Tuesday, January 21, 2014

WWCF: Balls/Strikes Called by Machine or Professionalized College Sports?

Which will come first?

Pitch tracking technology in baseball displaces umpires as caller of balls and strikes

or

Separation of college sports into professional and truly amateur

Don't tell the traditionalists we are even discussing this. I believe we are headed to a brave new world where consistency in baseball's fundamental point of interaction is equalled by honest treatment of college athletes. Many sacred cows are nervous. And some time-honored institutions will change and in some cases they will crumble. 

Supporting the baseball half of the question are recent developments in furthering the use of technology such as this. The demand for and acceptance of instant replay shows in baseball as it has in other sports that true and rightful outcomes matter to sports fans--even above the cost of tradition, even above the cost of delay of play. If the technology is highly accurate (it is but there are flaws such as in tennis and when human eyes and judgment are involved such as in football) and reasonably quick, seeing an inconsistent outcome on the television replay is seen as unjust and intolerable. Notice that a call by a ref isn't necessarily unjust if it is wrong. It takes it being sufficiently bad for it to be unjust. 

Giving the baseball side some pause is this article in Grantland. It seems the accuracy isn't quite there yet, but I expect it could come pretty quickly. More likely the hold up will be fan/owner/player approval. The article points to how robot and man could team up. That is probably the first step. Yet I am interested in where the machine is making the calls and a human can only intervene to overrule in specific instances--think today's challenge system in football and soon to be baseball. For the baseball part to have come first, this is the threshold.

The article does discuss a point I find important. Namely that standardization of the strike zone would remove a nuance of the game that might be more important than realized at first blush. 
However, standardizing the zone would remove a level of interplay between batter, pitcher, catcher, and umpire that many fans find compelling. No longer could a savvy pitcher with pinpoint command annex extra territory off the corners, like Tom Glavine or Mariano Rivera, or learn how to tailor his approach to each umpire’s personalized zone. And catcher receiving skills — the impact of which has only recently been recognized — would become obsolete overnight...
While these changes might make the batter-pitcher confrontation fairer, they would also sap it of some of its nuance, leaving less to analyze and discuss...
McKean offers another argument in support of keeping umpires around: Removing them, or reducing their role, might make baseball more boring. The former umpire makes the case that the controversy generated by incorrect calls — or at least the perception of incorrect calls — generates excitement.
These are important considerations.

For the other side of the question, it should come as no surprise to readers that we at MM favor a major overhaul in the structure and nature of college athletics. We optimistically believe it is inevitable. There are two changes here under consideration either of which would constitute success for this side of the question: separation of amateur sports from professional, revenue sports (perhaps tennis, rugby, field hockey, etc. from football and men's basketball) and separation of amateur college-level football from professional college-level football (perhaps Harvard, Air Force, Tulsa, et al. from Oklahoma, Notre Dame, et al.). The which comes first threshold here will be once most current NCAA institutions make the first change or the current FBS football and D-1A men's basketball schools make the second change.

There has been a glimmer of hope for change in this direction from within the castle, but it is overwhelmingly likely that this change comes from without. The discussion on this evolution continues. And for good reason.

There are two driving forces for this side of the question at hand: there is too much money involved for the charade of amateurism to continue and there is too much money involved threatening the institutional integrity of the parent organizations.

My take is that technology is ready for umps to be replaced 5-10 years before baseball is institutionally ready while those challenging the institutions of the college sports' status quo are 5-10 years away from being legally and culturally capable of forcing change. Reading between the lines, it is just the technology in baseball that is different. I give the edge to the separations in college sports and say both changes (baseball and college sports) come within a decade.