This is Ashley MacLennan’s third piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. She’ll be contributing regularly here over the next month. Read the work of all our residents here.
Umpires are a necessary part of any baseball game. They’re nearly as integral to the sport as the ball itself. But just as the ball has been the object of considerable interest over the last couple years, so too has the role of the umpire become a topic for re-examination.
Baseball is currently in a state of flux, commissioner Rob Manfred having dedicated himself broadly to the “improvement” of the game. His intent? To make it more efficient, streamlined, and watchable in order to compete in an increasingly demanding media landscape. His ambiguous mandate has led to a number of proposals (some of which have become reality): the elimination of pitches for intentional walks, the possibility of flat bases at first, and the ever-popular prospect of robot umpires. Regarding that last point, there would appear to be some interest from the players, as well. Just recently, for example, Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs was so infuriated by a call that he publicly stated his approval of replacing umpires with electronic zone readers.
Before we get carried away, though, a few things need to be noted, the first (and most important) being that Rob Manfred himself has said he has no intention of getting rid of human umpires any time soon. At the quarterly owners’ meeting he said, “It would be a pretty fundamental change in the game, to take away a function that has been performed by our umpiring staff, really with phenomenal accuracy. The fact of the matter is they get them right well over 90% of the time.”
The other important factor is that the technology simply isn’t there yet. Manfred admitted, “I don’t believe the current technology is sufficient to call balls and strikes on a real-time basis. If and when we get to that technology — and sooner or later we’re going to get there — there’s still a fundamental question about whether or not we want to remove that human element from the game.”
Which brings us back to the human element. Even with umpires’ jobs relatively secure for the moment, the league now faces an interesting question; just how much interaction between players and umpires is too much? Right now, it appears, no one is particularly happy with the current arrangement.
Over the weekend, some umpires wore white wristbands to protest what they felt was an overly light punishment for Ian Kinsler, who made some pointedly disparaging remarks about Angel Hernandez last week.
In a game in Arlington on August 14th, Kinsler was thrown out of a game by Hernandez after Kinsler looked back to see if the umpire would call a particular pitch a strike or a ball. Kinsler had visibly disagreed with the most recent call Hernandez had made, and the umpire clearly viewed this second look back as an attempt by Kinsler to argue balls and strikes with him. As soon as Kinsler was tossed, he began shouting at Hernandez. While neither man was mic’d, amateur lip readers could make out Kinsler suggesting that Hernandez should do his job properly so Kinsler could do his.
Kinsler didn’t mince words on the topic afterwards. When asked if he was surprised by his ejection he replied, “No, I’m surprised at how bad of an umpire he is.” Kinsler went on to offer an idea more compelling than one might expect from an annoyed player just throwing barbs. Of Hernandez, he said: “He’s messing with baseball games, blatantly. It has to do with changing the game. He’s changing the game.”
The guiding regulations for umpires, from the Professional Baseball Umpires Corp, very specifically gives an umpire the right to throw a player out if he refuses to stop arguing, provided the player has had an adequate opportunity to make a point and a warning has been previously issued. It’s hard to tell if Hernandez warned Kinsler after his first display of dissatisfaction, but a sideways glance can hardly be considered an adequate opportunity to argue a point. In fact none of the reasons available to an umpire to eject a player seem to extend to what happened to Kinsler during the game on the 14th. One might argue that Hernandez viewed Kinsler’s glance as “unsportsmanlike conduct,” but that seems to be a stretch given how often players demonstrate their ire in the box with an eye roll or head shake.
Since the home plate umpire’s word is law, and arguing balls and strikes is grounds for an ejection, it puts managers and players in an unusual position. Everywhere else on the field, if a call is seen as incorrect, there’s a process in place to remedy the error. Managers are given the opportunity to challenge a call — and lose the right if they challenge one incorrectly. It’s a smart system that keeps game play moving and can often help teams reverse decisions that could cost them the game.
Applying the challenge regulations to calls made by home-plate umpires would be a tricky business, since both (a) the pace of play is much faster at home and (b) creating pauses over things like balls and strikes would only seem likely to slow down the game. However, in instances like Kinsler’s ejection or Zobrist’s game-ending called third strike, it seems like having an option to take a second look might not be such a bad thing. Certainly most managers wouldn’t want to waste a challenge on simple bad calls, but to allow them a review — especially in a high-leverage moment — might alleviate some of the pressure at home plate that leads to such impressive blow-ups.
And perhaps, if such a system existed, players would be less likely to engage in the kind of “escalating verbal attacks” that the World Umpires Association cited as reason for their protest of Kinsler’s lack of suspension. Right now, at home plate, players have no recourse if they feel a call is missed, and that frustrating lack of control can’t help but lead to tension between the player and the umpire. Maybe the game would be better served, for both players and umpires, if balls and strikes had the same kind of check-and-balance system that other plays have.
Umpires are held to an impossible standard, one by which any display of human emotion seems to come back and bite them — whether it’s Kinsler’s heated reaction to Hernandez’s rash ejection or Joe West’s recent suggestion that Texas Ranger Adrian Beltre is “the biggest complainer” in baseball (a comment that earned him a suspension).
Umpires are required to be as accurate as possible as often as possible, but there will always be an element of human error to the process. Baseball is a game of pauses and deep breaths, but when the action does occur, it’s a matter of split-second calls. Baseball is working to make this system as accurate as possible, but it’s a work in progress. Umpires need to be held accountable for their mistakes, and not let personal feelings cloud their judgment. At the same time, however, players and managers must recognize that they are taking umbrage with actual human beings, and just as the emotions of players are not expected to be kept in check 100% of the time, it is unrealistic to expect umpires to never react in the moment.
Clearly, it is not in anyone’s best interest for players and umpires to be publicly criticizing each other. Given the current tensions, perhaps it is worth considering whether the status quo is contributing to needless hostilities.
Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome