Baseball Doesn't Need Instant Replay—Just Better-Behaved Umpires

Fans aren't fed up with the human-error element of baseball officiating so much as they're irked by umpires' unwillingness to admit their mistakes.
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Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin, left, argues a call with umpire Angel Hernandez in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians Wednesday, May 8, 2013, in Cleveland. Melvin was ejected and the Indians won 4-3. (AP / Mark Duncan)

The umpires and referees officiating professional sports make mistakes. But usually, nobody notices an official until that official screws up in some high-profile way. Last year's work dispute between the NFL and its referees, for example, was quickly resolved once replacement referees blew a last-second call that indisputably changed the outcome of the game. And earlier this month, MLB's Angel Hernandez made news when he ruled a homerun as a double—even after viewing a replay that clearly showed he was incorrect—that may have cost the Oakland Athletics a victory.

Speaking after the game, MLB executive Joe Torre acknowledged that Hernandez's judgment was wrong, but said there would be no action to change the game's outcome. He fell back on a common refrain used to defend erroneous calls: Umpires are human, humans make mistakes, and these mistakes add a certain charm to the game. As Torre said last year when responding to a different series of blown calls, "The game is imperfect. I don't know why we want everything to be perfect. Life isn't perfect, and this is a game of life."

The technology exists to fix many officiating problems. Jake Simpson recently suggested an infrastructure change to MLB that would alleviate the effects of errors by the on-field umpires. It's a perfectly good solution, but it has virtually no chance of being implemented. Torre and MLB have been adamant that there's not much appetite for additional replay and that such replay would slow the game down while adding little value.

Torre's right, but for the wrong reason. Fans do appreciate the human element, and it's not the blown calls that enrage fans so much as it is the poor personal conduct by the unapologetic umpires who make them. MLB doesn't have an umpire competence problem. It has an umpire behavior problem. Fans can often tolerate errors or rudeness, but not the combination of the two; they tend to be more accepting of a blown call when the offending umpire does not make a spectacle of himself. Rather than immediately citing reasons why instant replay is not the solution, MLB could mollify much of its criticism simply by mandating better behavior.

Consider the separate cases of Angel Hernandez and Jim Joyce. Hernandez, told by everyone—including his bosses—that his call in the Indians-Athletics game was wrong, refused recorded interviews and said there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the blown call. Jim Joyce, meanwhile, is the umpire who blew the final out of Armando Galarraga's "perfect" game in June 2010. Upon seeing replays after the game, a teary-eyed Joyce took responsibility for his mistake: "It was the biggest call of my career, and I kicked it. I just cost that kid a perfect game."

Galarraga forgave Joyce and received a good-sportsmanship Corvette for his troubles. The two apparently even co-authored a book. Arguably, the class shown by Joyce and Galarraga after the blown call was a better human-interest story than a perfect game would have been.

Why was Joyce so easily forgiven while Hernandez was vilified? One reason may be that Joyce is generally viewed by players as a good umpire, whereas Hernandez is seen as the opposite. But another likely is that Joyce showed humility after making a mistake.

On May 22, I conducted a one-question survey using Amazon's Mechanical Turk to investigate what factors determine the public's reaction to a blown call. I asked a panel of 280 Americans to view an image of a game-changing close play at home plate, and to then read varying descriptions of the umpire's ensuing actions. The survey used the image below, in which the runner is clearly "out."

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The scenario, as described to the respondents, is that the runner's team is losing by a single run, and that his being tagged out ends the game. If the runner is called safe, his team goes on to win the game thanks to the incorrect ruling. If the runner is called out, his team loses. A fictitious umpire name was used to prevent any priming on the part of fans that might associate certain feelings toward a given MLB umpire.

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Adam Felder is the associate director of digital analytics at Atlantic Media.

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