March 15, 2002
In the Slot
In general, it's a bad thing if you can associate an umpire's name with his work. It's one thing if the umpire is Doug Harvey, and you're talking about his "Rules of the Game" segment on the old Game of the Week, back when that term actually meant something. (Something horrible.) It's still another when umpire's name is Don Denkinger, and you're in the wrong part of the midwest. Even more strange and upsetting is the recent revelation of the activities of Frank Pulli and Richie Garcia in the 1980's. Rule 21 is serious business, and with all the scrutiny on MLB's main office right now, I'm kind of surprised that they didn't completely hang those two out to dry.
At the beginning of 2001, Sandy Alderson had the goal of improving the on-field performance of umpires around the league. There were several components to his plan, including, but not limited to, the elimination of umpires who had not performed adequately, increased training for current and developing umpires, and measurement of umpire performance on the field. The plan worked. It wasn't perfect; there were complaints about arbitrary game time and pitch count goals, but overall opinion seems to be that there was some improvement. Umpires appeared to hustle more, including a couple of embarrassing plays where the umpire, trying to determine whether or not a ball was a home run, actually gained ground on an outfielder trying to chase the ball down. Change of any sort is a difficult thing, so I hope there's continued progress, where possible, during this coming season.
Note the qualifier. Where possible.
There's one part of an umpire's job where I don't believe it is possible. And it's the most important part. I'm talking, of course, about the strike zone.
Let me make this clear right off the top: this is not a criticism of major league umpires. I really do think they do a great job, and they do a pretty reasonable job behind the plate. But the job they're asked to do is simply not physically possible to do at a particularly high level. The limitations of the human visual system get in the way, as do the very real operational problems of having a hitter and catcher in the way, as well as a miserable angle to determine the flight path of the ball, a mask to protect the umpire's face, and a strike zone that changes every few pitches. Add to that a ball that can travel anywhere from 50 to 100 mph, with its flight affected to a varying degree by gravity (depending on its velocity), as well as air pressure (as many pitchers have been known to throw the occasional breaking ball of one sort or another.)
BPer Keith Woolner provides an excellent summary of umpire performance here at the site, and it's exactly the sort of information that gamblers have used (quite successfully) for a number of years. I decided to spend a little while before the Pizza Feeds going over these numbers, because I think it's really an underappreciated part of the game. I invite you to examine the report yourself in more depth, and perhaps try to find some interesting and actionable nuggets of information in it. I just wanted to show one thing that I thought was pretty interesting. This is the distribution of the K/BB ratio for all the umpires who worked 20 or more games behind the plate last year.
The average for this set of umps was a K/BB ratio of 2.07, with a standard deviation of 0.27. Without good data to look at from previous years and eras, I can't tell whether or not the trend is going in a particular direction. It's sort of an unanswerable question anyway; it's entirely dependent on the performances of the pitchers and hitters in question. It's probably a good thing that the sigma is relatively small, but again, it's sort of an unanswerable question.
That blip on the far right there is Doug Eddings, who had the highest K/BB ratio of any umpire in 2001. He wasn't the most pitcher-friendly ump, though. That honor goes to Bill Miller, who was second in the league with a 2.67 K/BB ratio, and had the lowest ERA in the league with a 3.58. Considering how few games these guys work behind the plate, it's hard to draw any conclusions about tendencies they may have. Work behind the plate for three starts each by Pedro, Randy, and Greg, and you're probably going to look like someone with a generous strike zone. Over time, we'll be able to better identify those umpires who act like a walking Dodger Stadium or Coors Field.
We criticize a lot of clubs for putting players in roles that are simply beyond a level where they can be productive. Brian L. Hunter can help a ballclub win a pennant. But not as a starting outfielder. He needs to be the fifth outfielder/defensive replacement/pinch runner guy that acts as the legs for someone like Ellis Burks, or steals a bag with Mariano Rivera on the mound in the ninth. It's not a failure of the player to produce at a championship level of performance for 600 PA; it's a failure of club management to recognize the player's level of ability.
This is true in any business. No business succeeds by asking people to do that for which they are not qualified or trained. And home plate umpires are, by virtue of being human, not adequately trained or qualified to call balls and strikes. It's just not possible to do it, given the limitations of the human visual system, and the necessity not to interfere with play. Umpires need assistance. Baseball deserves the best ball and strike calling possible, and to do that, it's going to require the use of technology. Probably slowly at first, using an improved version of PitchTrak (or a similar technology) as a training tool for new umpires. Umpires aren't going to like it, and there'll be shrill cries from a vocal minority, but it's the direction baseball needs to go. That little rectangle in front of the hitter is the campo bello of baseball, and the fairer it can be made, the better the game will be.