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.