The Corner

Re: Three Reforms (or the Umpire Strikes Back)





I have been a conservative longer than I have been a HS/College baseball umpire, but not by much. Where did the pie-in-the-sky baseball liberalism come from? Will you come out for Cap-and Tax next?


The technology to call balls and strikes by laser will never work. It can help to train and evaluate umpires, but that is it. Why is this reality? Well, I thought you knew better; there are other things going on a plate umpire needs to handle, like check swings, fair/foul, hit batters, interference/obstruction, and all kinds of other things related to calling balls and strikes. Even setting up lasers to make a strike zone is a difficult task, since the definition of a hitter’s strike zone is very hard to show, even if the rule book is followed to a “T”.


The game of Baseball is like life; bad things will happen to good people. How you deal with it is the measure of a player. There is no magic fix, or government program that will solve the age-old dilemma of imperfect human beings (or contraptions made by human beings)  making judgments about actions done by other imperfect human beings.



PS: Go Tribe, since our 2 best pitchers in recent memory are both starting game 1 of the WS tomorrow.


ME: This is one of many e-mails accusing me of baseball liberalism. A couple of points. 1) We obviously still need an umpire behind the plate to make other kinds of calls and to “announce” the ball or the strike. 2) The strike zone would obviously have to be adjusted for each batter. 3) Humans may be imperfect, but we’re pretty good at technical innovations like lasers. 4) Thanks to reader K. S. who noticed the Buckley reference in the title of the original post, and reader J.S. suggests a key fourth reform, which would be banning batters from calling time out.  

UPDATE: Plus, one more thoughtful e-mail after the jump.

Subject: Burkeanism and Baseball Reforms…

Hi Rich-

I like your reform ideas…if “Ponnuru for SCOTUS,” why not “Lowry for Commish”? Sports rules changes are most likely to happen when an effective tactic is nonetheless aesthetically repugnant (baseball finally enforced a standardized mound height in 1969 after the “Year of the Pitcher,” the basketball shot clock eliminated the boring “four corners” offense). And because technology-enhanced officiating potentially infringes on the game’s aesthetics, these supplements should only occur when they can be done in the least intrusive way (tennis replays would never work if they required an NFL-style two minute break). Still, Bill James has noted that the best rule changes are the ones that fans barely notice once implemented and I think the Commissioner Lowry reforms go too far. There is wisdom in incrementalism, including the fact that revolutionary sounding changes are unlikely to be adopted in our most Burkean sport.

1)Mound conference abuse: There are legit reasons for at least some of them (pitch code cracked by opposition, A-Rod tipping pitches to opposition late in blowout, etc.) My tweak: only one mound conference per pitcher per game, whether or not the pitching coach or manager attends. A second visit requires a pitching change. Workable, not radical, fans wouldn’t even notice a change.

2) Laser strike zone: Sounds too radical (would the “frickin lasers” be mounted to sharks?) The tennis model is the way to go here: humans calling the lines, but an automated system signals when borderline pitches are balls. For fans in the stands, there’s an aesthetically important tension in the moment between pitch and ball/strike call that would be eliminated by pure automation. We can get the accuracy you seek without disturbing this mini-drama that occurs hundreds of times per game.

3) Replay challenges: I agree managers should have them, but they are not a cost free change. We could lessen the need for them by just going with four umpire crews during post season. Umps manage 162 games a year under the four man system, which requires particular positioning and footwork, and then use a completely different system for the postseason. It’s as different as playing a new defensive position. If Ozzie Smith would struggle at 2nd base if he only did it once a year, then “Cowboy Joe” West and crew should not be attempting new moves during the most pivotal games of the year.