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The Spectator
founded 2004 by ron cruger
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 by Laramie Boyd
Balls and Strikes
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     In a major league baseball game, it has been found that out of the number of pitches thrown, one-half are either fouled off into the bleachers or playing area, or the batter swings and misses. Both of these pitches are called strikes by the home plate umpire, automatically. The umpire makes a call of ball or strike on the other one-half of pitches based on his judgment as to whether the pitch is in the strike zone or not. And out of that one-half, home plate umpires call 15 out of every 100 pitches "strikes" that are really balls, according to Darren Willman at Baseballsavant.com. This has been shown to be true by the rectangular strike zone symbol superimposed on the TV screen over home plate. Anyone watching TV can tell if a pitch is a ball or a strike by whether or not it is inside this zone symbol shown on the TV screen. The umpire doesn't have the privilege of seeing this symbol, however, and there's the rub.
     So what do these numbers matter? Humans are not infallible. But important game results are determined by missed calls by umpires. The old saying that every call in a sports event makes someone happy is never more true than in baseball. A pitch outside the strike zone called a strike by the umpire makes the pitcher happy and the batter not so, just as a pitch inside the strike zone called a ball by the umpire makes the batter happy but not the pitcher. Since the average number of pitches in a major league game by both pitchers is often between 200 and 300 pitches, and since the umpire makes a call on about 1/2 of those, the number of missed calls per game is somewhere between 15 and 23. Calls made by umpires on runners on the base paths are subject to electronic replay, and umpire decisions can be changed, if a slow-motion review of the play shows the call to be incorrect. But balls and strikes calls are not subject to instant replay protests.
     So then, why is nothing done about this seeming contradiction in what should be the aim of all professional sports, assuring as much as possible that the winner of each game is a result of players following rules and performing the physical requirements of the game skillfully? Game results obviously should not, ideally, be decided by runs scored based on bad calls by the umpires. Especially 15% of the time. In professional football, instant replay is used on questionable touchdowns, fumbles, and out of bounds plays. In track meets timers and cameras are used rather than hand-held stop watches and an eye-ball consensus to determine the winners of races and the clock time of the race, as they once were. Cameras are used in tennis to judge close out-of-bound balls. So I wonder why major league baseball doesn't make an effort to change such a crucial element in determining the way balls and strikes are called, especially since the percentage of errors is so high and the effect this has on the outcome of the game is so critical. The technology to call a pitch a ball or a strike exists. Why not use it?
     Common answers to this question revolve around having to do with keeping up with the tradition of the "Grand Old Game". That is, not taking the human element out of the game, not simply using robots to play or judge the flow of the game. Or maybe enough money is being generated as the game is played now and officials and team owners don't want to take a chance on spoiling a good thing. Or the fans are used to players kicking dust on the umpire's shoes, or the heated, sometimes profane exchanges managers have with an umpire. Maybe the powers that be are satisfied with the progress "America's game" has made and is making, without relying too much on computerized changes in a search for perfection. Of course this begs the question, what is more important, doing something just because that's the way it has always been done, no matter if it is correct or not, or doing what is right? Shouldn't the correct call be more important than tradition? Correct being defined as doing as much as possible to see that the winner of the game is decided by game skills, not by repetitive judgment errors by umpires.
     Whatever the case, I don't believe there is any move to curtail much of an umpire's authority, and to bring in more machines. So, that being the case, we might just as well PLAY BALL! And besides, the playing field is level, as umpires make bad calls on every batter with no team immune to preferential treatment. Even though umpires do make calls on whether a batter has swung at a pitch or not, there is not yet any consistent record of a player clearly swinging at a pitch and the umpire hollering out "BALL", and I guess that's one in the umpire's favor. So I suppose we'll just have to move on for the time being, have our hot dog and a cold beer, root, root for our home team and enjoy our national pastime, while the crowd sings "Take me out to the ballgame", on key or not.