Disaster strikes

I got home from work last night in time to catch the last couple of innings of the late game in the baseball playoffs. It was the Dodgers against the Giants, the two best teams on the planet, going head to head in the decisive final game of their series. Under baseball's lame post-season rules, whoever lost this game was going home, while three lesser teams would advance.

But be that as it may, the situation was exciting. The score was knotted at 1 run apiece, with the managers successfully executing their inane pitching "chess match" routine. In the top of the ninth, the Dodgers scratched out a second run, and so the Giants had to bring at least one run home in the bottom of the ninth. They got a man on first, but soon there were two outs, and then two strikes on the hitter. The Giants were down to their last strike. The crowd in the San Francisco stadium was going nuts. Everyone at home was glued to their screen.

And then... and then...

Nuh-uh. The first base umpire called the batter out for swinging, a third strike. But clearly, the batter had checked his swing, and the pitch should have been called a ball.

And so the most important game of the year ended on a blatantly bad call.

First things first: Let's hope it was an honest mistake. We'll have to assume that it was. 

So why couldn't a call of such major significance be checked by a video replay, and corrected? It wasn't 10 seconds after the game ended that the whole world saw that the man had not swung. Why couldn't the umpires do the same?

Under baseball rules, calls like checked swings are not reviewable. If such calls could be reviewed, it would slow the game down even more than its already sluggish pace.

But shouldn't an exception be made for the last few innings of the game, or the last out of the game, or the entire elimination game of a playoff series? A playoff series should not end on a clearly incorrect call, adverse to the losing team.

Part of the problem is how reviews are handled under the current system. If a review is called for, it's a big folderol. The umpires walk off the field, make a phone call to New York or somewhere, and everyone waits for what seems like forever while someone 3,000 miles away looks over the video.

In 2021, all that isn't necessary. There could be a replay official on the premises at every game, connected to the umpires on the field by smart watches. Replay reviews could take a minute, two at the most. Last night's much-needed review would have taken 20 seconds or less. The official upstairs could have pressed a button, and a ball, rather than a strike, could have gone up on the scoreboard.

Would that require a fifth umpire, at great added expense? No. Because the other thing baseball needs to do is to stop having balls and strikes called, with amazing inconsistency, by humans on the field. Technology can now tell you whether a ball was in the strike zone with far greater accuracy than some old guy in a mask crouched down behind a young guy in a mask. The big tennis tournaments now rely entirely on that technology to call shots in or out. Baseball needs to do the same.

With the home plate umpire thus relegated to calling foul tips and plays at the plate, you could move one umpire upstairs to watch the videos, and leave three (or five in an important game) to share the various duties on the field. 

Last night should have been a great moment for baseball. Sadly, it wasn't.


  1. Based on where the bat is in this photo, the bat was well within the strike zone while the ball crossed the plate. If he had let the ball pass while bunting in that position it would be a strike. Based on reading the rules literally, it is arguably a strike. In practice, it's rarely called like that though.

    1. Hilarious. Don't you think it's just a tad low?

    2. With apologies to Professor Lansing:

      I've always understood a strike to be any pitch where the ball enters the strike zone. The barrel of that bat was in the strike zone while the pitch was crossing.

      What is a swing? It's not defined by breaking of the wrists or crossing the plate. It's literally "an attempt at a pitch." Are umpires really supposed to infer a batter's intent or just determine whether the action taken could have produced a hit on any particular pitch?

      If the bat is swung into the strike zone, its capable of producing a hit on a thrown strike. Isn't that enough?

    3. It's a judgment call by the umpire based on whether the batter attempted to hit the ball or not. Yes, the umpires are taking intent into account. What Flores did there is called a swing in MLB almost never, which is why there is a broad consensus across baseball, including the umpire that made the call, that it should not have been called a swing. You're making up a standard that doesn't exist in the game.

    4. The "game" standard is unwritten. The written rules are ambiguous.

    5. What is it that you don't understand about "judgment call?"

    6. If it's a judgement call then there is really nothing to review. You only overturn a call based on irrefutable evidence the original call was wrong. Since the rule itself is ambiguous, these calls are effectively unreviewable.

    7. Not only are they effectively unreviewable, that's also the rule. Everyone has to live with the call, which used to be the case for every call. I'm glad that some of the objective calls can be reviewed, but it's a game played and umpired by human beings, so absolute clarity and perfection are just abstract concepts. I always have found it funny that the strike zone boxes the networks superimpose on the screen stay at the same height for Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge. An electronic zone is probably doable for MLB, but at some point too many layers of technology diminish, rather than enhance, the game for me.

    8. They've eliminated human line judges in big-time tennis. It'e been great.

    9. A robot calling balls and strikes would be a good thing. I hate when they change safe to out when the runner momentarily loses contact with the bag in a way that can only be seen by looking at slow-motion replays.


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