The imperfect game, Part 4: Do umps really need to be part of the game?

Posted on June 10, 2010


The Imperfect Game debate has revived a long-standing debate about how to treat umpires and their fallibility as “part of the game.” Everything we know about human perception and cognitive psychology informs us that umpires will  blow calls. Most of the blowable calls, including Joyce’s call last week, involve “judgments” that have to be made in a blink.

The processing in the umpire’s brain does not resemble the kind of reasoning and conscious evaluation that we go through when looking at a slow-motion replay. It doesn’t even happen in the same part of the brain. It is largely unconscious. This is why this kind of judgment is subject to cognitive biases, most of which also happen unconsciously in mental processing.

We now know enough about Joyce to know that he wasn’t one of those asshole umps who simply wanted to stand in the way of one man’s history-making. He would have been fully aware of the significance of that potential 27th out. And he also seems like the kind of professional who wanted to make sure he gave Galarraga an “honest” perfect game (unlike numerous umps at home plate — including, apparently, the ump calling balls and strikes that night — who clearly expand their strike zones in the no-hit pitcher’s favor in the late innings). It is quite conceivable that under the pressure of the emotion and of history in those seconds before the fateful call, his automatic mental processing was corrupted. His brain froze.

It is also possible that he suffered from a version of the cognitive bias that causes bad judgments in cases where the expert has a conflict of interest. When the expert is aware that she has an interest in the judgment she is supposed to be making impartially it is possible that she will compensate by “bending over backward” to make a fair judgment, and in so doing make a biased judgment. Joyce may have set his brain up for this. His heart clearly wanted the kid to get his perfect game. He was devastated when he learned that he blew the call and spoiled the kid’s rendezvous with history. But he wanted the kid to know he earned it fair and square, and may have tweaked his brain to bend over a little too far backward. After that, the processing was beyond his control.

Of course, umps are not just part of the game. They are all over the game; starting of course with the defining of “their” strike zone and the calling of balls and strikes. They are also a big part of the aesthetics and the ritual of the game.  Would anyone paint a picture of a slide into home (perhaps the most exciting event in baseball in a close game… in late innings) without the umpire in there, in special garb, making an exaggerated call, not just with his arms but seemingly with his whole body and soul?

But umps are fallible. Slow-motion replays will occasionally reveal them to be in error. And every time a blown call affects an outcome, as it did with the Imperfect Game, there are howls for expanding the use of video replay to make umps less a part of the game. Of course, almost nobody advocates taking away their total authority on balls and strikes, even though that technology now exists.

In deference to baseball’s conservatism, many pundits will call for replay just in the particular type of situation freshest in their memories. We now have it only to verify home runs. Last week some pundits were literally saying we should have it for the third out in the 9th inning when a pitcher has a no-hitter intact.
But it seems that baseball has long recognized that there is a very slippery slope when it comes to tweaking rules. In a game based on a countable number of discrete events, any one of which can be pointed to as the “game-changer” in a particular situation, it will be difficult to justifying limiting the use of “objective” replay over “subjective” and fallible umpires.

Part of their worry is about causing delays in a game that is already taking too long for modern sensibilities and TV schedules. But I suspect the larger part is about preserving the aesthetic and cultural heritage of the ump. In this big-business, media-savvy world of contemporary baseball, we are still watching the struggle of the traditional and ritualistic trying to hold out against the onslaught of the modern and rational.

Or maybe it’s all just about good brand management.