Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Baseball continues to have too much bad umpiring, time for changes

Forty-one years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. You would think by now the sports world would have replay figured out.

Only it doesn’t. In football, replay grinds games to a complete halt at both the NFL level and the college level and there is no guarantee that the call is going to be correct when all is said and done. Basketball is the same way. I was at a game last season where the officials went to replay on four consecutive plays because they didn’t think the clock had been set correctly. The game may still be going on for all I know. Hockey’s closer: Usually replay can determine if a goal has or has not been score fairly quickly or if a player was in the crease or had his stick above his shoulder. Even so, there are times when it takes a lot longer than it should to get the call right.

And then there is baseball. Bud Selig said last week at The All-Star game that there is, “little appetite,” for replay among people in the sport. That may be because baseball people have seen what replay has done to football and basketball and want no part of it. I actually get that although I also think if baseball were to add replay for safe-out calls like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew on Sunday in San Francisco—not to mention the now infamous Jim Joyce blown perfect game call in Detroit earlier this season and for fair/foul calls—like the one Phil Cuzzi so clearly blew in the playoffs last October on Joe Mauer in the 11th inning of game two of Yankees-Twins (anyone see a pattern here?), it would be good for the game.

Actually there is another problem baseball has that has only a little to do with replay: there’s a lot of bad umpiring out there. One thing I do on vacation is watch a LOT of baseball; flipping from game-to-game most nights. Cuzzi was god-awful throughout the Mets-Giants game on Sunday but you can bet both MLB and the umpire’s union will defend him just as both almost always defend bad umpires.

My biggest problem is the strike zone. A few years ago when QuesTec was first used, umpires were virtually forced to start calling the high strike again. Until then, pitches at the belt were routinely being called balls. It now appears to me—and others—that they’ve gone back to squeezing pitchers on an almost nightly basis. I don’t know about you but I sit there all the time and watch a pitch and say, ‘that’s a strike,’ and the umpire never moves. I know those pitchtrax things are fallible but let me ask you a question: how often do you see a pitch outside that box called a strike? Almost never. How often do you see a pitch inside the box called a ball? Often.

On the night that Stephen Strasburg made his debut in Washington, I was sitting in the Pittsburgh dugout with Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and ESPN’s Jayson Stark (one of ESPN’s good guys). We were talking about pitch counts and the length of games. Kerrigan commented that the average game in 2010 required about 30 more pitches to complete than an average game did 20 years ago. Why, he asked, did we think that was the case.

“A lot of hitters are working counts more,” Stark said.

“Strike zone,” I said.

“Bingo,” Kerrigan said. “NO ONE calls the strike zone that’s in the rulebook. When was the last time you saw a pitch just below the letters called a strike? How about never. Check the rulebook. That’s a strike.”

There are other issues too—batters stepping out on every pitch; pitchers slowing down to an almost complete halt with runners on base—but the strike zone is an issue too. Not only does it mean more pitches are required but it means hitters are working with favorable counts far more often, leading to more hits, more walks and more runs—and more time. The only thing that has balanced some of that the last few years is drug-testing. There’s a lot less power in the game and a lot more warning track fly balls.

The first thing MLB should do is start firing bad umpires and let the union sue if it so desires. Why is Phil Cuzzi still working? He’s a proven incompetent with a bad attitude. So is C.B. Bucknor, who one pitcher described to me a couple of years ago as not being good enough to work in Double-A. There are plenty of others. Players get fired for not doing their job and so do managers. Why not umpires? The easiest game to officiate is baseball. The only serious challenge is balls and strikes about 99 percent of the time. If the other three guys have one tough call in a game, it’s a lot. A basketball official can have five block-charge decisions in the first five minutes of a game. Football officials have to decide what is or is not holding on almost every play. Hockey officials have to be on the move constantly and decide when physical contact is legal and when it’s not.

Umpires have the easiest job and the worst attitudes—generally speaking. It was too bad that Joyce, one of the best umpires and a very good guy, was in the middle of the blown perfect game. At the very least though, that call and that game and Joyce’s response to it should have sent a message to Selig that more replay—competently managed--is needed in the game.

You do NOT send the umpires into their locker room every time a replay is needed—the way they now do on home run calls. You have a replay official—not another umpire—in the press box who can hit a button to tell the home plate umpire he wants to look at a play when something appears blatantly wrong—like Joyce’s call in Detroit or Cuzzi’s call on Sunday. It would have taken under 30 seconds to get those two calls right. If the replay official needs more than 90 seconds to make a decision, the call on the field stands. Move on.

Of course baseball will continue to huff and puff and do nothing about any of this. Bad umpires will continue to umpire and there will be no replay anytime soon. On a different level it is sort of like drug-testing. MLB doesn’t want to wrangle with a union on something that is clearly needed so it will continue to duck the issue and say that all is well and, hey, look at our attendance!

Maybe they should call NASA for help. There doesn’t appear to be a whole lot going on over there these days.

John's new book: "Moment of Glory--The Year Underdogs Ruled The Majors,"--is now available online and in bookstores nationwide. Visit your favorite retailer, or click here for online purchases


Rory said...

I know I'm in the minority on this (in fact, I may be the only person who thinks this is a good idea), but why can't we have an automated system for calling balls and strikes?

The balls/strike call is the most fundamental aspect of the baseball game - it happens over 200 times a game (100+ pitches for each team).

What's so wrong with trying to lower the error rate on bad calls and if it takes technology to do it, so be it?

As far as I'm concerned, you can still have the ump "announce" call, just let the system make the decision. (I'm thinking of a system where the umpire has buzzers in each of his hands - left for ball, right for strike. Pitch comes over the plate, system makes the decision, triggers the appropriate buzzer, ump signals the call.)

ARCstats said...

John, if you're going to complain about baseball umpires, you're going to have to write a least three posts on NFL referee incompetence for proper balance.

First of all, they're PART-TIMERS. Second, most of them are old men trying to keep up with a young man's violent game. On the replay front, at least college has the in-booth game official reviewing every play instead of the "under-the-hood" fools of the NFL (maybe if they were full-time employees, a logical replay system could be developed).

And because they are so incompetent, the rule of Fidel Goodell mandates that the public not be informed of which officials are working what games each week. Imagine that - a league that bends over backwards to encourage everyone to play fantasy football, even providing folks with every imaginable stat and fantasy league management tools, will not even disclose basic game information regarding referee assignments.

So while I applaud you for writing about the terrible MBL umpires, please do not turn a blind eye on the pathetic officiating situation in the NFL.

Matty said...

My best guess is that MLB has mandated that umps keep their strike zones smaller, so they can keep the run totals higher and sell the long ball. It's appalling.

Anonymous said...

MLB and the Umpires Union have a common interest in implementing replay. Getting calls right is good for the game in general. For umpires, it takes off pressure of bad calls. I'm sure Jim Joyce would love to have had the tool of replay.

And the players certainly would benefit from getting calls right.

It seems management and the two unions should be able to agree on this issue. The problem is BUD SELIG. I wish he would go away before he wrecks the game completely.

Rich, Denver

Anonymous said...

Wow, the NASA comment, did you just take a swipe at BO.

Dan Serafini said...

Third paragraph has a split infinitive, I think. If what?

Runs are down without greenies and stroids, so they need to get the offense up, so the strike zone will remain as called.

The umpires should ant replay, as it will add jobs (the 5th in the booth) and the league can leverage that into firing the Joe Wests and Phil Cuzzis of the world.

Eric said...

I give Jim Joyce credit for the way he handled himself after the Detroit game, but if you go back and look at the tape, he should have been suspended for his behavior on the field after he blew the call. After a minute or two he had to have known he blew the call and yet he still dug in and screamed at everyone who questioned him. I have been a Basketball official for over 20 years and always understand that there is a possibility I missed a call. There is nothing wrong with saying to a coach "I called it the way I saw it, it doesn't mean I was right" If your wrong too many times, your supervisors will not give you assignments. Except in Major League Baseball, where consistently being bad only moves you up the pay scale.

Eric said...

Replay in baseball would actually speed up the game if done right, 60-90 seconds to get the call right vs. 120-180 seconds for the manager to walk on the field, argue the call and walk off the field.

Anonymous said...

There's no technical reason why they couldn't go to automated ball/strike calls. The technology exists. It's called Hawkeye, and they've been using it in cricket to call LBW and to call lines in tennis for years. The LBW (leg-before-wicket) call in cricket is infinitely more difficult and judgemental than the strike zone in baseball and they've turned that over to technology. In cricket the batsman cannot use his legpads or any other part of his body to prevent the ball from striking the wicket. If the ball strikes the batsman it's up to the umpire and often hawkeye to determine if it would have hit the wicket but for striking the batsman. As such Hawkeye must accurately project the path the ball would have taken had it not struck the batsman. Cricket lasts twice as long (at least)and has 1/3 as many outs as baseball so outs are exceeding rare and valuable making a LBW call much more critical than a single ball/strike determination. Further they involve predicting something that didn't actually happen rather than simply analyzing something that has. And yet, what is considered one of the stuffiest and most traditional sports in the world has turned these critical decisions over to a machine. There exists no technological impediment to automating ball/strike calls.

Anonymous said...

Its the bottom of the 14th, two out, and a man of 1st. The batter sends a screamer down the left field line. Umpire calls it incorrectly foul. What's replay to do? Send the man at first home? Home team wins? Replay is no panacea.

bevo said...

If baseball actually called the strike zone, then I *could* return as a viewer. I would not count on it though.

bisonaudit said...

"Replay is no panacea."

Perfect should not be the enemy of good.

PS: Thanks to the admins for posting my cricket centric comment.

Matt Dick said...

I don't understand why most sports don't take the Big Ten model of replay. The booth calls down to the head referee and tells him the call is being reviewed. Then the booth decides if it's overturned or not and tell the head ref who announces the verdict. The head ref isn't the decision-maker, and that's the way it should be. Calls are corrected in a more consistent manner and the game isn't delayed as much.

And this weird farce of a "two challenge" rule is negated. I've never understood that garbage rule, a challenge by a coach?! That makes no sense--to make getting a call right a strategic decision by a coach? If you have the technology to make calls better, then make them better, don't inject a false strategic decision in the hands of coaches.

If the NFL went with the Big Ten model then most complaints about football replay would evaporate.

Paul said...

@Matty, the theory about pitch count and game length definitely has to do with baseball's interest in higher-scoring games.
It also nicely correlates to modern statistical analysis that shows that most relief pitchers are not as good as most starting pitchers. Consequently batters are told to work at-bats longer to get the pitch counts up and get the starter out of the game sooner.
Throw that into the mix along with a smaller strike zone, and it's no wonder the three hour baseball game is now the norm.

Anonymous said...

"The easiest game to officiate is baseball."

I love you John "Junior" Feinstein, but you're an idiot with this take. You've obviously never umped baseball at any meaningful level above 12-year-olds. Accurately (and consistently) calling balls and strikes with kids ERRRR men throwing between 80 and 90 MPH is one of hardest things I've ever done in sports, including getting my crap together after almost losing an eye while reffing a Midget AAA hockey game. Nasty breaking pitches just make it all that more difficult.

I've umped baseball and reffed hockey for a long time and I honestly believe basketball is the most difficult game to call. So much is ticky-tacky contact (either legal or illegal) and it happens at lightning speed.

While the quality of officiating in baseball seems to have declined, to say "the easiest game to officiate is baseball" is straight-up ignorant.

Stick to watching Islanders games.