Goodbye QuesTec . . .

. . . hello Zone Evaluation:

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.

You won’t be surprised to hear that umpires are not happy about this:

Umpires may not necessarily welcome this much assistance. Port said the umpires union, the World Umpires Association, had approved the change, but a union spokesman, Lamell McMorris, declined to comment on that or any aspects of the Zone Evaluation system.

Asked if umpires had such concern about the new arrangement that they might consider going on strike — as early as opening day, which is Sunday — McMorris again declined comment. Jerry Layne, a veteran umpire, also declined to discuss the subject when reached by telephone.

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.

I don’t think much will come of this. For one thing, studies have shown that even the guys commonly thought of as the least consistent umpires are pretty damn consistent, suggesting that no one’s feathers will be ruffled by the new technology. For another thing, even if the umpires want to take offense, they have no hope of winning a fight against technology in this arena. The players and the fans want accuracy when it comes to the zone. Everything out there suggests that Ques-Tec has been a positive to that end and neutral in terms of aggravation. If the umpire’s union decided to pick a fight about this, you can bet that we’d soon find ourselves with a new set of umpires who, while stationed behind home plate so as not to upset the aesthetics of it all, are mandated to call whatever the little Zone Evaluation-connected voice in their earpieces tells them to call.

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  1. Larry Seltzer said...

    Good let them strike. Then the league can fire them all and replace them with umpires who don’t think they own the game and can make up their own rules.

    And there won’t be a downside to the league. Nobody, and I mean nobody, goes to a major league baseball game to see the umpires.

  2. Richard in Dallas said...

    At least not since Ron Luciano retired…..

    As for technology in officiating – to quote a former Txas Gubernatorial candidate – Why the hell not?  I’m not saying the boys in blue should be replaced by automated ball/strike calls, but they should be JUDGED by them.  Do we not electronically record transactions to judge salespeople?  Do we not test our children to judge educators?  Do we not measure how many people are watching to judge TV shows?  What makes these guys think that they are above being judged?  They should not be judged against perfection, but against each other, but they SHOULD be judged, and rewarded or removed depending on how they perform.

  3. Bob Timmermann said...

    Since umpires are, for the most part, get more feces slung at them than the beta male in the gorilla enclosure, I will nevertheless try to see this from their point.

    MLB umpires are extremely sensitive to ways that their performances are being judged and rated. And they are likely afraid that MLB will use the new system to suddenly decide that a few umpires don’t meet their standards and let them go. Or, more likely, just don’t give them any postseason assignments.

    QuesTec was not a perfect system, but the umpires learned how to call games in order to get rated well by it.

  4. Richard in Dallas said...

    Bob – What I think you’re saying is that the umpires are being educated to pass a test.  My question to that statement is, How does that differ from what we expect from our kids?  In Texas, kids are taught to pass a test to move on to the next grade level.  That way, they all know the same stuff, to varying degrees.  Don’t we want all our games called the same?

  5. Jay Seaver said...

    Well, no…  We want them calling the game right.  The issue with QuesTec was that, IIRC, umpires would shrink the strike zone because calling a strike a ball was considered neutral but calling a ball a strike was considered an error.  Maybe it was the other way around.  The point is, the evaluation was skewing the officiating.

  6. kranky kritter said...

    Frankly, I’d rather have the new simply system replace the umpires for calling balls and strikes.

    And I have yet to encounter a single argument against this which does not boil down to special pleading in favor of human error and against accuracy.

    So to all the pro-human error folks out there, I’ll cheerfully concede that yes, human error in calling balls and strikes has been an integral aspect of the game, since what, its inception I guess, or else close to it.

    For just as long, it has been a CRAPPY aspect of the game, one that begs to be excised.

  7. Bob Timmermann said...

    The problem with all the ball-strike evaluation technology is that umpires are given very little guidance in calling balls and strikes while they are training. It’s just one of those things they have to more or less figure out on their own. The strike zone has a definition that is easily open to interpretation.

    In Bruce Weber’s book about umpires, there was a plan for a company to construct a simulator that would help umpires practice ball-strike calls. The specs of it sounded great. But MLB ultimately didn’t want to invest in it. So they just keep patching together programs that they think will work.

    But I doubt MLB has clear standards about what they expect from this latest purchase. They just sort of make it up as they go along.

    So if you want to go to the test analogy, the umpires are being told to study to pass a test, but they keep changing the test.

  8. Alex Poterack said...

    I think something to keep in mind here is whether it’s more important for the umpires to be accurate or precise.  Personally, I’d be fine with each umpire having a slightly different strike zone, so long as they call their own zone consistently.

  9. Larry Seltzer said...

    >>I’d be fine with each umpire having a slightly different strike zone, so long as they call their own zone consistently.

    You hear this a lot from announcers calling a game, but I disagree. I don’t see what’s so hard about telling the umpires that the strike zone, for example, means that the ball has to be over some portion of the plate. Not one ball off the plate, etc.

    The high-end of the zone is the hardest part to call I guess, especially when guys crouch. That we could talk about, but the other three sides are not that hard.

  10. Alex Poterack said...

    True, it should be easy to call, but, the way I see it is that if each umpire is consistent, it doesn’t detract from the game if they have slightly different strike zones, and I feel a little like it adds something.  I kind of like the idea of players having to adjust to different umpires.

    Maybe that makes me crazy and sadistic, I dunno.

  11. tadthebad said...

    Kranky,  I think one argument against automated/electronic umpiring is that players, and people in general, are not ready to accept their performances being judged by a computer.  Perhaps that’s not really an argument as much as an explanation, but I don’t know how I’d feel about an inamnate object evaluating my pitches.

  12. kranky kritter said...

    I agree Tad, it’s not an argument. It’s an explanation. It’s a very good point. And I get that part of it. Not my first rodeo on this argument.  grin

    Here’s the thing, though. I am old enough to remember a certain incident of which I have a vivid memory. Gotta be what 30 years old now give or take. I can close my eyes and see a young, brash,  long, curly-haired John McEnroe running the then-new automated system for calling serves in or out. Putting it through its paces, getting on his knees and looking into it. Bouncing balls this way and that. The “controversy” lasted all of a few days.

    Three decades later, Tennis has been freed of any battles about whether a serve is in or out. The same thing would happen in baseball. An automated strike zone reader would set pitchers free. Instead of worrying about whether or not a given ump would call a certain pitch a strike, a pitcher could just hit a spot he knew was a strike. No one would get anything for nothing. Grumpy loudmouths would get the same strike calls as gladhanding asskissers. Late breaking curves and knuckleballs would never be given up on as balls again. Emergency starters with borderline stuff would get the same strike calls as future hall of famers. No more foaming at the mouth by armchair fans convinced the umps were screwing their team because it looks like a strike from a poorly angled CF camera.

    This latter one would add years to my life, by the way. grin

    In other words, a small but pure oasis of perfect egalitarianism, of truly blind justice. Such instances are so rare in the human world that I believe they are to be not just prayed for, but lobbied for.

    Even though I’m getting older, I still have very little patience for nostalgic arguments to preserve a traditional way of doing things which boils down to continuing with a demonstrably crappier approach than what has become easily possible with new technology.

    Let’s not keep doing it the hard way. Just sayin’.

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