If you haven’t seen the latest episode of the award-winning HBO series Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, put it on your must-see list.
In the feature titled Man vs. Machine, producer Chapman Downes and reporter Jon Frankel add yet-another layer to Texas Rangers fans’ angst over the 2011World Series.
Namely, that home plate umpire Jerry Layne blatantly favored the Cardinals. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
Former big league outfielder Eric Byrnes has a festering issue, we learn in the story’s opening. If baseball can install cameras at all 30 ballparks and utilize replays, he proposes to Frankel, why can’t it use existing technology and finally get balls and strikes called correctly?
Reflecting on his own 11-year career, Byrnes, now an analyst for the MLB Network, says, "The sad thing is you have no clue what could be called a ball or a strike at any point.
"I continually on a nightly basis watch games that are affected by blown calls."
The technology is there, Byrnes asks. Why doesn’t MLB use it?
We’ve all seen the strike zone box graphics used by the TV networks. Fox calls theirs FoxTrax; ESPN uses the K-Zone.
But they all come from data harvested by Pitch f/x, a creation of Sportvision, the same clever people who invented the yellow first down line that you see on football telecasts.
How accurate are the strike zone boxes? A lot more accurate than the umpires, the HBO producers found.
They asked Yale professor Dr. Toby Moskowitz to study the Pitch f/x data from MLB games in recent seasons. Moskowitz analyzed every pitch called by major league umpires – nearly a million in all – over the last 3 ½ years.
MLB claims its umpires call 97 percent of balls and strikes correctly. But according to Moscowitz and HBO, the study showed that only about 88 percent of the calls were accurate.
Roughly one of every eight pitches, in other words, were called incorrectly. As Frankel pointed out, that adds up to more than 30,000 bogus balls or strikes each season.
That figure includes the obvious calls where the pitches are right down the middle or way outside. When Moscowitz narrowed his analysis to pitches that were within two inches, either way, of the corners of the plate, the umpires got the call wrong 31.7 percent of the time – nearly one of every three pitches!
Byrnes’ argument is clear. Why doesn’t MLB use a technology that it already has installed, that Sportvision has already fine-tuned, and that is available for TV networks and on stadium scoreboards and even on spectators’ phones through the MLB At-Bat app?
As Byrnes put it, "Why do millions of people sitting at home get to know whether or not it was a ball or strike, yet the poor dude behind home plate is the one who’s left in the dark?"
Because, of course, major league umpires like the dark.
Former umpire Jerry Crawford, who retired in 2010 after 34 years, called the idea "ridiculous" of having Pitch f/x call major league balls and strikes. The exact exchange sounded like an interrogation at Jurassic Park:
Frankel: Could you ever see a situation where you might want technology to call pitches?
Frankel: But progress is a good thing, isn’t it?
Crawford: Not in the game of baseball.
Crawford went on to cite tradition, hot dogs, blah, blah, blah.
"I don’t care what the guy at Yale has looked at, to be honest with you," Crawford told Real Sports. "He’s absolutely incorrect.
"These guys have gotten so good, so good, at calling balls and strikes, they’re not missing any pitches."
You mean they’re calling perfect games, Frankel asked incredulously?
"Yes, they’re calling perfect games," Crawford smugly replied.
Allow that arrogance, that ignorance, to sink in for a moment . . . because it gets worse.
MLB provides the home plate umpire with video after each game where he can review every ball and strike call. While we assume baseball does this as a modern way of tutoring its umpires and refining their performance, it also seems like a subtle admission that maybe they don’t get "97 percent" of the balls and strikes correct.
Twenty minutes after each game, Crawford said, somebody would knock on the umpires room door and hand him a CD with the pitch video on it.
"I threw it in the trash," Crawford said.
How accurate are the Pitch f/x measurements? According to Sportvision, testing has shown the system is accurate to within one half-inch.
Note that the pitch graphic is left to the networks to determine how it wants to display it. Each ballpark has its own centerfield camera positions, but they don’t affect the Pitch f/x tracking. If the graphic box doesn’t seem calibrated, that’s likely a problem in the TV control truck. TBS had those issues during last season’s playoffs.
So here’s where the nightmarish 2011 World Series comes in. Moscowitz’s data showed that most of the missed balls and strikes tend to favor the home team.
"Social influence," Moscowitz called it.
That’s when Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel rolls the tape on Game 7 in St. Louis.
"Our Game 7 data shows that the home plate umpire (Layne) missed 14 calls in favor of the home team Cardinals – against only three for the Rangers.
"Guess who won?" Frankel asks.
Be sure to watch the feature on HBO. You’ll never look at home plate umpiring the same way again.