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Let's Hear It for the Umps and Human Error

Kyle Koster
Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four
Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four / Maddie Meyer/GettyImages
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Baseball is a beautiful game dependent on human error. A pitch that sails a foot wide of its intended destination. The failure to read the spin of a curveball and the resulting fruitless swing. The bobble of a routine double play ball. A baserunner misreading the flight of a struck ball and the horrifying realization that they're too far away from any safe harbor. An umpire ruling a ball a strike or a strike a ball two dozen times a game over 350-400 pitches. It's a game where Hall of Fame hitters fail seven times out of ten.

Human error has smartly been woven into the framework of the sport. It's a feature not a flaw, but sadly the national pastime's cultural capital has eroded through entirely unimaginative litigation and misguided attempts to fix problems that aren't problems. Home plate umpire Laz Diaz's particularly erratic performance behind the plate has become the overarching story in the wake of Houston's seven-run ninth inning, which was facilitated by a borderline pitch from Nathan Eovaldi.

Game 4 of the American League Championship Series was a classic. The Boston Red Sox came oh so close to putting the Astros deeper into the grave but now find themselves in a three-game sprint. Jose Altuve blasted his 21st postseason homer. Michael Brantley, professional hitter, notched another memorable hit. It was baseball at it's finest and predictably unappreciated by those who seek to implement a flawless system of fairness to a sport — and a world — that cannot allow it to exist without ceding all control to machines.

Everyone lamenting Diaz's spotty performance is missing the forest for the trees. There is no such thing as a seven-run ball or strike call. To think so is to lean into the worst impulses of a travel ball dad who always needs a scapegoat.

The truth of the matter is that Major League Baseball has the best officiating of all the major sports. These humans get things right far more often and with far less ultimate impact on the game than basketball or football. Diaz's 92 percent success rate behind the plate is among the worst. It's still 92 percent. And if you think basketball or basketball officials are getting nine out of 10 decisions correct, than you're not paying attention.

Consider every playoff basketball contest or meaningful football game you've watched. Inequity at the free-throw stripe swings results on the regular and can literally take a team's best players out of the game. Completely subjective and non-congruent pass interference penalties dramatically change field position and lead to points. In context, balls and strike calls in baseball are small potatoes.

Diaz opened the door but it was incumbent on Houston to capitalize. Diaz did not string together hit after hit to put things out of reach. Eovaldi had dozens of chances to execute a pitch that would have brought Boston to the plate in the bottom of the ninth within striking distance.

Look, the frustration of a 50-50 call going the wrong way is understandably frustrating. But it's also a part of the tapestry and element of the drama that people don't understand which makes the experience richer, not poorer. The proliferation of instant replay in basketball and football has not solved the problem it's trying to solve. One could argue that it's made things more exasperating and certainly a less pleasant experience.

My biases toward the sport are clear and obvious. I've written repeated and exasperated pleas for casual fans to find a more constructive and positive way to enjoy the sport than endeavoring to fix it. It's an admittedly futile desire.

Robot umpires will sap the human drama and tear away at the core fabric. It will rob the catching position of its beauty and power. The on-screen product will look sloppy. Further control will be given to the almighty algorithms.

The quest of a game without flaw in one department while it exists in others will be a bastardization. Be careful what you wish for.

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