AP Photo/John Bazemore
Make it easy for Major League Baseball umpires, yeah?
Yes I know. This isn’t an easy question to ask in the best of times, and the 2022 season has only been the best ever for referees by unironically enjoying what they call the “ump show.”
To paraphrase Potter Stewart, we all know an ump show when we see one. If I have to attempt a precise definition, I would say when at least one umpire disrupts the flow of play with a questionable call and/or attitude that is simply not appropriate to the role he is being asked to play. That is, as an independent and impartial arbiter of the action.
Recently, there was Dan Bellino vs. Madison Bumgarner on May 4th:
Bally Sports Arizona @BALLYSPORTSAZ
The difference between MadBum’s and Hernandez’s hand checks is striking. pic.twitter.com/CRPOuRXBUE
And on May 10th, Yimi Garcia vs. The Whole Crew at Yankee Stadium:
And a day later, on May 11th, Kevin Plawecki and Alex Cora vs. Adam Beck:
Bally Sports South @BallySportsSO
Red Sox catcher Kevin Plawecki and manager Alex Cora were thrown out by Collin McHugh after that base-loaded full-count strikeout. pic.twitter.com/THvDbUbKha
Whether UMP shows have increased in frequency as much as they seem in 2022, well who’s to say? Maybe if Baseball Reference’s Stathead tool had a search option for UMP shows, but it doesn’t.
Also, as annoying as they are, it’s not the ump shows that are the problem.
Rather, they are a common symptom of three underlying ailments that affect all referees. One of them, unfortunately, is something neither they nor MLB can do about, and that’s the fact that they’re only human, too. As long as that’s the case, mistakes and misjudgments will just come with territory.
If the phrase “robo umps” is on the tip of the tongue, congratulations on correctly identifying one of the MLB grievances can do something.
Referees can not announce balls and shots better
Search, Frank Drebin calls will happen. Beck is far from the first umpire to have had his striking zone seemingly corrupted by momentary drama. He won’t be the last either.
Far from the norm, such calls are the exception in baseball today.
It would even be fair to say that they did been the exception, as the percentages of hits called out of zone and balls called in zone have fallen sharply since the beginning of the pitch tracking era in 2008:
Chart via Google Sheets
This may not correspond to reality if, for example, Angel Hernandez is behind the plate. But if you really think about it, you might find how often you don’t notice the hitting zone during a given game.
Such is life in a time when umpires are right with an overwhelming majority of their decisions. It’s even possible for a referee to approach 100 percent accuracy, as Ryan Blakney did when he announced Reid Detmer’s no-hitter Tuesday:
While there has indeed been a slight increase in balls in the batting zone in 2022, that doesn’t necessarily mean that referees have become lax overall. The real problem can be traced back to the basic fact that they are human. In addition to occasional mistakes and misjudgments, visual impairments are also part of the territory.
Such was the case here, in which Brian Knight simply missed a blinking 97-mile fastball from Logan Gilbert:
Welcome to the ump show @umpjob
First at-bat of the game pic.twitter.com/yCiidDRl8h
Pitches like this were few and far between at the beginning of the pitch tracking era, if only 12.2 percent clocked by fastballs at 95 mph or higher. In the 14 years since then, the rate has more than doubled to 26 percent. That goes for speed in general, as the average gradient is now 2km/h faster than it was in 2008.
One might assume that this trend actually only makes it more difficult for referees see some of the places they are supposed to call and this is demonstrable when it comes to their calls within the strike zone.
Previously, there was virtually no speed separation between in-zone balls and in-zone shots. But in recent years the former have tended to clock significantly higher on the radar gun than the latter:
Chart via Google Sheets
As far as it is possible to solve this problem, I think the obvious answer is also the right answer: an automated strike zone.
It’s good that MLB is continuing beta testing of its Automated Ball Strike (ABS) system in the minor leagues, with the system now being deployed at Triple-A levels after making its debut in Affiliated Ball in the Low-A Southeast League last year.
But it wasn’t perfect there, and the question still arises as to whether the ABS should make calls automatically or whether there should be a challenge system like the one in the Florida State League this year.
Either way it seems far fetched that the ABS will be ready for the majors by 2023. If it has to be postponed to 2024 or 2025, then so be it.
In the meantime, it’s worth acknowledging how absurd it is that the ABS is still basically a hypothetical and not a mundane part of the game. After all, such a system has not just become technically possible. Even before pitch tracking became part of the public lexicon in 2008, MLB was already using QuesTec in 2001 to track balls and shots.
The MLB Umpires Association only just accepted the inevitability of an automated zone in 2019, so umps aren’t to blame that something like this isn’t used in the majors yet. But in a perfect world, they would still have been relieved of the responsibility of calling balls and strikes years ago.
Referees shouldn’t have to clean up the ball chaos in MLB
In terms of the other ump shows that have happened recently, there’s no excuse for what happened between Bellino and Bumgarner or how the referee crew handled Garcia’s ejection.
To the former, Bellino admitted he screwed up and took “full responsibility” in a statement. For the latter, there was no such admission, but crew chief Alfonso Marquez’s official statement that “we just took it as an intention” regarding Garcia’s flop from Josh Donaldson comes across as a lyrical shrug.
There had been no warnings prior to the incident. And even though Giancarlo Stanton had batted moments after a game-changing home run, even angry pitchers in a situation like this don’t usually attempt to fire the go-ahead for base right away.
In any case, it is true that both incidents could have been avoided if Major League Baseball had not actively made it difficult for players to throw the ball.
This is the first year that the new ball that MLB designed with Rawlings last year is reportedly the only one in circulation, as well as the first year that humidors have been in use at all 30 stadiums. In theory, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, the name of the game is consistency.
In fact, pretty much everyone struggles in these conditions.
The ball is now so dead for hitters that they can’t hit home runs like they did between 2015 and 2021. For pitchers, you can see from Garcia that he knocked Donaldson down precisely because he couldn’t catch the ball that night:
This would be eye-rolling if Garcia were the only pitcher making this claim, but he’s not. Most notably, Chris Bassitt didn’t pull any punches when he exclaimed MLB because he had a “very big problem with the baseballs” when his New York Mets teammates racked up HBPs in April.
The fact that the league-wide hit-by-pitch rate has actually declined this year arguably undermines such conspiratorial talks. But it’s not like things are noticeably better either. Even though the HBP rate has come down, this is still on track to be at least 0.4 per game for the fifth straight year. Previously, baseball had not had such a run since 1895–1900.
And it’s not just pitchers. Outfield players also need to throw these new balls, so it’s no coincidence that throwing errors now account for more than half of all errors. That’s a first since at least 2002, which goes back as far as FanGraphs data goes:
Chart via Google Sheets
Bottom line: Complaints about the ball being hard to grab aren’t all smoke. There’s some fire. There’s obviously nothing referees can do to erase it, but they should expect to be caught up in the burn again. Garcia’s caning of Donaldson won’t be the last time they have to assess whether there was intent behind a ball that in all likelihood just escaped.
While pitchers used to put a little something on their hands to improve their grip on the ball, that obviously changed last year when MLB suddenly decided to enforce its ban on foreign matter. Rightly so, since Spider Tack and similar gooey stuff had blurred the line between improving grip and increasing performance.
However, assigning referees to actively monitor this ban has never been uncomfortable.
Such was the case early in the suspension in June 2021, when then-Washington Nationals ace Max Scherzer understandably lost his composure when Philadelphia Phillies manager Joe Girardi insisted he be checked three times in one game. It should have been clear at the time that the procedure would inevitably result in a sputum that had nothing to do with sticky stuff. The only surprise is that Bumgarner has taken so long.
Ultimately, sticky-checking is another responsibility umpires should be relieved of, but that can’t happen until MLB delivers on its promise to develop an officially-sanctioned gripping device. This is another thing that is in the beta testing phase, according to Manfred.
“We want to give pitchers a better grip ball, more consistent again, without using the term ‘performance boost’ associated with the crazy sticky stuff,” Manfred told reporters Monday.
Ultimately, as with the automated hitting zone, this is just another area umpires will have to settle for until baseball enters a future that frankly should be its present.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and Baseball Savant.