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  • E.J. Fagan

The Umpires Are the Problem

by EJ Fagan

April 26, 2024


NOTE: The following comes from EJ Fagan's substack page and is shared with permission.

Please check out EJ's substack page for more great articles.


The other night, Juan Soto struck out looking. All three strikes called against him were off the plate:

It was brutal to watch. Soto started walking to first place twice. The 5th pitch was particularly egregious, as it was both farther out and borderline low.

The Soto at bat wasn’t unique. Umpires get a lot more borderline calls wrong than you might think. In 2024, they have so far called 46% of all balls that were just outside the zone as strikes. It gets even worse when we’re not talking about pitches that are both off the plate and high or low:

67% of pitches just off the plate to the umpire’s right side (outside to righties, inside to lefties) are called strikes. 59% on the opposite side are called strikes. Pitchers know that they can expand the zone, and aim for the area just outside. Batters know that they can’t

Statcast doesn’t easily allow me to check for pitches just inside the zone that are called as balls, but my impression is that there are way fewer. The tie goes to the pitcher almost every time.

To be clear, this problem hasn’t gotten a lot worse over the Statcast era. Since 2015, umpires have been in the high-40s on average each year. If anything, they are a point or two better in 2024 than the previous decade.

It also isn’t a problem that uniquely has hurt the Yankees. Austin Wells, Jose Trevino and Kyle Higashioka are three of the MLB’s best framers. Even Aaron Judge, who sees a lot of low pitches called against him, is hurt about as much as league average overall.

But it is a problem for baseball as a whole. Pitchers are winning the arms race against hitters. The average MLB fastball is now north of 94 mph. Spin is off the charts. Pitchers are engineering their pitches to tunnel better than ever. The average 2024 batter is hitting just .240/.314/.382 right now, with a 23% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate.

That’s really bad, and boring to watch for anyone other than the biggest baseball fanatic. And it’s probably going to get worse. Pitchers are going to continue to optimize themselves. Hitters can only improve themselves so much before running up against the human limitations of some much velocity and spin.

Of course, it’s really hard to make pitchers throw worse. The pitch timer hasn’t helped batters. MLB tried moving the mound back in the minors, but with mixed results and a lot of player pushback. Maybe you could lower the mound, but MLB hasn’t tried that yet.

The obvious option that MLB hasn’t tried yet is to make the plate smaller. A smaller plate would make it more difficult for pitchers to aim for the edges. Batters could take a nasty slider or cutter with more confidence that it will be called a ball. I suspect that we’d see more fastballs in the zone and more early contact.

And here’s the thing: they don’t need to make the actual plate smaller. They could effectively do the same thing by enforcing the rulebook strike zone. Call the plate. Don’t give the tie to the pitcher. Heck, why not give the tie to the batter?

The problem is the umpires. They aren’t going to fix themselves. They aren’t going to cooperate with MLB to try and improve the sport. We can’t even get the umpires to allow MLB to sanction their own worst colleagues. I don’t think it’s even worth trying. Bring on the robo-umpires.


14 Kommentare

26. Apr.

Message to YES, SNY, TBS, ESPN, MLBN, etc... those strike zone boxes you continue to show us aren't even close to what the strike zone actually is. Between those boxes and these umps, it is a challenge to watch a game and concur with many of the calls.

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
25. Apr.

I agree in general with the article's point, but the Soto pitch map shows only that pitch 5 was wrongly called a strike. Pitches 3 and 6 touch the zone and therefore are strikes -- if any portion of the baseball is in the strike zone, it's a strike.

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25. Apr.

MLB has a problem with umpires hardly anyone would disagree, Technology will solve this problem so within a year or two the Robo Umpire will become part of the game. Purists will be loath to accept this addition to the game, but as EJ writes, bring on the robo umpire. Its time has come!

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25. Apr.
Antwort an

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Alan B.
Alan B.
25. Apr.

The problem with the umpires really falls into the laps of MLB & the MLBPA. Neither have done nothing to force the umpires to accept they can lose their job due to how they do their jobs. With the continually expanding use of technology, we can tell who is a bad HP ump, who is a bad 1B ump, etc.

But it's not all the umpires fault either. As they grow through the minors the work in 2 or 3 man crews for the most part. First time they are part of a 4 man crew are in a MLB game. But they've already developed bad habits.

I honestly believe, legally the Umpires contract with MLB is is some form…

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Robert Malchman
Robert Malchman
26. Apr.
Antwort an

There are numerous unions in the entertainment industry, all of which affect one another. It happens all the time. Maybe you don't like unions; that's legit. Maybe you don't like various aspects of the various CBAs; that's legit. The idea that one unionized group having influence or effects on another group somehow being improper or even legal is flat-out nuts.

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25. Apr.

pretty good opinion

which seems to discount

the evidence that the league

will change the rules

concerning the definition of a strike

the umpires may still provide idiosyncratic calls that fail to fully conform to the definitions

but complaining aboiut the umpiring is as much part of the game as is umpiring.

the present complaints are of less concern to me than back in Greg Maddux's heyday

when it seemed as though anything not fully in either batters' box was called a strike


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