Wednesday, June 18, 2008

What Major League Baseball Can Learn From The Orem Wiffle Ball League

Baseball may be more susceptible to the problem of game fixing than basketball (see previous post). One umpire behind home plate can alter the complexion of a game and even change its outcome entirely. This is because the strike zone is the very heart of baseball. Instead of strike three, suppose an umpire erroneously calls ball three. The next pitch is hit over the fence for a two run home run and the offense wins the game.

Umpires are surprisingly accurate. But if you watch MLB.com's "Gameday" pitch-by-pitch sequences, you will find that they do miss some calls. Sometimes very important ones (most agree they miss around 5% of the time). Over the course of 250 pitches in a game and a 162 game season (= over 2,000 blown calls per team), the umpires' strike calling can have a profound impact on teams' records.

A few years ago I organized a Wiffle Ball league here in Orem, Utah. And while we occasionally argued about whether a ball was fair or foul, about whether the ball bounced off the shed or went over it on the fly, about whether a ball hitting my wife in our garden should be considered dead or not, we never argued about balls and strikes. Why not? I cut a rectangular hole in a piece of wood and put it behind the plate. If a ball flew into it, it was a strike. If it didn't, it was a ball. Never a doubt.

MLB has the technology to do the same thing. QuesTec is currently only used to evaluate umpires' performances in certain ballparks, but could easily be expanded and implemented as a matter of course. Why not redesign the scoreboard so that results (balls or strikes) are immediately displayed on a screen behind the plate and in the outfield? Is the umpire's union really that strong? Do we really want them determining who wins and loses?

I know, I know... some will argue that this would take the human element out of baseball or that it would change the very fabric of the game (as if any change to the old-ball-game will somehow dishonor our ancestors). To the first point, I would rather the human interest come from the players than from the umpires; and managers will still have plenty of things to gripe about and reasons to throw bases without having to argue balls and strikes. As for the QuesTec system fundamentally altering the game, the game has already been fundamentally altered a number of times. The introduction of new balls each inning led to an increase in home runs and to Babe Ruth (and the end of the so-called "dead ball era"). The introduction of relief pitchers made the games last four hours (and may have lowered ERAs, though I doubt it). The mound has been raised and lowered to increase or decrease offense on several occasions. Better gloves, better bats, better weight training, (better steroids), etc. have also fundamentally altered the game. It is time to introduce a little more new technology, make the game more objective, and put the outcome more in the hands of the players.

6 comments:

Colin said...

This really isn't that much different than using instant replay in professional football -- if the technology is available and can make the game more "fair" for the players, it should definitely be used.

valut13 said...

But QuesTec isn't without problems (and I'm not thinking of Schilling's bat to the camera approach): operators who "calibrate" each park's system before games aren't perfectly objective, UIS misses sliders and curves, and shadows between the mound and home plate can cause problems.

scott said...

suWait--doesn't the strike zone change depending on the size of the batter? Surely it's not the same for a 5'2" batter and a 6'8"one. The frame used for the wiffle ball provided only an illusion of objectivity. Perhaps with the hi-tech version, this could be changed to fit batters. But then there may be disputes about "how" it's changed....

Corry Cropper said...

It's true QuesTec has flaws and needs to be adjusted by a technician for each batter. Right now the stakes are so low, though, that there isn't a lot of motivation to improve the system. I suspect MLB could improve the technology and eliminate many of the flaws. Another option would be for the umpire to have the QuesTec result and make the call, overruling QuesTec if there's an obvious problem. The point is, though, that MLB should do more to get the calls right... maybe even not rotate umps as much: put the guys who only mess up 2% of the time behind home plate every other night instead of every fourth or fifth night like they do it now.

Derek said...

I think that a huge reason for sports is to entertain the fans. People's opinions factor into how they want to view the game. Look at the last US Open - Tiger won, but everyone was cheering for Rocco.
Another example of necessary human opinion in sports is boxing. In a decision, the winner is decided by 3 judges. What do you say to that?
I for one am not a big fan of the instant replay. It slows down the game and takes away spectator's pleasure. Honestly, I don't care if the refs blow a call on a fourth quarter touchdown. Once the game is over, whoever got screwed or loses complains, the winners are happy. That's what sports are for. I don't want technology to take it away.

Corry Cropper said...

Derek, I think you're right... in a way. Sport is all about determining difference between two teams that are usually very similar to each other. Only the uniforms allow us to tell them apart. So much is arbitrary about sports anyway; maybe instead of worrying about eliminating randomness, it would be best to tolerate it or even increase/encourage it, thereby adding to the drama...