June 13, 2012
Who Is the Best Umpire?
While many of the most memorable umpire mistakes have come on force plays, tag plays, and “boundary calls,” the most common kind of blown call, by far, happens behind home plate several times a game. It’s possible to watch a game and forget about the base umpires, as long as none of them makes a glaring error. But it’s impossible to ignore the home plate umpire, who has to making a ruling on every single unstruck pitch. That’s why arguing balls and strikes leads to an automatic ejection—there are simply too many of them to make arguing each one permissible. Moreover, the strike zone is such a core component of baseball that questioning its consistency calls the integrity of the game into question.
Grousing about umpires is as old as the game itself, but the advent of instant replay—and more recently, ball-tracking technology—has made those complaints more numerous and provided conclusive evidence of occasional umpire incompetence. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ready to do away with umpires, even if Major League Baseball would allow it. Even Mike Fast, a former Baseball Prospectus and current Houston Astros analyst who made his name by studying the data collected by Sportvision’s PITCHf/x system, has acknowledged that some significant technical hurdles would have to be cleared before an automated system could make more accurate calls in real time than human umpires. However, that hasn’t stopped, or even slowed, the steady stream of complaints about officiating coming from couches and clubhouse alike.
Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine is the latest to make his feelings felt. Last weekend, the Nationals swept the Red Sox at Fenway Park, as first Stephen Strasburg, then Gio Gonzalez, then Jordan Zimmermann, silenced Boston’s bats, holding the team to a total of nine runs in the three-game set. The Nationals’ starters have a collective 2.94 ERA: holding opposing teams to two or three runs is something they’ve been doing all season. Nonetheless, Valentine believed that in this instance, they had some help behind home plate, saying, “I thought [the Nats pitchers] pitched well. I thought they got pitches. In key situations. That weren’t strikes.”
Valentine went on to describe what he wants to see:
The game is simple. Throw it over the plate, call it a strike, don’t throw it over the plate, call it a ball. Simple. That’s all. It’s all anybody asks.
Of course, it’s not actually simple—if it were, no umpire would rule incorrectly, and calls for robot umps would be few and far between. Calling balls and strikes is extremely difficult. Even Valentine is aware of this. A day after his initial complaints, he summarized the difficulties umpires face: