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Thursday, May 19, 2022

In Defense of Umpires: Why Complaints About MLB’s ‘Ump Show’ Problem Miss the Mark

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AP Photo/John Bazemore

Take it easy on Major League Baseball’s umpires, would ya?

Yeah, I know. This isn’t an easy ask in the best of times, and the 2022
season has only been the best of times for umpires if one unironically enjoys what they
call the “ump show.”

To paraphrase Potter Stewart,
we all know an ump show when we see one. If I must attempt an exact definition, I’d say it’s when at least one umpire interrupts the flow of a game with a questionable call
and/or an attitude that’s just not befitting of the role they’re
supposed to be playing. That is, as an independent and unbiased
arbiter of the action.

Of late, there was Dan Bellino vs. Madison Bumgarner on May 4:

Bally Sports Arizona @BALLYSPORTSAZ

The difference between MadBum’s and Hernandez’s hand checks is striking. pic.twitter.com/CRPOuRXBUE

And on May 10, Yimi Garcia vs. The Whole Crew at Yankee Stadium:

Sportsnet @Sportsnet

.@BlueJays‘ Yimi Garcia has been ejected for hitting Josh Donaldson after the @Yankees tied the game 3-3.

Thoughts on the call? 🤔 pic.twitter.com/kXCTX8eUHv

And a day later on May 11, Kevin Plawecki and Alex Cora vs. Adam Beck:

Bally Sports South @BallySportsSO

Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki and manager Alex Cora were ejected after this bases-loaded, full-count strikeout from Collin McHugh. pic.twitter.com/THvDbUbKha

As for whether ump shows have been increasing in frequency as much as it seems like they have in 2022, well, who can say? Maybe if Baseball Reference’s Stathead tool had a search option for ump shows, but it doesn’t.

Besides, even as annoying as they are, it’s not the ump shows that are the problem.

They’re more of a common symptom of three underlying afflictions that affect all umpires. One of them is unfortunately something that neither they
nor MLB can do anything about, and that is the fact that they’re only human. As
long as that’s the case, mistakes and lapses in judgment are just going to come
with the territory.

If the phrase “robo umps” is on the tip of your tongue,
congratulations on correctly identifying one of the afflictions MLB
actually can do something about.

Umpires Can’t Call Balls and Strikes Any Better Than This

Look, Frank Drebin calls are going to happen. Beck is far from the first umpire who’s ever had his strike zone seemingly corrupted by the drama of a moment. He won’t be the last either.

Far from the rule, though, such calls are very much the exception in baseball today.

It would even be fair to say they’ve been the exception, as the percentages of called strikes outside the zone and called balls inside the zone are way down since the start of the pitch-tracking era in 2008: 

Graph via Google Sheets

This might not square with reality when, say, Angel Hernandez is behind the plate. But if you really think about it, you might find yourself realizing how often you don’t notice the strike zone throughout a given game.

Such is life at a time when umpires are correct with an overwhelming majority of their calls. It’s even possible for an umpire to approach 100 percent accuracy, as Ryan Blakney did when he called Reid Detmers’ no-hitter Tuesday:

Umpire Scorecards @UmpScorecards

Umpire: Ryan Blakney
Final: Rays 0, Angels 12#RaysUp // #GoHalos#TBvsLAA // #LAAvsTB pic.twitter.com/kxhPepAhaP

Though there has indeed been a slight uptick in balls within the strike zone in 2022, this doesn’t necessarily signify that umpires have collectively gotten careless. The real problem may trace back to that fundamental fact that they are human. In addition to occasional mistakes and misjudgments, eyesight limitations also come with the territory. 

Such was the case here, in which Brian Knight simply missed on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 97 mph fastball from Logan Gilbert: 

Welcome to the Ump Show @umpjob

First at-bat of the game pic.twitter.com/yCiidDRl8h

Pitches like that were few and far between at the start of the pitch tracking era, when only 12.2 percent of fastballs clocked at 95 mph or above. In 14 years since then, the rate has more than doubled to 26 percent. So it goes for velocity in general, as the average pitch is now 1.2 mph faster than it was in 2008.

One could assume that this trend is only making it harder for umpires to actually see some of the pitches they’re supposed to call, and that’s verifiable when it comes to their calls inside the strike zone.

There used to be practically no velocity separation between in-zone balls and in-zone strikes. But in recent years, the former have tended to clock substantially higher than the latter on the radar gun:

Graph via Google Sheets

As far as what could solve this problem, the obvious answer is also, in my mind, the correct answer: an automated strike zone. 

It’s a good thing that MLB’s beta testing for its automated ball-strike system (“ABS” for short) is ongoing in the minor leagues, with the system now in place at the Triple-A level after making its debut in affiliated ball in the Low-A Southeast League last year.

Yet it wasn’t perfect there, and there’s still the question of whether the ABS should automatically make calls or if there should be a challenge system like the one that exists in the Florida State League this year.

Either way, it seems far-fetched that the ABS will be ready for the majors by 2023. If it must be pushed to 2024 or 2025, then so be it.

In the meantime, it’s worth acknowledging how absurd it is that the ABS is still basically a hypothetical and not a mundane part of the game by now. It’s not as if such a system has only just become technologically possible, after all. Even before pitch tracking became part of the public lexicon in 2008, MLB was using QuesTec to track balls and strikes as far back as 2001.

The MLB Umpires Association only just acquiesced to the inevitability of an automated zone in 2019, so umps aren’t blameless for the fact that such a thing is not yet in use in the majors. But in a perfect world, they nonetheless would have been freed from the responsibility of calling balls and strikes years ago.

Umpires Shouldn’t Have to Clean Up MLB’s Ball Mess

Regarding the other ump shows that have recently taken place, there’s no excusing what happened between Bellino and Bumgarner or how the umpiring crew handled Garcia’s ejection.

To the former, Bellino admitted that he screwed up and took “full accountability” in a statement. There was no such admission for the latter, but crew chief Alfonso Marquez’s official explanation that “we just deemed it intentional” with regard to Garcia’s plunking of Josh Donaldson comes off like a textual shrug.

There had been no warnings prior to the incident. And while it was moments after Giancarlo Stanton hit a game-tying home run, even angry pitchers typically aren’t looking to immediately put the go-ahead run on base in a situation like that.

What’s true either way is that both of these incidents might have been avoided if Major League Baseball wasn’t actively making it harder for players to throw the ball.

This is the first year in which the new ball that MLB designed with Rawlings last year is supposedly the only one in circulation, as well as the first year in which humidors are in use at all 30 stadiums. In theory, the name of the game, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, is consistency.

In actuality, pretty much everyone is having a hard time under these conditions.

For hitters, the ball is now so dead that they can’t hit home runs like they did between 2015 and 2021. For pitchers, you can take it from Garcia that he plunked Donaldson precisely because he couldn’t grip the ball that night:

Shi Davidi @ShiDavidi

Like others, Yimi Garcia struggled with slick baseballs, saying “last night was one of the worst nights of my playing career regarding the baseballs. It’s embarrassing. The balls that we’re using right now, for me, are really bad, they’re very slippery. I can’t believe it.”

This would be worthy of an eye-roll if Garcia was the only pitcher making this claim, but he’s not. Most notably, Chris Bassitt didn’t pull any punches when he called out MLB for having a “very big problem with the baseballs” as his New York Mets teammates were racking up HBPs in April.

The fact that the leaguewide rate of hit-by-pitches is actually down this year arguably undercuts such conspiratorial talk. But it’s not as if things are appreciably better either. Even if the HBP rate is down, this is still on track to be the fifth year in a row with at least 0.4 per game. Previously, baseball hadn’t had a run like that since 1895 to 1900.

And it’s not just pitchers. Fielders also have to throw these new balls, so it doesn’t seem coincidental that throwing errors now account for more than half of all errors. That’s a first since at least 2002, which is as far back as FanGraphs’ data goes:

Graph via Google Sheets

Bottom line: Complaints about the ball being hard to grip aren’t all smoke. There’s some fire there. There’s obviously nothing umpires can do to put it out, but they should expect to get caught up in the burn again. The beaning of Donaldson by Garcia won’t be the last time they have to judge whether there was intent behind a ball that, in all likelihood, just got away.

While pitchers used to put a little something on their hands to enhance their grip on the ball, that obviously changed last year when MLB suddenly decided to enforce its ban on foreign substances. Rightfully so, given that Spider Tack and similar sticky stuff had blurred the line between grip enhancement and performance enhancement.

Tasking umpires with actively policing this ban, however, was never not going to be awkward. 

So it was at the beginning of the ban in June 2021, when then-Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer understandably lost his cool when Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi insisted he be checked three times in one game. It should have been apparent then that the procedure was inevitably going to result in an ejection that had nothing to do with sticky stuff. The only surprise is that it took so long to happen with Bumgarner.

The sticky stuff check is ultimately yet another responsibility that umpires should be freed from, but that can’t happen until MLB makes good on its promise to develop an officially sanctioned gripping agent. This, according to Manfred, is another thing that’s in the beta testing phase.

“We do want to give pitchers a ball with better grip, again more consistent, without providing, let me use the phrase ‘performance enhancement,’ associated with the crazy sticky stuff,” Manfred told reporters Monday.

As with the automated strike zone, this is ultimately just another area where umpires will have to make do until baseball arrives at a future that frankly should be its present.

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.

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