May 24, 2016

NESN's Lyons: "Sometimes You're Supposed To Lose" On Blown Calls

In the bottom of the fourth inning last night, NESN announced in its nightly poll question: "Should The Strike Zone Be Automated?"

It is probably no surprise that the three announcers in the booth - Dave O'Brien, Jerry Remy, and Steve Lyons - all said No. And it is perhaps not a surprise that most people who bothered to vote were against automation (No: 69%. Yes: 31%). But what surprised me was the low level of discussion after the question was posed. After stating his objection, Steve Lyons quickly changed the subject, stating What Is Wrong With Baseball Today. None of what he said had anything to do with the strike zone and calling balls and strikes. Sadly, the discussion moved away from strike zone automation into something else entirely.

During the back and forth, Lyons proved beyond any doubt that he is one of the dumbest and most ignorant announcers working in major league baseball. He very clearly states that replay "never" gets any call right (?!??) and then implies that some teams are simply supposed to lose on blown calls because the game is not perfect. I guess losing games because the umpire refuses to enforce some of the rules or decides that he doesn't like you somehow builds character.

O'Brien: [Asks the question] I guess like tennis.

Remy: I say no.

O'Brien: You were shaking your head as soon as I showed you the question.

Remy: Yeah. No. I don't want to argue with a computer.

O'Brien: What do you think, Steve?

Lyons: I hate the idea. Why are we changing everything about this great game? We need to tell the computer geeks to go home.

O'Brien: Oh, I think you're overdoing it with "changing everything". We're not changing everything in the game, although I really agree with you on this.

Lyons: We have replay now, which slows down the game, and they never get it right.

O'Brien: I like replay. I don't like it slowing the game down, but I like replay and the fact that it's actually working, I think.

Lyons: You can't take anybody out at second base. You can't do anything at home plate anymore. Every catcher loves the contact. Every second baseman wants the danger of that possibility of him getting taken out.

O'Brien: Buster Posey didn't like the contact,

Lyons: That's why they changed the rule, though. One star player gets hurt, and you change all the rules the way the game is played. It's been played that way for 100 years.

Remy: I'll let you guys fight it out.

O'Brien: I don't like the idea of automated umpiring, though. Because I love the arguments, you know?

Lyons: Yeah.

Remy: I like the fact that umpires, you know, I mean we complain a lot about it, but they have their own strike zone and you gotta know that as a player. You got to know that as a pitcher, as a hitter. And you know, we always talk about consistency with the umpires, as long as they are consistent, it's fine.

O'Brien: Yes, everyone talks about consistency and maybe that would be the way to solve that, but part of the personality of the game is the strike zone of every individual umpire.

[Long discussion about collision plays at second base; see first comment for transcript]

O'Brien: It's still 90 feet between the bases. Sixty feet, six inches. The game is still played the same way it's been played for 100 years. I know you don't like some of the rule changes. You can always change them back.

Lyons: But they won't. They're making too many changes. Remember, what was it three years ago, when they said replay was only going to be involved in fair and foul, and home runs.

O'Brien: I also remember about a decade ago, everyone was calling balks like crazy. We thought the game was changing because of that. Guess what? They stopped doing it after a while. I mean, I think baseball usually returns to its senses. I think that's one of the beautiful things about the game.

Remy: I agree with you, Dave. I think they experiment with things and if they don't work out, you know, you've got to change them. And I do think that rule at second base will modify.

O'Brien: I agree.

[Second digression; see second comment for transcript]

Lyons: Just to finish the thought on the umpires, too, and with the replay and stuff. I understand replay is here and I think it really shows some of the flaws in umpiring, because they miss some calls and they have to be overturned. But I also think that these guys, these umpires, are the best in the world at what they do. They have a tremendously difficult job and I still think they get most of it right. And when they don't, well, sometimes you're supposed to lose. I just don't think this game is supposed to be perfect.

O'Brien: I'll take you back to Ron Kulpa, though, in Yankee Stadium.

Lyons: Yeah?

O'Brien: That was an egregious strike zone and obviously stole a chance for the Red Sox. I don't know how many Red Sox fans would feel about that the same way you do if the Red Sox lose the division by a game.

My Comments:

1. Major league baseball has been played for longer than 100 years. That takes us back only to 1916. The National League was 40+ years old by then. (Three of the Red Sox's championships happened more than 100 years ago.)

2. O'Brien mentions the season with all the balks being "about a decade ago". It was 1988 - 28 years ago! Nearly three decades!!

3. Lyons said: "It's been played that way for 100 years." ... That has been the defense of every heinous activity throughout human history. But we've always done it this way. I'm not comparing anything in baseball to an evil like slavery, but the goal of a sport (or a country) should be to improve, to move towards greater justice, not simply stick with something out of habit.

4. Consistency with umpires. That will never happen with humans. If consistency is really want you want, automation is the only way to go. Even looking at one umpire - he will have a different zone game to game, inning to inning, batter to batter, even pitch to pitch. We've all seen thousands of examples of this. We see it every night in every game.

5. Why is a consistently wrong strike zone a good thing? An umpire refuses to call the game according to the rule book and as long as he keeps makes the same mistakes all night long, that's something positive, something to strive for?

6. What if the first base umpire had his own "personal zone" around the bag and made his safe/out calls not according to whether the runner beat the throw to the bag but due to some other amorphous "personal" decision? We've been so indoctrinated about "personal strike zones" of home plate umpires that we don't see how bizarre the entire concept is.

7. O'Brien mentioned tennis as soon as he asked the question. They should have come back to that. Has the sport of tennis died? Have millions of fans turned away from tennis because calls on the lines are more accurate? Baseball will be a stronger sport when fans know that games and pennants and championships will be decided solely by the players on the field, and not be influenced by the emotions and personal whims of the men in blue.


allan said...

First Snip:

Remy: Yeah, you're absolutely right. You know, there's a lot of the rules I don't like. I particularly don't like the rule at second base. The catcher one, I do like, where they can't block the plate before you slide in there, I kind of like that change. But I'm not a big fan of the change at second base.

O'Brien: They could always change it back. I have a feeling that's going to be reversed.

Remy: Well, you know, it takes so much out of the game, in my opinion. Because I've always felt that part of this game is intimidation. And if you're a middle infielder, you can be intimidated by certain guys. And that kind of removes that intimidation, and you become so used to, you know, learning how to get away from runners and know when you can't throw. It's getting to a point now what's the point of running to second base? You know, you've got a first and third situation, you try to take our the middle infielder and get a run. You know, what's the point now? It's like you can't even touch the guy.

O'Brien: You hate to see a game ended on that particular play and several games early in the season were ended because the batter-runner was called out and the runner at second base was called out.

Lyons: And I think it makes you a little more lazy out there as a middle infielder, too. You know the guy can't come and get you and if he ever does, like we saw with Odor and Bautista, what happened between those two, maybe you get a little comfortable there, and all of a sudden one guy does come and try and take you out, now you can get hurt because you're not used to trying to get out of the way.

Remy: And, you know, that Bautista-Odor situation, used to be very common place in the game of baseball, because that was one way that second basemen and shortstops could protect themselves. It was actually the only way they could --

Lyons: With the ball.

Remy: There were no rules back then about sliding into second base.

O'Brien: Drop down.

Remy: So you drop down and throw right at his dome, and that sends a message to the other club that, you know, when you come in, you better be sliding. And that's really the only protection you had.

Lyons: And you loved it, too, didn't you, Jerry?

Remy: Well, at my size, I wasn't crazy about it. I mean, I didn't want one of those big guys coming up and dropping me.

Lyons: But you knew how to get out of the way.

Remy: Yeah, you had to learn.

allan said...

Second Snip:

Remy: I got to tell you, the worse I ever got hit, and I've been reminded of this from the truck, Michael Narracci reminds me, because he's heard this story before, but the worst I ever got hit at second base was in Kansas City, on the artificial surface, a first and third situation, and Hal McRae came in with no slide at all, dropped his shoulder, hit me in the ribs, and I was rolling around in left field. That's how bad I got hit. And I --

O'Brien: I don't mean to laugh, but you're description is funny.

Remy: True story. After that play, somebody got a snapshot of that play, right? And we used to land at the Kansas City airport and on the way from the airport to our hotel, was this big billboard with me getting cleaned out by McRae and it was just before I started the rolls in the outfield --

O'Brien: So you got to see it.

Lyons: Repeatedly.

Remy: So I was intimidated. I was intimidated before I got to Royals Stadium.

O'Brien: Anything broken there, rib cage or anything?

Remy: I missed a couple of days, yeah. I couldn't breathe.

Michael said...

I'm kind of shocked (although not really) that nobody brought up the pitcher's mound as an example that the game has not, in fact, been played the exact same way for 100 years.

And this reiterated argument that reviews slow games down is absolute idiocy.

FenFan said...

Great post, Allan. I wanted to post a response earlier today, but time eluded me.

Briefly, the idea that replay slows down the game is baseless. What evidence does Lyons have that it's slowed down the game? Or that they never get it right? None, he's only reflecting his personal bias.

O'Brien makes a great point about Culpa's blown call and to suggest that it should be accepted as a norm shows that Lyons is outside the realm of reason.

Perfection is what you make it. If blown calls is your idea of perfection, then you enjoy a different game than me.

laura k said...

It seems that whatever we are accustomed to becomes the norm, and any further changes are regarded as inauthentic and ruinous. But what we know was inauthentic and ruinous to someone else -- a deviation from the supposed norm.

In NYC, people sometimes judge how much a New Yorker you are by how far you go back in a neighbourhood. "I remember when this Duane Reade was Key West coffee shop." "I remember when it was Teacher's Bar." "Are you kidding? This was an amazing little French restaurant called ..."

And if you could somehow bring back generations of New Yorkers, they would all remember a different place, because the City is always changing.

Baseball is the same way.

Yet almost every announcer has no historical perspective. It's all "In my day...."

Honestly, I think O'Brien wasn't bad in this conversation. He was trying to add a little fact and sanity to the general idiocy. But Lyons' Stupid was too big.

Jere said...

Mike Francessa recently took a call about potential robotic umps, and he dismissed it and talked about how it's the equivalent of "living on Mars" and other stuff going on in a hundred years. But there are some (otherwise idiotic) radio host types who are just like, "Yeah, of course make it automated, why not?"

Here are some "computer geeks" playing around with an automated strike 1950.

laura k said...

At the risk of the pro-automation crowd jumping on me, can MLB not require umps to use the strike zone from the rule book, i.e., to do their jobs? Everyone is else required to do their jobs and follow the rules, and there are penalties for not doing so. Why can't umpires be treated the same way?

I would much rather see human umps. I do not want to see robots. But I do want to see the rules followed, consistently.

There will be some blown calls. That will happen sometimes. To suggest that we can live with *some* mistakes is not to throw up our hands and say nothing can be done, the umps can do whatever they want. I'm not defending Steve Lyons or his moronic answer, but no one can rightly think there will ever be a game without mistakes -- any game, ever. We all use technology. So we all know that all technology is imperfect and always subject to malfunctions at times. I'm assuming those of us who favour automation know this.

Why is the answer technology rather than insisting upon fair umpires? Real question.

D.Ing said...

Just project all this forward a little bit, a "thought experiment" as Einstein used to say.
What would be the effect(s) of automatic balls and strikes? Would batting averages go up? How much? If so, the games might actually get longer. And is that a good thing?

It's always the unintended consequences that bite back later. What would be the unintended consequences of automating balls and strikes? (I'm not calling this a "robot," Just using a machine to register location is not creating a robot.)

Does Allan have a good link for this? He usually does.

allan said...

Why is the answer technology rather than insisting upon fair umpires? Real question.

It has become apparent that humans cannot do an accurate job, even if they have been trained and are trying really hard. There was an article that noted how the human eye cannot really follow a pitch all the way into the catcher's mitt, and is bound, at the end other pitch, to not be able to register late movement. That could be the difference between a ball and strike.

Also, I have to assume that most umpires are trying to do a good, consistent job, and are not always acting out of anger or revenge towards a hitter or pitcher or team. And if they are trying their best, we still see a certain pitch called a ball and a strike in one AB or a ball in the 3rd inning and a strike in the 7th. Sometimes umpires have biases they are not even aware of, making the zone bigger or smaller in certain situations or maybe late in a game.

I imagine it was the same way in tennis. Human officials simply could not see the fast-moving balls well enough to make accurate calls enough of the time.

allan said...

I don't know of any studies that would predict offense or a lack of offense if the rule book zone was consistently called. There would certainly be an adjustment period for both pitchers and hitters, but that has happened many times before, when the zone gets increased or decreased.

FenFan said...

I would much rather see human umps. I do not want to see robots. But I do want to see the rules followed, consistently.

... and therein lies the problem. I, too, would prefer human umps, and perhaps we are spoiled by having immediate feedback from these broadcasts that show the location of the pitch relative to the strike zone.

The challenge with the strike zone is that it is subjective to a number of variables, one of which is human judgment. In Ron Culpa's case three weeks ago, it appeared to be clouded by Papi's reaction to his strike two call and resulted in a grossly erroneous strike three call. That's unacceptable in my book, but Culpa is immune from being punished in any form by Major League Baseball.

Here's an interesting take on the subject based on a game last year that used technology to call balls and strikes. Of interest was this tidbit:

Vallejo Admirals third baseman Joshua Wong told Ars before the game that he was encouraged by the Pitchf/x tests he saw. "I feel like it speeds the game up more, it gets the hitters to swing at more pitches," he said. "It’s good for the game. Just being more accurate and having better calls is going to help us more."

FenFan said...

What really grinds my gears are people like Lyons who hold such a strong resistance against these concept yet have nothing to support their argument beyond a personal bias.

Read his quote again: We have replay now, which slows down the game, and they never get it right.

Bullshit! Steve, show me that replay has slowed down the game. Show me that the officials NEVER get it right. Where is your evidence? I know it's a broadcast but you've argued this viewpoint on several previous appearances and you still shovel out the same tired lines.

Is replay perfect? No, it isn't; I've seen calls upheld or overturned when I thought the evidence showed otherwise. But you say that officials never get it right? Well, here's some hard evidence on its effectiveness (per BBRef):

2016 Challenges
Total: 186 of 423 Calls Overturned (44.0%)
Managers: 173 of 380 Calls Overturned (45.5%)
Umpires: 13 of 43 Calls Overturned (30.2%)

So replay overturns almost half the calls, and that's only if video evidence favors it, i.e., it doesn't count calls where the evidence is insufficient due to bad angles, etc.. So never being right is incorrect, Steve.

"But wait," you say: "It slows down the game!" Okay, let's look at more evidence... through yesterday, there have been 696 MLB games played this season. That means -- pay attention, Steve; elementary math skills in use -- an average of 0.61 replay challenges per game, or three for every five games played. According to Jayson Stark from ESPN, through 25 April, the average replay had taken one minute and 54 seconds, or 114 seconds. That means the average time of game has increased a whooping 69.2 seconds, which is equivalent to a mound visit from each pitching coach per game. So there goes your other argument...

Seriously, that took me less than ten minutes to present my case and I'm just a "geek" who happens to have a fascination with baseball.

laura k said...

What really grinds my gears are people like Lyons who hold such a strong resistance against these concept yet have nothing to support their argument beyond a personal bias.

I feel the same way -- on all topics! In professional sports, that kind of blurting-opinion-as-fact is so commonplace. And of course if you have actual evidence, you are a "computer nerd". In earlier eras that was called an egghead or a bookworm. I.e. a thinking human being.

perhaps we are spoiled by having immediate feedback from these broadcasts that show the location of the pitch relative to the strike zone.

I think this is the crux of it. Technology has advanced to the point where we are glaringly aware of ordinary human error. Excluding incidents like The Culpa -- which should draw penalty, some combination of suspensions, fines, demotion -- we think most umps are trying to do their job to the best of their abilities. But these days we can see how often their abilities are not up to the task.

But D.Ing's point about unintended consequences is very important. A sea-change like an automated strike zone absolutely would lead to all kinds of unintended consequence. Don't forget, MLB never gets anything right. :) In my opinion, the "We want robots" position needs to be a lot more fleshed out. Maybe it has been and I haven't had time to read it.

allan said...



Unknown said...

You are almost right; Lyons is a hack. However, the strike zone is one of the most integral, important facets of the game, and the relationship between the umpire and the player, and how the player reacts and makes adjustments to hus approach as they figure out the umpire's strike zone by conferring with their teamates and coaching staff. Sure by automating the strike zone you could provide consistency, but it would make the game less dynamic.

allan said...

Yes, it's very "dynamic" when teams lose on blown calls; just ask Steve Lyons.

I'd rather have the players on the field consistently determine the outcome of games through their own talents rather than leave it up to the imperfections, personal vendettas, and outright shittyness of the umpires.

FenFan said...

I'd rather have the players on the field consistently determine the outcome of games through their own talents rather than leave it up to the imperfections, personal vendettas, and outright shittyness of the umpires.

Second that...