Study shows 1 in 5 close calls wrong

Updated: August 16, 2010, 2:58 AM ET
By T.J. Quinn and Willie Weinbaum | ESPN

This season in Major League Baseball has seemingly brought a new umpiring controversy every week, with Jim Joyce's blown call in the Armando Galarraga near-perfect game standing out.

As calls to expand instant replay in the game continue, ESPN's "Outside the Lines" conducted a two-week study to get a sense of how often umpires made the right call on close plays -- and how often they were wrong.

Researchers used broadcast footage of all games from June 29 to July 11 -- 184 in total -- and reviewed every call, with the exception of balls and strikes.

The overwhelming majority of the calls (fair or foul, safe or out) were so obvious they did not require any sort of review.

But the "Outside the Lines" analysis found that an average of 1.3 calls per game were close enough to require replay review to determine whether an umpire had made the right call. Of the close plays, 13.9 percent remained too close to call, with 65.7 percent confirmed as correct and 20.4 percent confirmed as incorrect.

"That's high," said U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher. "They shouldn't be allowed to miss [that many].

"I have seen some calls this year that just -- that curl your hair."

A Major League Baseball representative declined to comment on the study. Requests to interview Frank Robinson, recently named as MLB's senior vice president of major league operations, and commissioner Bud Selig or any other major league official were declined.

In an interview with ESPN Radio in St. Louis last month, Selig said he would "continue to review" the benefits of expanding replay, but also said none of his core advisers had supported the idea. Other sources said they do not believe Selig has any desire to push for expanded replay beyond its current use of determining whether a home run should stand.

The MLB Players Association, which would have to agree to any change in policy, said in an e-mail: "[The] players agreed to its limited use, but it's too premature to know if there's a consensus among the membership to extend its use."

Shortly after Galarraga's near-perfect game, ESPN The Magazine Baseball Confidential found major league players lukewarm -- at best -- on replay. Twenty-two percent of the 100 players surveyed said they favored replays for calls on the bases; 36 percent supported replay on fair/foul calls.

"Outside the Lines" surveyed 40 Hall of Famers about umpires and replay, and like Bunning, most deemed a 20 percent error rate on close calls too high. They were divided over what, if anything, should be done about it.

"More replay. More replay," said former Orioles manager Earl Weaver, famous for his arguments with umpires. "As long as you got human error involved and the umpire is seeing a play one way and you're seeing it the other way, the only way to decide it, the correct way, is through technology."

But Weaver's fellow Hall of Fame manager, Tommy Lasorda, argued passionately the other way.

"I don't believe in that. I believe the game should be played the way it has been," he said. "It's been like that for years, and I think it should stay that way."

Only one of the 40 made a case to expand replay to balls and strikes.

Those who argued against expanded replay said the "human element" of umpiring is just part of baseball, and some worried that replay would slow games.

But retired umpire Don Denkinger, who became a household name to angry St. Louis fans after his famously incorrect call in the ninth inning of Game 6 in the 1985 World Series, said replay can help umpires achieve the only goal that matters: getting the call right.

"Had I got that play right, or they had instant replay and got it corrected, they would remember the '85 World Series, but they wouldn't have remembered my name," he said.

Denkinger said he did not support the use of replay for years after his infamous call, despite years of hate mail and death threats. But he said as the clarity of replays has improved, he has grown to support the idea, especially when it comes to plays like the one he missed.

His play -- the Royals' Jorge Orta chopped the ball to first, where Cardinals first baseman Jack Clark fielded the ball and tossed it to pitcher Todd Worrell, who was covering the bag -- was almost identical to the play Joyce missed this season on what would have been the last out of a perfect game for Galarraga.

The play is extraordinarily difficult to call, Denkinger said, because the first-base umpire is generally listening for the sound of the ball hitting the glove while watching the base. With a soft toss from the first baseman, especially during a game as loud as a World Series or a perfect game, the umpire cannot hear the catch and can't watch both the fielder's glove and the base at the same time.

"I don't think you can get yourself in a good position for that particular call," Denkinger said. "I didn't know that I had missed the call; I don't think there is any umpire alive that would intentionally miss a call. But when I did see it on replay, which was the next day, I was pretty upset about it, but there is really nothing you can do."

The day after the Joyce/Galarraga episode in June, veteran umpire Tim McClelland told ESPN Radio's "Mike & Mike in the Morning" that Joyce's call and his own experience of making an admittedly incorrect call at third base during last year's ALCS have made him more receptive to replay.

"I know the commissioner isn't for it. Personally, I would be for it," McClelland said. "We talked about it in the crew. I know I wasn't for it, but after watching what I went through in the playoffs last year and then what Jimmy's gone through, I think more and more umpires are coming around to it."

Reached more recently, McClelland said he was no longer permitted to speak to reporters; Major League Baseball said it would not grant umpires permission to speak about the issue to ESPN.

One of the game's most celebrated umpires, Doug Harvey, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last month, said he opposes any additional replay review.

"If you're going to do that, why don't we just get robots and let them play the game?" he said. "If you don't need umpires out there, and you can put robots out there, then why do we need ballplayers?"

While some critics of replay have said they believe it would undermine the umpires' authority, some supporters, like San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy, said the world already can see whether an umpire got a call right, so it's unlikely replay would make anything worse.

"I think it would take pressure off the umpires. I know [missing a call is] not something they want to live with, so I'm for it," Bochy said. His club, which is locked in a tight playoff race, lost a July 18 game after umpire Phil Cuzzi incorrectly called the Giants' Travis Ishikawa out at home for what would have been the winning run.

"The last thing you want is to look back and a call came back to beat you," Bochy said. "I just think with our technology, we're able to do it without slowing down the game too much."

Some of the Hall of Famers surveyed said they would support expanded replay if MLB could find a way to review calls quickly, possibly by allowing managers one or two challenges a game.

But Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said whatever the mechanism, accuracy should be baseball's top priority.

"Fans need to feel good about the fact that we're going to try to get the call right. I think umpires feel like if there's an easy way to do it, they want to be able to get the call right, too," he said. "It helps the game, I think. I think it helps the fans. I think it helps both teams, because the objective is to get the call right."

ESPN's Michael Sciallo contributed to this report. Reporter T.J. Quinn and producer Willie Weinbaum work in ESPN's enterprise/investigative unit.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.