Law in Contemporary Society

Fact-Finding in Baseball

-- By JoshLerner - 26 Feb 2010

Baseball's Judicial System

Introduction to the System

Baseball has a judicial system that operates as a two stage process in many ways similar to our criminal justice system.

In the first step the umpires find the facts that have occurred. This may be finding simple facts: that a pitch is a ball or strike, a hit is fair or foul, or a batter reached first base before or after the ball did. There are also more complicated facts to find: whether a pitcher had the intent to throw a pitch at a batter’s head, or whether a ball would have been caught by an outfielder had a fan not interfered with it.

The second step is for the umpire to apply his factual findings to the rules as codified by Major League Baseball. The umpire will apply the finding of three strikes as an out and a pitch intentionally thrown at a batter’s head as an ejection of the pitcher. There are mathematical formulas supplied by the rules and in this stage the umpire only needs to apply the facts to the formula provided by the rules. There is no human judgment at this stage of the inquiry.

As technology has evolved baseball, as well as many other professional sports, is faced with the question of whether it wants to continue to allow umpires to find the facts or whether it wants to turn that responsibility over to machines.

Automated Fact-Finding in Baseball

In 2001 Major League Baseball installed the Questec system in some of their ballparks in order to evaluate umpires. Umpires are judged by what percentage of pitches they called correctly (correctly measured by what Questec calls a ball or strike). Questec finds the fact of a ball or strike and the umpires finding of fact is compared to Questec’s to determine if the Umpire was correct or not.

Although the system has been used only as an evaluation tool, there is no reason it can’t be applied as a method for finding facts. Imagine a buzzer going over every time a pitch is a strike.

If we turn fact-finding over to Questec it makes the umpire’s job a scientific, one-step process. The umpire now solely takes the facts as given and applies them to the mathematical formula provided by baseball’s rules.

The Advantages of Automated Fact-Finding

Machines don’t have biases

Questec does not have a like or dislike for a specific pitcher or team, Questec does not prefer white players to black players, and there is no risk that Questec will become the next Tim Donaghy.

We Perceive Machines As Being More Accurate

Machines are fallible just like humans, but we acknowledge that they have the capability of being more accurate. The human eye has limitations that computers can improve on. As long as we are in the world of the Young Umpire then we should strive to see the balls and strikes as best as we can.

Outrage over missed calls has become a part of sports that can be alleviated if we turn fact-finding to machines. We trust instant replays, Questec and Hawk-eye more than we trust our own abilities to view facts.

The Concerns of Automated Fact-Finding

Part of the Game

The most common argument against automating fact finding is that human error in umpiring is a part of the game. Try telling that to a disgruntled fan, or to a player being discriminated against. The argument has no more merit than those who advocate a law solely for historical purposes. Just because human error and bias was a part of baseball before is no reason for it to continue to be a part of the game today. When we have the ability to minimize human error and bias we should do it.

Science Fiction

What if those programming or operating the machines go mad with power and alter the fact-finding? What if machines somehow get into our brains and overthrow mankind?

It’s important that we evaluate each decision to turn fact-finding over to machines on its own merits and monitor both the machines and those who oversee them. We can always judge using the human eye and if errors are obvious we can make alterations. And there is always John Connor.


Up to this point the role of fact-finding in baseball has been left to human umpires. In part this is due to the nature of the game. Baseball requires that facts frequently be found and individually they are not considered significant to the result of the game. This is a big reason we’ve seen racing sports, generally involving a single all-important fact to be found, are quicker to switch to automated fact-finding systems. However, baseball’s facts when taken collectively can play a significant role in outcomes. A pitcher’s entire career can be made from umpires consistenyl mis-calling his pitches. There is also a possibility that some day the World Series will come down to a 3-2 count with the bases loaded in the 9th. When that moment comes you can rest assured more fans will demand automated fact-finding. Tennis, as we’ve seen with the Hawk-eye system, has been a leader in switching to rapid fast-paced fact-finding for facts of relatively low significance and baseball should follow its lead.

If we can eliminate human bias and human error from fact-finding in baseball then we should. While currently we may only be able to find simple facts with machines, it’s possible to imagine some day we will be able to turn fact finding of complex facts, even those involving intent, over to machines as well.

Sports can provide a practice type framework for evaluating automated fact finding that some day we may be tempted to integrate into our criminal justice system. As scary as it may sound to turn fact-finding over to machines, if done carefully it can be an excellent mechanism to eliminate human bias and error.


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r6 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:14:18 - IanSullivan
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