Minor-League Umpires are Prospects Too

Just yesterday, I was writing about pitches down the middle called balls, and I identified one from the other day thrown by Gio Gonzalez to Josh Satin. The umpire who called the ball was Clint Fagan, and I haven’t heard that name much before, but I didn’t think much of it, until a commenter pointed out that the strike zone was off all game. That one call, of course, was the worst, but Fagan called a zone that wasn’t the ordinary, familiar zone, and we can only speculate on the impact it had. There’s nothing to be done about it now.

Then last night, I started getting tweets to the effect of, “there’s another ball on a pitch down the middle.” That pitch was thrown by Roenis Elias (Seattle Mariners baseball player) to Nick Punto, and the umpire was Sean Barber, which is another name I’m unfamiliar with. Barber, like Fagan, had a weird zone all game, outside of the one call. Barber aggravated some players and his zone became a story, even in a tight game that went 12 innings. Barber and Fagan called strange zones on consecutive days, and it turns out the two of them are linked, besides just being included in the introduction of this post.

From an AP brief several days ago:

Eight Triple-A umpires have [been] called up to work all or part of the opening week of the big league season: Sean Barber, Clint Fagan, Hal Gibson, Pat Hoberg, Will Little, Mark Ripperger, John Tumpane and Quinn Wolcott.

Barber’s a minor-league umpire. Fagan’s a minor-league umpire, too. Stands to reason they’re considered two of the better minor-league umpires, but it also stands to reason minor-league umpires can be evaluated only so analytically. And it stands to reason minor-league umpires are inferior to major-league umpires, the same way minor-league players are inferior to major-league players. Transitioning to the majors is a learning curve, for everybody.

This was Fagan’s ball call, again:


From Brooks Baseball, this was Fagan’s strike zone:


Strikes were taken, and strikes were given. It’s not that Fagan called a miniature zone — it’s that he called an unusual zone. He essentially shifted it downward, and it isn’t easy for players to adjust on the fly. The Mets broadcast caught on quick.

Here now is Barber’s most controversial call, where by “controversial” I actually mean “non-controversial”. Being wrong isn’t a controversy.


The entire Mariners infield started to walk off. Even Punto responded as if he thought he’d struck out. On the next pitch, Elias allowed his first hit of the game. He had had better experiences before in his life.


Barber didn’t confine his impact to that single at-bat. The bottom of the tenth saw him irritate both sides in consecutive plate appearances.



I suspect it isn’t often that a catcher bitches out a home-plate umpire during the flow of the game. But then, Mike Zunino has more big-league experience than Barber does. Here’s the Barber strike zone:


As with Fagan, it’s more weird than tiny. Barber took strikes from the Mariners, and he granted a more or less equal number of strikes to the Mariners. But it’s hard to play regular baseball when the very foundation of the game goes tits up, and given the experiences with both Fagan and Barber, you have to wonder about the guys making calls after coming up from Triple-A.

I do want to note Pat Hoberg. Hoberg is the other of the Triple-A umpires to have been behind the plate so far this year, and his strike zone wasn’t particularly bad:


So it’s not like every minor-league umpire is a disaster. And we’re dealing with really, really small samples. But it wouldn’t be a surprise if minor-league umpires call meaningfully worse strike zones. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they’re inconsistent, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if there’s a bigger gap between Triple-A umps and big-league umps than ever. The process in the minors hasn’t changed very much. In the bigs, umpires have been subject to PITCHf/x feedback, and they’ve made progress ever since 2008 to call a better and slightly bigger zone.

There are a lot of questions you can wonder about, even going so far as to question minor-league strikeout and walk rates. How bad are those zones, really? Is anybody keeping track? Why were Barber and Fagan selected? What are they going to be like from this point forward? How quickly can umpires change for the better, and how do umps in the minors get feedback?

As much as people complain about umpires in the bigs, those are also, probably, the best umpires in the world, and probably by a lot. So if you’re one of those people who wants the worst umpires to get demoted and replaced by guys from Triple-A, understand that the guys from Triple-A might be even worse, at least for the first while. It’s not so much a question of umpiring talent. There are probably some very talented umpires coming up, waiting for a shot. But there’s also converting talent into performance, and that’s where big-league experience provides a massive edge. They’ve all been trained to be umps in the major leagues. The ones who haven’t, haven’t, and it must take some time for a minor-league ump to get himself to big-league speed.

Not a fan of the umpires we have? They’re probably better than the alternative umpires. At least, when it comes to calling balls and strikes. At least, for as long as it takes for a minor-league umpire to adjust. Relief from bad calls won’t be provided by any human being. It can only be provided by cold, heartless robots. Whether that’s a thing you want is entirely up to you.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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9 years ago