The technology of officiating is moving steadily, though reluctantly, towards increasing efficiency and accuracy of calls in professional sports.
The National Football League now routinely uses challenges to permit the use of instant reply to fine tune calls made under the pressure of the moment. Each head coach has a limited number of challenges. No one seems to question the wisdom of permitting some remedy, especially on plays where literally inches can determine the outcome of a game. No one--and football officials are no less human than the rest of us--can be expected to get every detail right, in the heat of the moment, when 22 player are swirling around them.
Professional baseball offers some difficult problems for replay challenges. The calling of balls and strikes has traditionally been thought beyond challenge, because there are so many close calls in every game, that to try to set limits on which calls to challenge would be very difficult, and would take away from umpires an authority which might unsettle the delicate balance between the players' natural sentiments, and the umpires' ability to manage the game.
Calls regarding tags on the bases seem particularly well-suited to challenge, since a slowed down sequence on replay can reveal subtle details about an action which cannot be seen in real time, especially if the viewer (the umpire) is at the wrong angle to see them. I don't think there is any doubt that a significant proportion--perhaps 30% of all base path calls--are wrong. There is even general acknowledgment in the media that umpires routinely "give" calls to shortstops and second-basemen on "pass-by" plays at second base because they want to discourage injuries to these fielders in cases where standing on the base would put them at risk from runners coming in high and hard to intimidate them.
Traditionally, the strike zone has been subject to a wide latitude of interpretation throughout the history of the game. It was once thought that American League umpires routinely had a "higher strike" zone than National League umpires, who would call lower strikes than their counterparts. This may well have been true. But the greater difficulty involves the vast difference in the application of the defined zone, from umpire to umpire. The strike zone is officially defined horizontally as the width of home plate, and vertically between the player's knees and the middle of the trunk (or chest). In practice, few umpires call strikes above the player's belt, a clear violation of the rules. In addition, based on the television replays now in general use, umpires clearly are inconsistent about other aspects of the zone.
Yesterday, the Giants beat the New York Mets in the bottom half of the ninth inning, with Travis Ishikawa sliding safely under the tag of Mets' catcher Henry Blanco, as reported by camera shots like the one shown above. Even Blanco admitted that Ishikawa was safe. But home plate umpire Cuzzi, who had been having problems throughout the game, missed the call, and the Giants ended up officially losing the game, simply because the umpire got the call wrong. Games decided this way leave a sour taste in everyone's mouth, even the team benefitting from the gaff.
Instant reply is coming to baseball, and not a moment too soon. It also seems plausible to imagine that a sensitized holographic strike zone may someday be instituted, eliminating, in effect, the need for an umpire to call balls and strikes, except for swing judgments and dropped third strikes.