Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Fine Art of Calling Strikes

Watching major league baseball games on television is a sedentary activity. You won't get into shape by sitting on your butt. But following professional baseball is a mental activity which has spawned a whole technology of statistical data. There are people who apply higher level algebra to the diagnosis of statistical performance. They measure nearly everything that happens on the field, and cross-refer it by player, situation, across time, frequency, and everything else. Frankly, I'm not one of these types.

I watch my team (the San Francisco Giants), and cheer or moan in proportion to their relative success on the field or in the standings. It's a pastime well-documented in the literature. There are books by serious guys explaining the philosophical and psychological reasons we become obsessed by adult men playing games in public.

Of all the games designed by man for his own diversion, none is so carefully gauged to test the limits of skill, speed, attention and strength as baseball. The dimensions of the field, the distances and relationships, seem so accurate a measure of the tolerances between opposing contenders that the contest is literally a "game of inches"--or, indeed, of millimeters.

However, something I've become more and more aware of, over the course of the last five years or so, has been the touchy matter of the official strike zone. Most people who watch baseball, either in person, or on the media, pretty much accept the definition of the strike zone as an act of god. In the old days, when we listened mostly to baseball on the radio, you couldn't see the balls being pitched, and so if you heard a man being called out on strikes, you tended to think the batter had been outsmarted or had capitulated to the pressure of the occasion. Players might be thrown out of a game for arguing strikes, either pitchers or batters, and umpires were known to "punish" certain players for not being properly "respectful" to an umpire's calls. Umpires didn't like being "shown up" by a player, demonstratively objecting to an umpire's "judgment."

Television has become relatively sophisticated in its presentation of the action on the field. In some parks, cameras are mounted on the roof of the stadium, which can look directly down on the field of play. Cameras mounted directly behind home plate, or aimed in from behind center field, can provide an accurate view of the ball as it crosses the plate. What has become perfectly obvious to even casual viewers these days, is that home plate umpires don't call balls and strikes consistently. That is, the so-called "strike zone" is constantly changing. Each umpire's "strike zone" is unique, and may even change from inning to inning, or batter to batter, or pitcher to pitcher, depending upon the case. Some pitchers are apparently "granted" more leeway than others, while others see their strike zone "squeezed" by the umpire, as "payback" for previous offenses, or simply because the umpire appears to have some prejudicial regard for the teams involved. A batter may be "punished" for some previous sin, or an umpire may be trying to "balance" a previous bad call by reversing the tables in favor of the injured party.

All these kinds of excuses do nothing to rectify what has become--or, perhaps, may always have been--a very inexact science. There is always the "human element" in any judgment situation, apologists will insist. Umpires are human, they make mistakes, they have emotions, they have their moods, their biological ups and downs, and managing a game by defining the limits of the tolerable is partly an intuitive matter.

But we all know in our hearts that the criteria for acceptable risk and measure is truth, not some preferable or compromised standard. Balls should be balls, and strikes should be strikes, and it should be the same no matter who is doing the calling, or who is at the plate, or who is pitching, or which teams are playing, or what inning it is, or how well the umpire likes player X, or the weather, or the standings, or the price of beans. If we are willing to allow any other "extenuating" circumstances to justify departures from the rule, we've admitted to failure even before we've started play. Individual umpires can't be allowed to have "personal" strike zones, and the calling of pitches can't be allowed to descend into contentious interpersonal gamesmanship. The efficiency and accuracy of an umpire's calls should be based on the accuracy of the calls alone, and nothing else.

Baseball's official rule book states as below, the dimensions of the strike zone.

Over the last half century, the evolution of the game had caused umpires to lower and widen the strike zone, a trend which was officially changed in an official directive by Major League Baseball in 2001, insisting that henceforth, the old rule should be reinstated, to prevent false calls. So far as I can tell, this has had no appreciable effect on the strike zone interpretation in the last decade. Umpires still routinely call balls above the belt balls, and umpires routinely call strikes below the knees, and an inch or two outside the outer edge of the plate (away from the batter). Why do these anomalies persist? Why is the strike zone allowed to be "enterprised" by "creative" interpretations?

Based on my purely unprofessional observations of the behavior of umpires calling balls and strikes, I think umpires have become the unofficial arbiters of games, which should be decided by the performance of the players, and the strategical moves of their managers and coaches, instead of upon the vagaries of the umpires' calls. Umpires' calls need to be more closely monitored, and consistency needs to be improved. How could this be done?

Do we have the technology to actually measure actual strikes by some holographic electronic rectangular frame projection? If not now, then someday? Would taking the "human element" out of the calling of balls and strikes somehow make the game less "human"? Or, should we rate umpires by the percentage of calls that can actually be shown to be technically wrong? Does Major League Baseball already do this--behind closed doors? Be careful of what you wish for!

Above is Ted Williams's location chart of the averages he believed applied to pitches in each part of the quadrant of the strike zone. Click on it to see the averages. But Williams's theory doesn't include the umpire's capriciousness. If an umpire is calling strikes two inches off the plate, having an "accurate" strike zone isn't going to help the batter much. Or conversely, if the umpire isn't calling "high" strikes properly, the pitcher is going to be at a definite disadvantage. Either way, the game's fairness gets compromised. Great players will overcome adversities of various kinds, and quality will prevail. But it would be nice if we could see better performance by the umpires. Since they have so much power over the outcomes of games, their accuracy and consistency should be at least as closely watched and administered as any other part of the process.


J said...

Forget Beethoven or Brecht...it's Babe Ruth! While I respect pro baseball players, the skills required are merely hand-eye coordination, not...understanding, or creative thinking of any sort.

Moreover, public funds are used for those baseball stadiums--an outrage! I wager you spend a few nickels a year for the Giants techno-park--misspent.

Mafiosi are in Hades, CF. Even ones who hit a lot of home runs.

Kirby Olson said...

you can do sit-ups, push-ups, and do weight-lifting or even jog in place while watching the games. I recommend that you do this. It's probably more exercise than the players are getting, and you don't have to chew tobacco.

J said...

Actually when you focus on specific topics (as with this essay), your writing can be quite moving Sir F--a bit EB White-ish. When you resort to the grand generalizations about policy, politics, culture, etc..it's not-- but tends to be merely... Kirby-Speak--pathos, AM radio pundit-belches, hysteria. We all need to avoid Kirby-Speak, even with piss christs hanging in public school classrooms (mommy! we saw the piss christ today at school......

Curtis Faville said...

In a democracy where free speech is permitted, everyone gets to have his or her say.

It's a chaotic state, but preferable to censorship.

I think of myself as a moderately well-informed and educated man, who's dabbled in a number of disciplines--some more than others. I'm not a political scientist, but I'm entitled to my own opinions. This isn't false humility.

I would say that you often impute motives and intentions that are not IN my words. I am, for instance, relatively liberal in my politics, though there are certain issues which push me to the other side of the spectrum. People don't ask, for instance, whether E.B. White was a liberal or a conservative--he was obviously an admixture of both. But his positions on things tended to make such distinctions beside the point. That's probably how I would like my own positions to be defined.

J said...

I wasn't referring to any specific content but to a type of writing and speaking--what was the motto? "no ideas but in things". That may not hold all the time, but does most of the time.

Im not opposed to..policy language, and argumentation. In fact I favor solid argumentation, polemics as it was formerly known as. But the writing of the best polemicists--the NYT sorts--grows old, rather quickly. The polemicist generally approaches serious issues involving law, ethics, psychology political philosophy, and most don't know Hobbes from the Hometown buffet (not including you in that class, of course).

So, in that sense New Journalism writing was successful, tho pre-Fox days and now mostly forgotten --writers such as Didion, Wolfe, or even HS Thompson-- wrote about specific things, with little rhetorical BS, and with without the endless academic wheezing. Straight no chaser.

I contend the AM radio hack attacks (and the liberal blog backlash as well) has nearly destroyed language, at least in the US...both written and spoken. Limbaugh and Fox have reduced millions of people to stammering yokels, belching about what they take to be politics down at the hardware store. Try to follow some of the teaparty blogs and the vile crypto-klan rallies that go down online with the comments. It's seems quite to the right of Sean Hannity, 24-7.

Curtis Faville said...

This is a baseball essay.

No cross-site blogging, please, J.

Kirby Olson said...

I thought your remarks on umpires could be applied in general to the problems of judicial activism, and vice versa.