On Umpires and “The Human Element”

The big news from from the commissioner’s office came yesterday evening when Brett Lawrie was handed a four-game suspension for his temper tantrum on May 15 against the Tampa Bay Rays. Closer Fernando Rodney fell behind in the count 3-1, but came back to strike out Lawrie thanks to some questionable strike-calling from home plate umpire Bill Miller. Rodney’s 3-1 pitch was clearly a ball pulled back in by catcher Jose Molina (baseball’s best pitch-framer). Lawrie had preemptively started his stroll down the first base line after what he thought was ball four, but was called back to the batter’s box with a full count instead. Rodney’s next pitch, although much closer to the strike zone, looked like it was pulled back in by about a foot and Miller called out Lawrie on strikes, prompting the rookie’s fit of anger.

Courtesy Brooks Baseball, here’s the strike zone plot with each pitch labeled:

Lawrie’s response was 100% wrong and he should have been suspended more than four games, in this writer’s humble opinion. However, as a baseball fan, I’m growing tired of umpires wrongfully impacting the game. Unlike players, umpires rarely get punished for being terrible at their job or instigating conflict on the baseball field. Joe West, for example, has not only become known for being an instigator, but he has worn the reputation with pride and used it to further his career both on and off the field. It’s an imbalance that lowers the quality of each and every baseball game.

We have a situation right now where, if you know the name of an umpire, it is almost always because of something negative; rarely is it for something positive. Try it yourself, right now: name as many umpires as you can off of the top of your head, then go back and write down why each umpire sticks out in your memory. Umpires’ nicknames even mock their very presence on the field, just ask “Balkin'” Bob Davidson:

Davidson, who has been nicknamed “Balkin’ Bob” or “Balk-a-day-Bob” due to his frequent and usually incorrect balk calls [...]

How is this good for the game of baseball? This imbalance sullies the veracity of many games throughout the history of baseball, much more so than performance-enhancing drugs ever supposedly did. For a striking reminder, re-watch when Ryan Howard was tossed out of a game back in August 2010:

The third base umpire who mocked Howard before ejecting him in the 14th inning was Scott Barry. By needlessly instigating and therefore needlessly ejecting Howard, he forced the Phillies to use starting pitcher Roy Oswalt in left field. Although Oswalt did not drop the one fly ball hit to him, he did have to hit in the bottom of the 16th with runners on first and second with two outs and his team down 4-2. Howard could have been at the plate with a chance to hit a walk-off three-run home run, but instead, Oswalt — a career .152 hitter — weakly grounded out to third base to end the game. That’s the Phillies’ most recent example; you could ask each member of ESPN’s Sweet Spot network for his or her team’s game-losing umpire judgment without going further back than 2010.

Baseball needs to do one of two things:

  • Embrace “the human element” but implement a system where umpires are publicly held accountable for their performance and for their actions with other players and coaches
  • Scrap “the human element” altogether, relying on instant replay and automated verification

When a player hits .150, he gets benched or even sent down to the Minor Leagues. When an umpire performs equivalently poorly, nothing happens. As a result, we have a system where it behooves umpires to move further up the proverbial bell curve — to set themselves apart from their peers. They have nothing to lose! Why not call balks with reckless abandon or take advantage of emotionally-invested players by making obviously incorrect calls to goad them into an argument or tantrum? The upside is that you become better-recognized and you might get a nickname. That translates to money and job security, eventually.

Now, imagine a world where umpires are rigorously graded for the accuracy of their ball/strike, safe/out, and fair/foul rulings, and publicly held accountable for getting out of line with a player or coach. The validity of some games would no longer be in question, the average game time would go down due to fewer (or zero) arguments, and teams wouldn’t unnecessarily be losing key players for games at a time. Sure, you’d lose the “theater” of the vs.-umpire conflict, but the sport would be all the better for it. In that world, I couldn’t sympathize with a player whose temper tantrum would make a seven-year-old shake his head in disappointment.

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23 comments

  1. Richard

    May 17, 2012 09:51 AM

    I’m not a proponent of widespread implementation of instant replay (though some expansion is warranted, I readily grant), but I wholeheartedly agree that umpires need to be held accountable. A missed call is one thing. But ask the rest of the crew if they saw something different! And instigating is complete bullshit.

  2. Bliz

    May 17, 2012 09:52 AM

    Jerry Meals screwed us in game 2 of the NLDS last October. La Russa yelled at him and completely changed the strike zone in that game. There’s a more recent example for you. Agree with this post 100%.

  3. JettMartinez

    May 17, 2012 09:54 AM

    Amen! I can even tolerate the honest mistakes to some degree (though I would like to see more/better use of replay.) But the confrontational attitudes are just ludicrous. You don’t see this kind of behavior from officials in other sports, and it would not be tolerated if it did occur.

  4. Jesse

    May 17, 2012 10:41 AM

    I’m actually not a big fan of replay. I don’t see ball-strike calls as black and white but instead as more a question of judgment and interpretation. So as long as that judgment is exercised relatively consistently, I’m OK with different umpires calling the game differently. As for other calls, I can see the value of replay, but I’m not sure why “getting the call right” has to be such a big deal. Unlike football, baseball has a long season, and there’s no reason to think bad calls won’t even out over time. Frankly, as a fan, I’m not sure it’s worth having a regular-season game last 10 minutes longer to conduct replays just to make sure every call is right.

    The umpire attitude is a different story. There’s no reason to antagonize a player as Scott Barry did with Howard. Clearly he should have been suspended and perhaps even fired. A system of more public accountability would at least convince fans that the league takes umpire performance an attitude seriously and recognizes when an umpire has negatively affected the outcome of a game.

    Also, not sure who we were playing, but I’m pretty sure there was a game a week or two ago where Chooch was robbed of a double and then Victorino was wrongly called out trying to steal third because there was no third-base umpire. (Joe West, I think, was sick.) Probably would have won that game, if not for the utterly ridiculous circumstance of MLB not having a backup ready in case of illness.

  5. Jim

    May 17, 2012 11:29 AM

    If I was the Commish I would overthrow the entire Umpire’s Union, fire them all, and just eat the cost of whatever damages incur. Then I would hire all new umpires and negotiate a much better deal, which would include public discipline for bad performance and a transparent evaluation procedure.

    Of course Bud would never do that, he’s too scared to dare step on anyone’s toes like that.

  6. jauer

    May 17, 2012 11:45 AM

    Anyone notice how Bill Miller released a statement to the media after the helmet throwing incident?

    Its funny, because I seem to remember about a thousand examples where the umpires refuse to talk to the media after blowing a huge call under the guise of “we arent supposed to talk to the media.” Jim Joyce, of course, is the exception — which is why he’s respected.

    Miller’s statement to the media, combined with his Rip Hamilton impression after minimal contact, makes me want to shake the hand of the fan who threw the beer at him.

  7. chongtastic

    May 17, 2012 11:52 AM

    Some of these guys remind me of professors with tenure. What’s the turnover rate for MLB umpires? Or is the umpire union good about keeping their guys in their positions? Surely some of them would tone down their act if they knew there was a guy waiting to take their spot.

  8. LTG

    May 17, 2012 12:15 PM

    I don’t know any professors with tenure who don’t do their jobs well. That tenure eliminates the possibility of being fired does not mean people in academia stop being motivated to do well once they receive tenure. This is a politically motivated myth.

  9. chongtastic

    May 17, 2012 12:29 PM

    TIL from nea.org: “Tenure is simply a right to due process; it means that a college or university cannot fire a tenured professor without presenting evidence that the professor is incompetent or behaves unprofessionally or that an academic department needs to be closed or the school is in serious financial difficulty.”

    “SURVEYS show clearly that tenured generally publish more, serve on committees and teach more than their untenured colleagues. On average, faculty work 52 hours per week.”

    Now I know and knowing is half the battle.

  10. Sean

    May 17, 2012 12:34 PM

    Why do you assume that umpires are not peer reviewed and held accountable by other umpires? I had always assumed that they were and that the best were selected for tasks like the All Star game, playoffs, and World Series. You assume that this is not the case. Is it true that umpires are rewarded for doing their job poorly. Or do you really mean to say, that umpires gain notoriety for doing their job poorly? I have a suspicion that it’s the latter and that you have assumed it is the former.

  11. Bliz

    May 17, 2012 12:59 PM

    What does being “held accountable by other umpires” mean? It certainly doesn’t equate to getting rid of crappy officials and/or replacing them with better ones.

  12. KH

    May 17, 2012 01:14 PM

    Sean, Im sure they claim to have some kind of review system. The question is what exactly are the consequences of scoring poorly in said review system? It seems to me that it is extremely hard to lose your job as an umpire as in almost impossible. There Union is extremely powerful.

  13. Dan K.

    May 17, 2012 01:24 PM

    @Sean,

    The fact that West is a regular in both the postseason and All-Star games suggests that the best are NOT specifically selected for these tasks. And, as others said, even if they’re getting reviewed, the reviews are doing nothing to help that any of us can see. Umpires are something baseball needs to address now. They should do a better job and be held to higher standards. In addition, each crew should have back-up members in case one or more of the crew members can not officiate due to, oh I don’t know, illness.

    As for Lawrie, his tirade was childish… but then again, the third strike call seemed like it was meant to send a message, which is also childish. I can’t realistically expect the players to act like adults if the officiators won’t.

  14. Rob in SJ

    May 17, 2012 02:43 PM

    I can’t ever remember an umpire getting fired, or even suspended for making poor calls. And there are some really bad ones – CB Bucknor is absolutely awful with no consequences. So that shows that whatever review is taking place does not have real teeth.

  15. Rob in SJ

    May 17, 2012 02:46 PM

    As far as instant replay, it just seems so wrong that every single person watching a game can know without a doubt 3 seconds after a call is made that it was dead wrong, but it doesn’t change. I’m not talking about ball/strike so much as safe/out or fair/foul. When I am at a game I go on twitter whenever there is a close call and within 10 seconds at least 5 people have posted if it was wrong. It just shouldn’t be that hard to correct. Don’t give me human element – the human element is the players. The umpires, or officials in any sport, or meant to enforce the rules as accurately as possible.

  16. Mark Peltz

    May 17, 2012 03:14 PM

    Baseball games need to show the above home plate view for balls and strikes. That view would show how the umpire controls not only the corners, but often 2-4 inches constantly missing the plate. This goes on far too often and major league baseball really does not care to expose the bad umpires. How about Tim Welke blowing the out when the first baseman pulled his foot just to catch the ball. One of the worst plays I have ever seen. Welke should have been suspended for sleeping on the job.

  17. Brad.

    May 17, 2012 04:24 PM

    What ever happened with that computer tracking system that was famously installed in a few stadiums–Questech or some such name, I believe it had? Wasn’t that supposed to be a way to evaluate umpires? I haven’t heard that mentioned in several years.

    And who was the pitcher that took a bat to one of the cameras, blaming it for forcing the umps to change the way they called a game? I want to say it was a Met, but then I always think the worst of them.

  18. dkk

    May 17, 2012 04:27 PM

    Uh…I know PLENTY of professors who do a very questionable job once they have tenure. Tenure is often about research, which can mean that a professor is an excellent researcher, but miserable colleague, advisor and/or teacher.

    Anyway, I agree that umpire accuracy and behavior need better review, but I’m going to side with the focus on behavior, too: Miller clearly said something to Lawrie, and Lawrie was pissed to start with, but it wasn’t until Miller had talked back that Lawrie started to go after him. Lawrie deserves his suspension for his tantrum, but the helmet was clearly not aimed at Miller, and Miller should have kept his cool.

    If players can get suspended for cursing out umpires, umpires should get suspended for cursing out players.

  19. BDF

    May 17, 2012 05:31 PM

    I love the comparison of umpires to tenured faculty. The two groups share in common a strong union and a kind of lotteryish element to career advancement (not meaning that it is about luck, just that many are trying for few slots). These things in combination give them both massive incentive to keep things as they are (because it’s a great gig and their next best option is likely to be a significant falloff) and the power to do so (because there is a perception [which may be accurate] of elite skill and training required to become a tenured faculty member at a research university and a major league umpire).

    The criticism of university professors *is* often politically motivated, but that doesn’t mean it’s without basis. I made my living (not as a professor, but working with and for professors) for many years in academia and as a general rule, as Bouton said of Yastrzemski, they’re for themselves first and second and screw everyone else, which I say most decidedly not as a member of the political group most often critical of them. That motivation in and of itself is not such a bad thing, except they wield their public-spiritedness as a rhetorical club to maintain their privilege, which is destructive bad faith. Umpires semi-tacitly do much the same, i.e., the game needs us, no one can do what we do as well as we do, and then they act like babies in a way that hurts the game they purport to protect.

  20. Gaël

    May 18, 2012 04:34 AM

    Brandon McCarthy just started a blog, in which he discusses the blown call in the A’s/Rangers game last night, and once again proves that he’s one of the coolest baseball players ever (seriously, this guy is awesome):

    bmccarthythoughts.wordpress.com/

  21. Bob

    May 18, 2012 10:36 PM

    At least Barry never was invited back to ump in the majors. Although nothing publicly was done, the MLB recognized that he wouldn’t be a good MLB ump.

    Oh wait:
    Check out the Wikipedia article on Scott Barry.

    [Hopefully this comment isn't marked as spam - link removed :) ]

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