New way to judge umps on the way

April, 1, 2009
Wave goodbye to QuesTec. As Alan Schwarz reports, there's a new tool in town.

    An improved camera system to monitor umpires' calls of balls and strikes will be used in all 30 major league stadiums starting opening day, ending the contentious QuesTec era but expanding the scope of baseball's oversight program. And it appears to be rankling umpires anew.

    Major League Baseball had been using QuesTec since 2001 to try to standardize the functional size of the strike zone, which often varies from umpire to umpire, despite the rulebook definition. But QuesTec cameras were installed in only about a third of major league stadiums, raising the suspicion among players and fans that umpires called games differently depending on whether QuesTec was watching. Umpires also questioned if the system was sufficiently accurate to gauge their performance.

    The new system, called Zone Evaluation, relies on pitch-tracking data already collected by cameras in all 30 parks and distributed through applications on and iTunes. Zone Evaluation software will rate umpire performance more quickly and accurately than QuesTec, according to Mike Port, baseball's vice president for umpiring.

    "It's an upgrade from where we were," Port said in a telephone interview. "The umpires, they don't want to miss a pitch any more than a batter wants to strike out. Where the Z.E. system will give us a lot of help is more data to help identify any trends: 'The last three plate jobs, you missed seven pitches that were down and in. Here's how one of the supervisors can help you adjust your head angle or your stance to have a better chance of getting those pitches.'"

Anyone care to argue with that?

Someone, maybe. The umpires, maybe …

    Although a strike is unlikely, their silence suggested that the situation could hurt the relationship between Major League Baseball and its umpires, which had been improving.

    The concept of monitoring umpires by camera and computer has been debated since QuesTec made its debut as part of baseball's taking more control over umpires. In 2003, the umpires union filed a grievance concerning baseball's use of QuesTec. It was finally resolved in late 2004, when the union and Major League Baseball completed negotiations on a new labor agreement.


    But, umpires have pointed out, the accuracy of the system suffers once a pitch enters the strike zone -- because the zone hovers above the five-sided plate as more of a three-dimensional prism, not the rectangle that television viewers see. They have maintained that although QuesTec (like Zone Evaluation) collects data in three dimensions, a hitter's position in the batter's box or distractions like bat movement can cloud the information, making it unfit for evaluative decisions about umpires.

The umpires -- as a group, i.e., their union -- will never be pleased with anything resembling an objective evaluation, because it's difficult to game a system based on objective evaluation. Port is right: Umpires don't want to miss pitches. It's not the way it used to be, when a great many umpires would boast about having "my" strike zone. As Joe Morgan loves to say, it's not their strike zone; it's baseball's strike zone. During the past decade or so, that message has gotten through, finally.

What umpires do want is the freedom to miss pitches occasionally without having to worry about anyone's noticing or -- more to the point -- being able to back up the noticing with actual proof. But those days are gone, and they're not coming back. It's simply not realistic to think that everything on the field would be tracked, the information dispersed to every franchise and around the globe … and yet somehow the umpires could continue to be evaluated as if digital video and computers had never been invented.

One of baseball's dirty little secrets is that umpiring is not that hard. Oh, it would be exceptionally difficult for you or me or your mailman. But thousands of men and women do good work in high school, college and minor league games, and I suspect that hundreds of them -- with a bit of training and experience -- could step right into the majors and perform as well, or nearly as well, as most of the current major league arbiters.

I might be wrong. Maybe it's actually dozens rather than hundreds. But don't think MLB doesn't know that umpires are relatively fungible and shouldn't be pampered any more than absolutely necessary. Thanks to the union, it's still exceptionally difficult to fire an underperforming umpire. But if one of them is consistently missing those pitches down and in, then by God he's going to hear about it.


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