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A roving solution to MLB's umpire problem

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Major League Baseball might never let technology onto the field to improve umpire performance, but what about a couple of extra pairs of eyes?


Last Saturday, Jean Segura was involved in yet another adventure on the basepaths. Barely a month after the young shortstop stole first from second on a bizarre play at Miller Park, Seguar made some noise again by tagging pinch-runner Kyle Kendrick out in the bottom of the ninth inning on a ball he never caught. The video tells the story better than this paragraph can ...

Essentially, the ball was knocked out of Segura's glove as he tried to make the tag on Kendrick. It then rattled around just enough for Segura to grab it and show it to second-base umpire Mike Estabrook as if he had control of it the whole time. Like a center fielder trying to sell a trapped ball, it was a classic bit of gamesmanship from Segura that worked to perfection. And it was nobody's fault. As crew chief Tom Hallion later said, Estabrook was exactly where he was supposed to be, in perfect position to judge a pickoff play. The fact that the ball did its best PLINKO impression in just such a way that there was no humanly way for Estabrook (or any properly-positioned umpire) to see that Segura had lost control of the ball does not somehow mean that Estabrook was to blame. You can only work within the system that you have, and Hallion's crew did a fine job of that.

Predictably, the blown call has caused many to trot out their pleas for instant replay. As the video above shows, it was immediately clear to those at home that Segura tricked the umpire when he raised his hand in triumph. If it was that obvious to everyone watching on television, then why couldn't it be just as obvious to some imagined replay official in his imaginary booth?

There is little reason in arguing with the pro-replay crowd in this case. For one thing, they're right -- an unobtrusive replay system would have corrected that mistake in a manner of seconds. More importantly, it's no use arguing because Major League Baseball, no matter what they say, seems miles away from implementing a system that would have quickly and easily handled that play. Why get so worked up over something that won't be changed? There is, however, a possible solution worth exploring that could remove most, if not all, of these types of umpire errors without resorting to those two pigskin-tainted words that the Commissioner's Office is so darn terrified of.

One of the interesting changes that comes about during postseason baseball is the introduction of two additional umpires to the field crew. You remember these guys. They're placed down the foul lines on either side of the outfield so that they can more accurately make calls on line drives in the corner or shots over the wall.

In the same vein, Major League Baseball should introduce one or two new umpires to each field crew to act as "roving umpires". Instead of guarding the line hundreds of feet away from the action (and in a role they never take on during the regular season), these new umpires would move around the field as necessary, backing up the regular base-umpires by getting in position for the reverse angle. In the Segura/Kendrick play, for example, the proper positioning for second-base umpire Estabrook is toward first base, on the infield grass. The rover, by contrast, might have been positioned on the third-base side of the bag, on the outfield grass. This would have put him directly opposite Estabrook, where the drop from Segura would have been obvious. Kendrick would have been called safe and play would have continued from there.

The benefits of this system should be readily apparent. Not only would the biggest single flaw of our current system (umpires making calls when they simply cannot see the ball/foot/base) be wiped away, it would also empower the umpires by adding more members to their union ranks. Would anyone complain about that?

Not that the proposal is flawless. As I see it, there are two major issues that need to be considered before an idea like this could move forward. For one, where would these roving umpires position themselves? For a runner on first, it's clear that one roving umpire should back up the first-base umpire while the other rover backs up second. But what about when the bases are loaded? Runners on first and third? If there are two roving umpires on the field and we still end up with blown calls thanks to badly positioned umps, imagine the outcry.

Thankfully, the solution to Problem No. 1 isn't difficult. Remember, in all other levels of professional baseball, leagues make due with fewer umpires than the majors. In single-A, for example, games are umpired by a crew of two: one behind the plate and one afield. With proper training and conditioning, they manage to police all the bases despite having to constantly change their positions. It wouldn't take much to modify this system for a fifth (or sixth!) umpire to roam about a big-league field.

The other, larger problem would come from conflicting calls on close plays. Let's face it, the vast majority of calls at any given base are easy to make. A grounder to short and the throw to first beats the runner by thirty feet. The left fielder throws to second hoping to catch the lead runner, but he's already bounding up from his slide. The line drive to short ends up doubling off the runner at third when he can't get back to the bag in time. In cases like this, the roving umpire would do nothing but defer to the base-umpire. But the bang-bang plays? The ones that could go either way? Not only are they the hardest to get right, they are also the ones where the rover would be most necessary. What would be the protocol on a bang-bang play if the base-umpire signaled "safe" while the roving umpire simultaneously signaled "out"? Does the rover defer? Do they consult? Does play continue while they do? Or do they simply work on some system that determines which umpire has the right to make the call on any given play? One such system might have the base-umpire losing the right to make the call if he ever loses sight of the ball (as was the case in the Segura/Kendrick play).

Currently, base-umpires are supposed to defer to another umpire if that ump had a better view of the play. This rarely happens. For one thing, the base-umpire making the call is much, much closer to the play than an umpire on the other side of the field, making the second umpire's position less credible. There is also the matter of professional courtesy, as the plate umpire doesn't want to show up his first-base umpire if he doesn't need to. With two umpires manning the same base, however, neither circumstance applies. Both umps would be seeing the play from about the same distance and both umps would feel some measure of ownership. This could either lead to more disagreements between the men in black or a more tentative crew, with each afraid of contradicting the other. Neither situation would be good.

Still, this idea should be explored. Considering Major League Baseball's hesitancy to adopt any technology that would improve the on-field performance of their umpiring crews, the next best option is to minimize the most blatant of errors. Adding an extra umpire or two might do this with little fuss and, unlike a technological solution, with only a minimal amount of new training. It seems like a win-win for everyone -- except maybe Jean Segura.