“I think umpires have too much power, without any system of checks and balances and the more money a player makes, the more the umpire tries to show off that power to him. Unfortunately, since I signed my contract my strike zone has suddenly become a lot larger.” – Hall of Fame Shortstop Ozzie Smith
The job of the Major League Umpire is actually quite a simple concept. Call a fair game and allow the players, whom the fans paid money to watch, play. However, an umpire can directly influence the game by ejecting a star player or missing an obvious strike call in a crucial situation.
After Kris Bryant was hit by a pitch in the Rockies game less than 2 weeks ago, (Bryant did not believe he was thrown at and thanked Rockies pitcher German Marquez for an apologetic phone message) we saw the ejection of Chili Davis, the first of his career, and Andy Haines. Both, at the time were not only concerned about Bryant, but felt Marquez might have intentionally thrown at Bryant and things became heated. Davis was told to “shut up or else” and he quipped “or else what” and was tossed out of the game while Haines threw his drink in the general direction of umpire Cory Blaser which prompted his ejection. With a scary event, emotions ran high but nobody ran onto the field, no bench clearing brawl was started and no one was in Blasers face. So were these ejections necessary? According the The Baseball Rules Academy, the ejections may not have been needed, but, per the many, many rules regarding ejection, the umpire seems to be in the right. The two examples showing this are: Throwing anything out of a dugout (towels, cups, equipment, etc.) and refusal to stop arguing, and further delaying the game are both grounds for automatic ejection. BUT, there is also this: While there are unique and extraordinary circumstances, players and clubs look to the MLB umpiring staff for uniformity in applying consistent standards for ejection. Consistency is the key word, and frankly umpire standards are neither consistent nor uniform. The official rule book of major league baseball is much like the U.S. Constitution, remarkably broad,and equally vague. One instance that allows for wide latitude is what constitutes an ejectable offense. The terminology for ejection in its most basic form reads: ejections for players, coaches, and managers can be used anytime umpires believe objecting decisions are done with unsportsmanlike conduct and/or language.”
I can admit, I am sure being a major league umpire is an extremely taxing and stressful position. I realize these crews travel throughout the season much like the players and with the high-end salaries of 350,000, have far less income than the players. But nobody pays to see the umpire. In 2017, major league umpires displayed a childish one day uniform tantrum complaining about so-called verbal abuse taken from players. This “protest” was to show support for Angel Hernandez, who was criticized by Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler. Kinsler unloaded his grievances against umpire Angel Hernandez, grievances that have been shared by players across the league off the record for years. Kinsler was fined $10,000 for making public statements about Hernandez, a fine nearly unheard of in major league baseball. The ego and problem with Hernandez is so large, he has even refused to reverse a blown call seen on a replay review simply because he states he does not agree with using the reviews. Hernandez has been a major league umpire since 1993 and is arguably, one of the worst if not the worst in the league. In 2017, Hernandez filed a lawsuit against Commissioner Manfred and major league baseball for discrimination stating minorities have been passed up for promotion in favor of less qualified white individuals. Further, he claims Joe Torre’s hiring as MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations coincided with a decline in Hernandez’s performance rating. While writing this, Hernandez once again gained headlines due to a heated conversation with Yankee CC Sabathia only one day ago, For years, we have known that Hernandez is not only one of the worst umpires in baseball, but also the most controversial. So why is he still an umpire? Since filing the lawsuit, it is borderline impossible for him to be fired, no matter what he does so I would suggest that MLB begin being a little more transparent with umpire evaluations, correct call percentage, and ejection reports. Until they are held accountable for their actions we will continue seeing problems.
The rule-book strike zone states “The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.” According to data gathered through Pitch f/x, a creation of Sportvision, there is an estimated 30,000 inaccurate ball/strike calls each season. Yale professor Dr. Toby Moskowitz, was asked to study Pitch f/x data for a three season period, using every major league umpire behind the plate and watching over one million calls, he concluded only 88 percent accuracy. That is one out of every eight pitches called incorrectly throughout the season. Commissioner Manfred contends behind the plate accuracy is, and has been, around 98 percent. He also claims to have some oceanfront property for sale in Arizona if anyone is interested. Anybody watching baseball on a regular basis can clearly see 88% is closer to the truth than 98%. Consistency of strike zone throughout the entire game is also a rule for umpires working behind the plate. Problem is, umpires use different strike zones for right/left handed batters, some have given the home team an advantage, and some umpires use a much larger strike zone than others. Certainly can’t be consistent with those facts. In 2016, there were 1502 reviewed plays. Of those, 757 led to overturned calls. So 50% of reviewed plays, where initially called incorrectly.
Between calling balls and strikes and making calls in the field the umpires certainly have plenty of room for improvement. Combined with the fact player and coach ejections are often done on a whim with little consistency from umpire to umpire, how can these men demand respect and continue to whine about verbal abuse from players? As I see it, there are only two viable solutions to this issue. One, as stated above, is to be more transparent to the world. Make ejection reports public, allow umpire evaluations to be public, and enforce accountability. Or, allow technology to provide a behind the plate solution as it has on the field. Pitch f/x is accurate and could be used in tandem with the plate umpire. This would result in less player and coach frustration and limit frivolous ejections.
“When I first went into the American League, Johnny Rice told me that the toughest call an umpire has to make is not the half-swing. The toughest call is throwing a guy out of the game after you blew the hell out of the play.” – American League Umpire Bill Kinnamon