MLB Umpires Vs. Instant Replay

On June 2, 2010, Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga threw a ninth-inning, two-out pitch to Jason Donald of the Cleveland Indians. Donald clipped a grounder to the right of first base pulling Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera off of the bag. Galarraga ran to cover, and Cabrera fired over to first base for the out. Galarraga’s mitt enclosed the ball, and he threw up his hands in celebration. Donald’s out meant that he’d pitched a perfect game.

However, when Galarraga turned toward umpire Jim Joyce, Joyce signaled that Donald was safe. Tigers’ manager Jim Leyland argued, but Joyce wouldn’t budge. Galarraga struck out the next batter in what reporters called the “28-out perfect game.” Anyone who bet on baseball that night and chose the Tigers still won, but the win just wasn’t as sweet.

After viewing replay footage, Joyce realized he’d blown the call. He apologized to Galarraga and admitted his mistake to the media. The next day, Joyce was slated to be the home plate umpire. Galarraga brought Detroit’s lineup card to Joyce, and the two men shook hands. It was a sportsmanlike moment, but it confirmed what many had already said: Major League Baseball needed instant replay.

 

ALL TOO HUMAN

Baseball’s 2014 season kicked off with Instant Replay, and analysts predicted one umpire would blow a call about once every 6.5 games. Based on reviews of Instant Replay through June 1, several trends have emerged:

  • Umpires make more mistakes than analysts predicted. According to Instant Replay, the average ump blows a call once every 4.5 games.
  • Nearly half of all challenged calls are overturned. As of June 1, Instant Replay had turned over 47 percent of challenged calls. Also, 26.5 percent of calls proved “inconclusive,” and 25.4 percent were upheld. This statistic doesn’t suggest that umps are wrong half of the time. The clubhouse doesn’t challenge a call unless it has a good chance of getting it overturned.
  • The media is tracking which umpires have the most overturned calls. Rookie umpire Seth Berminster and 16-year veteran umpire Doug Eddings have each had seven calls overturned by Instant Replay. Only eight umpires, including Jim Joyce, have had no calls overturned after review.

Major League Baseball developed its Instant Replay system with the goal of fixing bad calls. The league may not have considered how the tool would expose usually anonymous umpires to public criticism.

 

THE CONSEQUENCES FOR UMPIRES

In Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, first base umpire Don Denkinger watched Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark throw to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering first. Worrell beat Royals pinch hitter Jorge Orta to the bag, but Denkinger called him out. The bad call, eerily reminiscent of Joyce’s experience with Galarraga, drained the Cardinals’ momentum. They ended up losing Game 6, sending the series to a seventh game that the Royals eventually won.

Even though Denkinger continued calling MLB games for 13 years, the call haunted his career. Denkinger received a number of vicious phone calls and threats, and reporters called him for a quote every time another umpire missed a pivotal call. Denkinger provided a photo of a letter that he received to ESPN. “YOUR LIFE WILL BE HELL,” the writer spelled out in large capital letters.

Joyce told reporters that he’d expected fans to criticize him, but he didn’t expect criticism directed at his wife and children. The Galarraga call happened in the age of Twitter and YouTube, so fans had plenty of opportunities to review the play and an easy outlet for their hate. “I wish my family was out of this,” Joyce said told reporters. “I wish they would just direct it all to me.”

 

THE FUTURE

It’s hard to predict what psychological toll Instant Replay will take on the umps. Tony Verna, who invented Instant Replay in the 1960s, told the New York Times that the tool had heightened the scrutiny of on-field officials in ways he’d never expected. He worries that human umpires will lose their roles, and computers and cameras take over officiating. Maybe he should also worry about the fans that are tracking umpire errors and how those consequences could play out off of the field. Rookies like Berminster will have to develop even thicker skins if they want to stick around in the majors.

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