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The Tuesday Discussion: Umpires and Umpiring in MLB

Is there a problem with umpiring in Major League Baseball? If so, how would you address this problem?

Patrick Gunn: Umpires clearly aren’t perfect, a Boston University article notes that Umpires missed, on average, 14 calls per game last year. That being said, umpires are required to make hundreds of calls each game, if you are including each pitch, out, or hit as a call. So, if two teams combine to throw 200 pitches, then if you add the calls made on each of the 27 (or 24 if the home team wins) outs required by each team, then add the close plays that result in hits asked of umpires, 14 missed calls a game is not that many as it seems. Human error exists across all sports, that’s what makes the game interesting. Now, I do think that there are several occasions in which umpires are not dealing with conflict well, ejecting some players for too little. That is something MLB can address through simple conversations, we do not need robotic umpires for that. The rise of analytics and television has brought all referees of all sports under scrutiny, and while there are some bad calls being made, if a player can get a hit 30% of the time and be an all-star, why does an umpire have to be perfect?

Lincoln Mitchell: Umpiring is one of many parts of contemporary life that are under siege by big data and technological advances. We now have the ability, mostly through video and related technologies, to see with more clarity whether a pitch is a ball or strike, whether a runner is safe or out and the like. There is no evidence that umpiring is worse than any time in the past, but we are much more able to see the mistakes. However, given that we can use these same technologies to improve umpiring, we should. That might mean using some form of AI to call balls and strikes or simply accelerating and improving the review process. We would not use 19th century technology to travel, buy products or communicate with our friends, so why should we use it for umpiring?

Michael Saffer: I’m not sure that we have a new problem with umpires. I think that due to new camera angles and slow motion replay we are made more aware of missed calls. Imagine if they could review the famous play where Jackie Robinson stole home off of Yogi Berra. That call might have been reversed. Jeter’s home run in the 96 ALCS would’ve been reversed. The list goes on.

I do think umpires should be held accountable to the public like everyone else on the field. Perhaps the crew should be made to have press conferences to explain calls.

Matthew Cohen: Human beings make errors. It’s has always been so. If balls and strike calling can be improved by technology then that technology should be leveraged.

Ethan Semendinger: I think the biggest problem with the umpiring in Major League Baseball stems from a lack of accountability and the seemingly ever-growing “god-complex” that has formed amongst the umpiring unions. Think back recently to when Brett Gardner was unjustly thrown out of a game when home plate umpire Chris Segal failed to recognize who was arguing his calling of balls and strikes.

(There certainly is a joke in there with how an umpiring missing calls also missed who the player was that was outspoken against it.)

Then look into the fact that home plate umpire Gabe Morales failed to see Gleyber Torres advancing home while taking a time call from Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen. That was a vital play in the game that the MLB agrees was an incorrect call.

The Yankees got absolutely nothing out of it, however.

While these examples are outliers amongst a sea of common mistakes and bad judgements of strike-zones, they still happened and have had serious effects on the outcomes of important games

There is a problem with umpiring in the MLB, no doubt about it. The problem is that there is no way to practically fix it due to the umpiring union. If the world were perfect- it wouldn’t be- there would be accountability from MLB umpires with handing out punishments/demotions that aren’t kept behind closed doors and are known to the baseball viewing public.

In our game, umpires have been able to cement themselves as baseball immortals who do no wrong and can’t be questioned. That’s the problem, and unfortunately, there is no clear solution.

Jacob Gaba: I think the biggest issue with MLB umpiring is the tendency (especially with young umpires) to immediately throw players or coaches out of a game without warning. We have seen a lot of this with the Yankees this year. In terms of balls and strikes, I think that the human aspect of the umpiring adds an interesting social complexity to the game in which managers stick up for their players etc. It may be best, in order to protect umpires (which fans may not care about too much, but is nevertheless important) to move with the seemingly unavoidable advancements in technology that may reduce the job of the umpire.

Paul Semendinger: I believe that many of the unwritten rules in baseball (“The old automatic” on 3-0, the idea that close pitches go to the veteran player rather than the rookie, etc…) have always been silly. In my book a strike is a strike no matter who throws it. If a 3-0 pitch is a ball, it’s a ball, it’s not a strike if it’s close. I’ve always hated that there was an acceptance in baseball that things as defined as the strike zone can be manipulated in these (and other) ways. In my book, stuff like that has always been a problem. In the past we’ve also seen instances where umpires target certain teams, players, managers, etc… and don’t give them the close calls. That, too, is wrong. We have seen that narrative especially in recent weeks with the Yankees. “The umpires are out to get them.” And you know what? From a distance it seems to be true. We have heard that “fact” stated by players, the manager, in print, and on Yankees telecasts (both on their network and on national broadcasts). Whether it is true, or not, is a problem. There can never be a perception that umpires are anything less than absolutely fair. Anything less, anything less, strikes at the very core of the game and its integrity. This cannot be tolerated. That it has been part of the game this long is a problem. It’s time for baseball to address that and rid the game of any instances where this might be true.

In today’s environment, because of technology, we are seeing far too many calls that turn out to be incorrect. Baseball needs to address this as well. I have never been a fan of the idea of “challenges.” This is a gimmick. It’s not designed to get the calls right. It’s designed to create a story line in the game. “Should he challenge;” “Why didn’t he challenge;”, etc… If the goal was to get the calls correct, they’d… work to get the calls correct.

My solution is a fifth umpire, in the booth, with all the reply angles who reviews every play. If it’s in question, he radios to the home plate umpire to hold the game for the time it takes him to make a decision. This would happen, most often, very quickly. It was also eliminate the stupidity of having four people standing around with headsets on as they call New York. This would show, clearly, that the people in charge of the game care, absolutely, about getting the calls correct.

With this, I’d also have the “booth ump” able to give feedback to the home plate umpire based on quantifiable data that he sees clearly using whatever technologies are available to judge an umpire’s impression of the strike zone. This would allow the umpire at home to use real life, and unbiased feedback, to improve his game.

Finally, umpires who are involved in “high profile” situations, especially including when they cause the situation, should be required to talk to the media after the game. The umpires are not above the game. Making it seem that they are also sends the wrong message.

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