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For Fans Who Should Know Better

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Mudville: February 27, 2021 5:28 pm PDT
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In Defense of MLB’s Galoots

MILLIONS OF AMERICAN BASEBALL FANS KNOW, WITH ABSOLUTE CERTAINTY, THAT UMPIRES ARE SIMPLY OVERPAID GALOOTS, WHO ARE DOING AN EASY JOB BADLY. MILLIONS OF BASEBALL FANS ARE WRONG”

That is what Amazon had to say in its comments in 2009 when writing about “As They See ‘Em-A Fan’s Travels In The Land Of Umpires” – an outstanding book written by former New York Times writer Bruce Weber.

Overpaid galoots?? Amazon was right in saying millions of baseball fans are wrong. To this day countless fans, broadcasters, inexperienced journalists, players, managers, and coaches remain wrong. WRONG!!  WRONG!!, WRONG!! — about umpires. Even so, it won’t be long now before we begin to hear (repeatedly):

— “The umpiring is worse than ever.”

— “Umpires have no accountability.”

— “How could he miss that call?”

— “There’s no way that pitch was a strike.”

— “That call cost us the game!”

— “The game needs more technology. Where are the robot umpires?”

And on, and on, and on. These critical refrains are as regular as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

But, instead of relying on traditional emotional criticisms (and an abundance of truly amateur “studies”) let’s take a look at what MLB umpiring is really like.

Over baseball’s history there have definitely been good umpires and, well… less-than-good. However, to their credit, all who made it to the Major League level were willing to invest the necessary time to learn about the rules and umpiring. After learning the basics they then spent years serving apprenticeships in the minor leagues.

If one believes in the old adage “history repeats”, take note of the following. It’s an example of how bad people felt Major League umpiring was even 41 years ago.

In 1979, MLB umpires stayed out of work due to a pay dispute and Major League Baseball was briefly played with “replacement” umpires who were out of the umpiring ranks of minor leagues and colleges.

Umpire Steve Palermo

Former big league umpire Steve Palermo, shown here in 1987, had his career abbreviated after he was shot in 1991 while trying to break up a robbery in Dallas. Larry Stoudt/Getty Images

Most likely fans first thought that was fine since, even then, “the umpiring was worse than ever.” The replacement umpire situation only lasted until the Major League players, led by Reggie Jackson and Tom Seaver requested/demanded that things be resolved with the regular umpires and that they get back to work. Most likely, if such a scenario were to occur today the demand for the return of MLB’s “regular” umpires would be stronger than ever… because (as fans would come to realize) the umpiring is better than ever.

Whatever MLB umpiring might have been before 2000 (and there were great umpires before 2000 – think Doug Harvey, Bruce Froemming, Steve Palermo, Rich Garcia, Frank Pulli, Jerry Crawford, just to name a few), it was in 2000 where MLB umpiring began to change even more. Sandy Alderson joined the Commissioner’s Office and brought order, even more accountability and even a dash of technology to the Major League umpiring staff.

To the credit of the umpires, they adapted to new procedures and increased accountability.  Since then, with a support staff of people in the Umpiring Department at Major League Baseball, a group of umpire “supervisors” with on-field Major League umpiring experience, and an extensive network of umpire “observers” (people with either umpiring or playing experience) and with video of every game available to watch what umpires do (and are subsequently graded upon) MLB umpires today have more accountability than people ever stop to consider.

Umpire Bruce Froemming

Ron Perranoski #29 and Tommy Lasorda #2 chat with umpire Bruce Froemming during a 1981 spring training game. (Photo by Jayne Kamin-Once/Getty Images)

If one were an umpire and aside from just safe/out and ball/ strike calls, imagine being “microscoped” daily by your boss with regard to your on-field attitude, pre-pitch posture, handling of situations, how you interrelate and interact with your crew , your knowledge of the rules (contained in a book of approximately 160 pages) and the “interpretations” of those rules (generally specified in a separate umpires’ manual of about an additional 110 pages), style and form of calls, uniforms and appearance.

These are all areas in which Major League umpires are evaluated.

Imagine, if you will, studying a complex rule situation in umpire school and then not encountering that situation in your first 20 years of umpiring work.  Then, BOOM! In a key game in the World Series that complex situation presents itself. You’ve got to rule on that situation IMMEDIATELY AND PERFECTLY!

In front of millions of fans (when you include the world-wide TV viewing audience), no less. Occasionally, depending on the specific call, you can caucus with your crew, but the requirement is to get the call and/or rule application 150% correct… like yesterday. Here’s the fun part. Any delay (or certainly incorrect application of a rule) will draw you world-wide criticism, probably for years to come.

Umpire Richie garcia

In this Oct. 11, 1986, file photo, California Angels' Gary Pettis, left, is caught stealing second base by Boston Red Sox shortstop Spike Owen (5) as umpire Richie Garcia, center, looks on during the third inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif. `{` JEFF ROBBINS | AP `}`

Ultimately, MLB umpiring (as is the case with the officiating of most professional sports) is better than ever. What colors opinions about poor performance is, given television and the preponderance of social media, we just see more of umpires’ work as it is now broken down in frame-by-frame fashion from countless high-resolution cameras and then repeated for viewers ad nauseum. At that, only the negative ever seems to make it to air. Ever hear someone on-air say: “Let’s take a look at this week’s great calls”?

No? Not surprising.

Let’s move on to the matter of missed calls. First, consider the “Eureka Factor”. That would be the realization that umpires do miss calls. But do they miss them at the same rate that players strike out? Or, at the same rate that pitchers throw wild pitches or display poor execution of their pitches resulting in base hits and/or home runs? Or, at the same rate that defensive players miss ground balls or drop fly balls? Nope. Not at all… and never have.

Many fans now are enamored with instant replay… which is anything but “instant” (and yet Major League Baseball can’t figure out why games are so long). And it is noted that MLB is inclined to publicly disclose information such as X% of reviewed calls were incorrect, etc., thusly leaving an impression of umpire inaccuracy.

But what too often goes unnoticed is that (said disclosed) number only refers to calls reviewed by instant replay. What about the total number of calls the Major League umpiring staff makes over the course of a Major League season?  What about the “great calls” that are made in the blink of an eye? Ever hear anything about those?

Some years back, an exercise was undertaken with regard to umpires’ accuracy on all calls. At that time, umpire supervisors and observers watched about 50% of all Major League games first-hand.

They would chart all calls made and, since they were stationed in the press box, certainly had access to television monitors with replay to help evaluate whether a call was correct or not. At the end of the season it was considered that, since 50% of the games had been viewed first-hand, it might be (most) rational to DOUBLE the number of missed calls logged, and figure out the accuracy percentage in relation to the total number of calls seen in (but) 50% of the games.  But noooooo!!

Umpire Frank Pulli

Frank Pulli examining a replay in making a ruling during a game in 1999, long before baseball approved the practice. (Photo: Colin Braley/Reuters)

For purposes of that study, it was decided to quadruple the number of missed calls reported and apply that number against the total number of calls observed in half of the games. Even quadrupling the number of incorrect calls for purposes of the study it still resulted in overall umpire call accuracy in the range of over 98%.

Yes, 98%.

How do umpires, who have trained extensively for years, react to a missed call? Most likely they remain stoic while mentally trying to process WHY they missed it yet remain ready for whatever might occur next. Was it a matter of concentration? Positioning? Or perhaps bad timing? In short: here’s a quote from a veteran umpire:

“Don’t tell me that I missed a call. I know that. Tell me WHY I missed it so I can make a correction.” The “why” is where most fans “get of the boat.”

In rare circumstances, sometimes an umpire just misses. Like the best hitter on your favorite team taking a called strike three fastball right down the middle of the plate with the winning run on third base. Brain cramp or whatever. It besets umpires, as well as players.

Let’s talk about balls and strikes. Since 2000, Major League Baseball has invested heavily in the best available technology to evaluate umpires’ “plate work” and to bring standardization to the strike zone. As of this writing, there have been about four iterations of Major League Baseball’s strike zone evaluation system with each bringing improvements in accuracy over the previous system used.

Yet, no matter how much Major League Baseball improves its evaluative ball and strike system, Major League umpires still demonstrate accuracy just short of amazing. For the 2019 season the staff AVERAGE on ball and strike accuracy for the entire season was north of 97%. No doubt some probably lament, “Wait a minute!!  These guys can’t be that good!!” The understandable umpire response?  “Wait a minute!! Major League Baseball gave us the best system money can buy!!”

However, even in spite of umpires’ staff average of accuracy each season in the range of 97-98 % it has been reported that Major League Baseball is, nonetheless, moving to an automated strike/ball system. In the words of one MLB veteran: “Fine. Just be careful what you wish for.”

Umpire Dog Harvey with Roberto Clemente

Doug Harvey, left, with Roberto Clemente in 1972. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

A couple of other things to bear in mind about balls and strikes.

  • Remember, by rule, that “…if any part of the ball passes through any part of the strike zone” it is a strike. Thus, when one is watching on TV equipped with K-Zone or such and a ball is shown outside, inside (to the hitter), above, or below the zone with just a part of the ball touching the defining strike zone line… it is a strike.
  • Also, bear in mind that when one watches on TV one is watching from an off-angle (given the location of most center field cameras) and from the opposite direction that the umpire is seeing the pitch with no appreciation of or provision for depth perception on the part of the viewer.

Speaking of rules — how many players, managers, coaches and fans do you think really know the rules?  Here’s just one example to help you out with your estimate. The check(ed) swing. How many times have you seen people go wild because a batter (or his manager or coach) asked an umpire to get help on a check(ed) swing and incited an argument and/or ejection when the umpire declined their request to get help? In reality, such an umpire was/is merely abiding by the Comment to Rule 8.02(c) which reads :

“The manager or the catcher may request the plate umpire to ask his partner for help on a half swing when the plate umpire calls the pitch a ball, but not when the pitch is called a strike”.

Why only on a call of ball? Because that limits the right of appeal to the defensive team only. Why would an offensive team desire an appeal on a pitch that was called a ball?

In other words (and as was stated in earlier versions of the Rule and is covered in the interpretations of the rule contained in the Umpires’ Manual):

Only the catcher or the defensive team’s manager (emphasis added) may appeal on a half swing and, at that, only on a call of ball.”

Nonetheless annually, probably dozens are ejected for their comments or antics when an umpire declines a batter’s (or offensive team’s) request to “get help”. Even though an umpire might try to explain this provision, his explanation is usually overcome by the emotion of the person about to leave the game.

Don’t like that rule? Then change it. But don’t criticize the umpires for going by the existing rule.

Speaking of ejections (and umpire accountability). Any time someone is ejected it is not just ejected, gone, and done. Rather the ejecting umpire files a detailed report, interviews with the person ejected might be conducted, video tape is reviewed, and the umpire is graded to make sure the ejection “meets standard”. What standards? Those would be the one dozen standards for ejection contained in the Umpires’ Manual.

In reality, personnel eject themselves.  Rarely, if ever, has an umpire initiated an ejection.  Rather umpires react to someone violating one of the provisions of the rules in line with the standards as umpires are directed to do.

In the overall, here are some truisms about umpiring (or about officiating in any sport for that matter). If one is honest with oneself how many do you agree with?

  • No one wants the umpires around. But no one will play without them. Ever notice what happens in the (unlikely) event umpires are late to an MLB game? NOTHING!! The game does not begin until the umpires are there to make it an official Major League game.
  • Anyone can umpire (or officiate any sport, even at the highest professional level) until they try it… and then find out THEY CAN’T EVEN COME CLOSE. Those who might attempt it might get one call correct (and probably as a result of a guess—not technique) but it will be downhill from there. Far too many umpire critics think umpiring is akin to being able to pilot a 747 because they once flew on one.
  • The players are the game!! But without the umpires there is no game. It just becomes an uncontrolled scrimmage.
  • Few people know what umpires do, or how they do it, but everyone THINKS they know what umpires do and how they do it. (Paradoxical, to say the least).
  • It is like a law of nature that those who criticize are those who have the benefit of hindsight, time to ponder a play or situation, (too often) ignorance of the rules and… oh yes…. most importantly, slow-motion replay. No good critic is caught without each of those factors.

In conclusion: The next time you watch a game, holler at the umpires. It’s traditional. But, after doing so, hopefully you will reflect on some of the points contained in this article and realize (as is the case with the officials in all professional sports) THESE PEOPLE ARE THE BEST IN THE WORLD AT WHAT THEY DO.

Mike Port spent over 40 years in professional baseball. He began as a player, becoming a minor league GM as the result of an injury. He advanced to the Major League level where he served the San Diego Padres in the positions of Director of Promotions and Director of Player Development. Mike then worked as the Angels' Director of Player Personnel, Chief Administrative Officer, and eventually their General Manager. Port was the founding President of the Arizona Fall League, then joined the Boston Red Sox as Assistant General Manager, Vice President of Baseball Operations and (interim) General Manager. He left the Red Sox to become Major League Baseball's Vice President of Umpiring. He was the only guy signed by Hall of Famer Duke Snider (then a Padres Scout) to ever make it to the Big Leagues, just not as a player.

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