|QuesTec - What isn't MLB telling us?|
Written by Jonathan Leshanski (Contact & Archive) on July 28, 2003
Something is fishy in the world of baseball. Last week ESPN made on air allegations that documents relating to the QuesTec umpire monitoring system had been shredded by Major League Baseball’s front office and that hush money had been offered to someone in relations to the system while in Commissioner Bud Selig’s office. Since then there has been a noticeable silence on the air and in the press about the issue. It leaves the door open to many questions.
The allegations stated that QuesTec data had been manipulated in the 2002 season and possibly this season as well. I, like many fans, want to know why.
The purpose of QuesTec ostensibly is to monitor umpires and train them to call a consistent strike zone the way MLB says it is supposed to be regardless of the league or the personal judgment of the umpire, which could be influenced by the reputation of the pitcher or hitter at the plate. However skeptics have charged that QuesTec is not consistently placed in parks and cannot account for many variables including player height and type of pitch being monitored. In addition, QuesTec uses fixed reference points to determine where the ball is in reference to the strike zone. A problem with that is that the cameras don't have a catcher moving back and forth, left or right, which can change the umpire's perspective.
In any event, certainly pitchers, umpires (and even some hitters) have been complaining about the QuesTec system and how it affects the game. It has become such an anathema to some pitchers that earlier this season Curt Schilling took a baseball bat to a QuesTec camera as he felt it was damaging his game. Tom Glavine claims that QuesTec has ruined his career. They are far from the only ace pitchers who feel that the game is being changed, and not for the better, by the use of the QuesTec system.
The stated goal of the system is to make sure a ball is a ball no matter who throws it, no matter who is trying to hit it and to make a uniform no variance strike zone. But does it accomplish this task or is it something really aimed at keeping the umpires and the umpire’s union under the thumb of management? In a case that was brought to the National Labor Relations Board by the Umpire’s union the facts appear to be laid out. An advice memo from the NLRB to the Commissioner’s office states “the Umpire Information System (UIS), a new automated system for tracking pitches, determining whether a pitch constitutes a ball or a strike, and comparing that determination with the plate umpires decision. The Joint Committee eventually issued a Manual including a 22 page "Umpire Evaluation and Training System." That document includes the following language addressing the use of the UIS during the 2002 season:
During the 2002 season, with the exception of the use detailed in the next paragraph, the QuesTec Umpire Information System (UIS) will be used as a training tool to improve performance. Following the 2002 season, the [Joint] Committee will analyze the UIS operation and data. The Committee will meet to assess the UIS's function and performance and it will, consistent with Article 7.B.1 of the Basic Agreement, determine standards whereby each umpire can be rated "Meets Standard," "Exceeds Standard," or "Does Not Meet Standard" in judgment on balls and strikes in future seasons through the use of the UIS.
For the 2002 season only, the Office of the Commissioner will provide a written (non-graded) cumulative observation on strike zone accuracy to each umpire. These observations will list areas of the strike zone that, in the opinion of the Supervisors and Vice President of Umpiring, are in need of improvement. These opinions will be formed from television, videotape, in-person observations, and study of UIS data. However, due to the limited exposure of the UIS and lack of sufficient data, no umpire will be judged "Does Not Meet Standard" or "Exceeds Standard" in plate judgment for the 2002 season. (Emphasis added).”
So, what does this mean? It seems pretty clear from reading this that the main purpose of QuesTec is to monitor the umpire’s performance. During the 2002 season information from the QuesTec system was used to accuse umpire John Hirschbeck of purposefully miscalling a game. A challenge to the accuracy of the QuesTec system was then issued and the counsel for the Umpire’s union asked for specifications of the system and to observe it in action. This request was turned down by commissioner Selig who stated “if the Union attempted to enter any other non-public area except the umpires dressing room, i.e., attempted to view the UIS in operation, the Employer would revoke Union Counsel's access credentials.”
The Umpire’s Union also demanded many technical details about the system, which MLB was unable to provide and QuesTec’s parent company refused to provide claiming the information was proprietary and a trade secret. The Union asked the system be removed from use as an umpire training and evaluation tool. The office of the commissioner refused.
The real question is why the data from QuesTec was being manipulated and for what purpose. It should be noted that Schilling who destroyed the QuesTec unit at Bank One Ballpark was not disciplined for his actions. There was no suspension and only a minimal fine of $15,000. Why? That’s the real question. Was it because MLB feared that this story about manipulated data would reach the press?
There are many reasons that data like this could be manipulated. It could be that baseball simply wants to keep the umpires and their union on a short leash - and thus under MLB’s thumb. It could be that MLB simply wanted the QuesTec experiment not to look like a badly run debacle - unreliable and troublesome therefore manipulating numbers could make it look better. Still it could be another one of the ploys being introduced to try to continue increasing offense. Certainly most ace pitchers playing in home parks with QuesTec seem to be having tougher seasons than we are used to.
Earlier in the season when we looked at QuesTec parks we saw only a slight increase in ERA for most teams in these parks and even now the numbers don’t seem overly dramatic, although perhaps that is due to the fact that ace pitchers are being hit a little harder but lesser pitchers are doing better.
If that is the case, it is only because a tighter strike zone is being called. QuesTec is not only an umpire monitoring system - it's an umpire disciplining mechanism. Umpires whose calls do not match QuesTec at least 90 percent of the time will be judged as not meeting standards. The umpires know that they are being watched and it affects the game.
This really makes me wonder why MLB is so compelled to use the computerized tracking system. Is it because they ultimately want to control the umpires and the strike zone or is there an even deeper and darker motive here? What if Selig is refusing to drop QuesTec for reasons other than those above? What if the reason QuesTec is really important is because the data provided by it is accurate and it is stopping umpires from deliberately miscalling games? The scandal resulting from crooked umpires calling - and altering games would be earth shattering and would make the Black Sox Scandal seem like peanuts by today’s standards. This would give the office of the commissioner and all of organized baseball a reason to cover it up and use a backdoor to try to fix the problem - and quietly.
This raises many questions about MLB’s behavior and the ethics of the commissioner’s office - is this about the good of the game? Or about the commissioner covering his ass? Documents regarding the data have been shredded in any case. There can be no justification for this - no matter what Selig, the owners, or MLB claims. The players and fans have legitimate interests in this and what has been going on behind the scenes with the umpires and QuesTec.
It's time for baseball to open the vaults and show us all how and if QuesTec works. I never liked the idea of a computer or robot making the judgment calls which decide a game. I like it even less when MLB or anyone else hides the inner workings of such a judgment system and until now we’ve all had to take QuesTec on faith.
By and large we’ve sided with the umpires and against the robots. However taking the last few years into account, there are suddenly a lot of questions - far more then there are answers. What really was behind the 57 signed letters of resignation from umpires in 2001? And why were most - but not all - reinstated? Is this a coincidence? Or is there a story that we’ve all been missing, something being hidden away for the good of the game by MLB’s front office?
It’s hard to imagine that Selig could be the hero in this piece - especially since most of us have never considered that the umpires could be less than honest or honorable. However either some umpires may be corrupt or QuesTec may be inaccurate, manipulated, or lying. It’s a truth that baseball has no right to keep hidden away. Selig, the umpires, QuesTec and Titan technologies, which owns QuesTec, all have questions to answer – it’s time for everyone to come clean to the public.