most important games.  Once it is successfully implemented in the MiLB for a season, bring it to the Big Leagues, and end the misery that is umpires calling balls and strikes.

This not only eliminates human error, but also keeps managers and players from barking.  A zero tolerance rule could be put in place, much like what is there, for replay.  There would still be the very rare missed call, but not some 13-15 percent.  If something with the technology fails, the umpire is still there to make calls.  He is also still responsible for everything outside of the strike zone.

 

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