That’s the phrase I’ve continued to return to throughout the season. The blown calls. The manipulated strike zones. The belief that the umpire is just as big a part of the game as the professional athletes on the field. Enough is enough—it’s time for Major League Baseball to fix its most obvious problem.
The umpiring needs to be addressed. This isn’t a call for robot umpires. This isn’t a teardown of the sport or its rules. What it is, though, is something that needs to be discussed in a productive and open forum in order to breed real progress. The unilateral, on-field power of the umpire has altered the outcomes of games. Perhaps it’s time for a different approach.
And in this case, the numbers back up the raw, visual data.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek has a rolling tracker of how umpires have performed since 2012. Focusing just on the 2015 data at hand, we see that Stu Scheurwater and Lance Barksdale have the highest percentage of correct calls this season—each at 89 percent. To be getting just about nine out of 10 calls correct, at this level, is nothing short of exceptional.
However, Scheurwater has just 114 calls graded out on this scale, and while Barksdale has a sizable 2,505, there are 22 umpires who have registered more time on the field than either of those candidates. And of those 22 men, not a single one has a correct call percentage above 88.
According to the numbers, Joe West, one of baseball’s most popular punching bags when it comes to discussing the topic of umpiring, has blown 466 of 3,248 calls this season (for a correct call percentage of 85.7 percent). That’s the same West who was named one of the worst umpires in the game in an anonymous 100-player survey back in 2010, the same West who complained about the pace of a baseball game he was paid to work, and it’s even the same West who is President of the World Umpires Association (WUA).
But don’t be mistaken—despite his stature in the game, this isn’t just about West. This is about a problem that is running rampant around the game.
This week, during a game between the Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers, there was a moment—frozen in time despite the sweltering Texas heat—that should serve as a teaching point in MLB offices going forward.
After the umpiring crew went to the headsets in order to determine if a ball was caught in the outfield, Astros manager A.J. Hinch exited the dugout—in a calm, collected fashion—in order to receive an explanation. Instead, what he got was an ejection.
Here is the explanation that umpire Bill Miller gave to the Houston Chronicle:
“When we went to the head phones, replay had told us that the call was going to be flipped and it was going to be no catch. In their determination by looking at the cameras they have they felt as though the run would have scored had the original call been correct.
A.J. wanted to know what I thought the runner would have done. Now he’s getting into something that really doesn’t matter. As a courtesy, I gave him an explanation and he chose not to accept it and to push the envelope and say whether or not if I was in replay what would I have done. And that’s above and beyond. That’s an automatic ejection.”
And now, here is Hinch:
“I knew that Tuck had missed the ball and had dropped the ball,” Hinch said. “I did want to know what a ruling would come out of New York that would create Gose from scoring. Is he continually running? Is he past the base? Is he before the base? Is it because he’s a fast runner?
Like what are we interpreting as to why he’s allowed to score? That’s it. And it’s OK to go out there. You’re not allowed to argue a replay, but I should get an explanation.”
Replay is built to make it clear as to why the play ended the way it did,” Hinch said. “I think it’s unacceptable to not get an explanation, to be honest.”
Let’s recap: The Astros’ manager asking the umpire what he would have done in a game he was umpiring apparently does not matter. The Astros’ manager asking the umpire for a complete explanation of how the run scores—while accepting the ultimate end result—is also unacceptable. And as a result of the umpire’s failure to provide a real explanation, the Astros had their manager ejected. That sounds fair, right?
With baseball putting such an emphasis on the correct outcome, it’s difficult to fathom the reasoning behind this troubling pattern being allowed to continue.
An ejection was once viewed as a last resort for establishing control of a game gone wild. Now? It’s just the easiest method possible to be rid of an argument the umpire doesn’t feel like having—even when the blown call is the result of his judgement alone.
In a modern landscape of baseball with an evolving game, the antiquated approach of the umpires—and their failure to endure real consequences as a result—needs to be fixed.