The Human (Umpire) Element

In last week’s edition of Ten Stray Thoughts On A Friday, I wrote about why I don’t like the idea of robot umpires.

Baseball is subjective. As much as we look at numbers and data and try to interpret it in order to predict an outcome, what ends up happening in single samples is often decided by different interpretations of an imaginary box that hovers over home plate.

Just look at the fluctuations in success and failure an average batter enjoys or suffers depending on the balls and strikes count. Not only do we depend on an umpire’s interpretation of a strike zone, but we also depend on the pitcher’s, batter’s, and as we’ve recently discovered, the catcher’s interpretation of that interpretation. In many ways, baseball is a game of Socratic shadows.

And I like that. I believe those multiple interpretations to be part of what makes the game beautiful.

Of course, it didn’t take long for my feelings on this to get tested. Two big incidents from yesterday, highlighting the game’s human and mistake prone elements, served to play a massive role in the end results of the respective match ups.

The first occurred as the final out of yesterday morning’s Patriots’ Day celebraish game between the Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays. Down by a run, with two out and runners on first and second, Cody Ross came up to the plate, not only to face Rays closer Fernando Rodney, but also catcher Jose Molina, whose abilities when it comes to framing pitches on the edge of the strike zone are well documented.

It was set up to be the ultimate showdown in strike zone flexibility, between Molina’s catching manipulation and the Fenway factor. By now, you’ve likely learned that Molina won out, but here’s how it happened. Remember to pay special attention to how the catcher receives the ball.

The at bat starts off with a first pitch called strike:

Ross then took two more pitches outside, to make the count 2-1 before taking on another pitch outside that was called for strike two:

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Rodney once again goes outside to Ross, and again it’s called, ending the game on a strike out looking and giving the Rays the win.

According to Pitch FX, this is how the plate appearance looked from Molina’s perspective:

While Rodney officially gets the backwards K added to his totals, you could quite easily make a case for giving it to Molina. If not the strike out, then perhaps a trophy celebrating his victory over the Fenway strike zone bias.

Perhaps the only thing more influential than Molina’s glove over a strike zone is Roy Halladay’s stare.

In the bottom of the fifth inning of last night’s Philadelphia Phillies game against the San Francisco Giants, Halladay walked Aubrey Huff on a very questionable ball four call on the fifth pitch of the at bat.

The base on balls not only resulted in runners on first and second with two out, but also this:

Home plate umpire Marty Foster deserves credit for not withering away to nothing as the result of having Halladay’s hateful gaze cast upon him. During a television interview in Philadelphia, this newsman made eye contact with Halladay in the studio, and here’s what happened:

The next batter to face Halladay was Brandon Belt. His five pitch plate appearance ended with this called third strike, which killed one of the Giants only real threats of the game:

According to Pitch FX, this is how the plate appearance looked from catcher Carlos Ruiz’s perspective:

What does this all mean? Well, it means that umpires are human, that they’re just as subject to sleight of hand and intimidation as the rest of us. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What it doesn’t mean is that there’s anything wrong with umpires being human. It’s a part of the complex beauty of the game that I described above.

Baseball, at its core is about a simple match up. A pitcher versus a batter. Every play starts that way. However, what makes it so intriguing to watch, what makes it appealing to such a large number of people are the complexities and nuances of that one-on-one battle. The reveal here is that it’s not nearly as simple as might imagine.

A pitcher offering up his pitch to the batter is also offering it up to the umpire, as well as his own catcher, much like an artist would offer up their painting to a buyer, a critic, and his own agent. He’s throwing his pitch and targeting it based on three different judges,three different interpretations and three different versions of what it might be. The umpire’s role in this is integral to the excitement of baseball.

In the Frank Oz movie What About Bob?, as a means of explaining his divorce, Bill Murray’s character Bob suggests that there are two types of people in this world: those who love Neil Diamond and those who don’t. I tend to agree with a similar sentiment.

Those who understand the complex relationships that are playing out with every pitch of a baseball game are able to grasp the unique tension that is inherent to the sport. The people who don’t complain about the game’s pace or lack of excitement, and are completely dismissive of this tension.

As much as Pitch FX charts and in-game animations contribute to our understanding of the game, they also serve to make us forget that the strike zone is ultimately a concept. It’s a generally agreed upon concept, but it’s a concept nonetheless. And as we saw yesterday, it’s one with many different interpretations that can be manipulated by multiple factors.

This isn’t something to regret. It’s something to embrace. Baseball is the most democratic of sports, at least that’s my interpretation.

Comments (15)

  1. Looks like the Rays are already benefiting from Molina’s pitch framing skills.

    I don’t know if anybody’s ever done a study on this, but it would be interesting to look at how attendance correlates to favourable home umpiring calls (particularly in places like New York and Boston with their incredible crowd atmosphere). If umpires can be affected by a single pitcher barking at them, they can certainly be affected by the pressure of an enormous crowd.

  2. Heya Parkes,

    While I do agree with you that umpiring isn’t easy and they can be subjected to a variety of different factors when calling balls and strikes, there is one major issue I’d love to see gotten rid of, and that is the vindictive umpire, or the umpire who fucks with players just for fun. I forget the name of the ump who does this, but I believed he was the home plate umpire in the Jay’s Home Opener this year: he takes a very long time to call a pitch, especially if the count is 3-2. He seems to always to wait to see if the batter thinks it’s a ball or not before calling it a strike if he presumably believes the batter is trying to show him up by starting his trot towards first.

    A lot of umpires seem to have biases; we’ve all heard of the umpires I’m sure that will never call a borderline third strike against a home-side hitter at either Fenway or Yankee Stadium, and we’ve all seen the guys who wait for the batter’s reaction before deciding how to call a pitch. Selective or subjective umpiring could have little effect on the game or great effect; mistakes are fine, but intentionally making such calls isn’t.

    • That’s just the way Tim McClelland works. He’s very deliberate behind the plate. His style may make it seem like he’s trolling hitters, but he isn’t really.

      • Is it true that when Tim McClelland umps for a game in which Jonathan Papelbon pitches the entire world actually starts spinning in the reverse direction and we all get younger?

  3. “If not the strike out, then perhaps a trophy celebrating his victory over the Fenway strike zone bias”. I almost fell out of my chair!

  4. I’m not sure about robot umpires – perhaps you’re right. That said, I see no problem at all with MLB evaluating each umpire’s accuracy (after the game is done, statistically using pitchFX data for example). Start each umpire in the “minors”, and promote the ones that are most accurate to the big leagues, or some such heuristic. The good ones come up, the bad ones stay in the minors. It works for players, why not the judges.

    • I think it is more about the umpire being consistent with their own strike zone then conforming to the little box you get on the screen. If one umpire has a bigger strike zone than another, it adds to the type of adjustments that have to be made by the pitchers and batters, which is part of the game. It’s kind of like the difference between playing in Fenway Park and Comerica Park.

      If the umpire’s strike zone isn’t consistent with itself, then I think there is a problem.

      • Consistency can be measured numerically too, if that’s what makes a good umpire. I’d be happy with that too.

  5. I think calling balls and strikes subjectively is just as silly as calling homeruns subjectively would be. In fact, you could argue that it would less damaging to call homeruns subjectively than it is to do it with balls and strikes.

    Can you imagine what hockey or soccer would be like if the goalie had no idea what the net behind him looked like until the ump let him know if a goal was just scored or not?

  6. I’m honestly surprised you took this side of the argument, but glad you did. Parkes, this was a fucking terrific article. Well done.

    • its only half imaginary.the plate definitely has lines marking the sides.there is no excuse for missing over the plate.i hate the umpires who are lazy getting into position when the pitch is coming.everyone knows eyesight is more accurate when the body is still.some umps are starting to crouch when the ball is halfway there.drives me nuts.fat lazy inaccurate phukin goofs.

  7. I generally agree with your sentiment. Can we at least agree that robot umpires can work for everything else though? Balls and strikes can stay human, but maybe calling bunts fair or foul is for robots?

  8. I found it interesting, on that last clip of the Halladay 2-2 pitch I watched it twice, thinking the second time it was a different pitch than the first time. I was in complete shock, but it just shows we aren’t going to see things the same EVERY single time (it should also be noted I am on meds after getting my Wisdom teeth removed today)

    But with balls and strikes, fact is if an ump has a wide or tight zone, chances are both teams will get that, because that is his perspective, therefore it becomes fairly even, so why use robots?

    The problem becomes on singular plays like on the base paths and at home where the chances of one team being called out when they were safe, then the same thing happening to the other team are less likely. That is where instant reply comes in (but to a tennis-like challenge extent).

    There needs to be a human aspect to the game, but not to such an extreme extent as a blown call that leads to a run. We aren’t going to incorporate umpire ERAs are we? Nope.

  9. Great Post Parkes!
    The human element is what makes the game so intriguing. While PitchFX etc. does add a lot to the analysis of the game, but the strike zone does not function with hard borders like it shows. The fuzzy borders on the strike zone makes it matter how the catcher receives the ball, how the batter takes the pitch etc.

    Every at bat is a story. That is why baseball is so great. It is a human game. Thanks for the reminder.

  10. Really enjoyed this piece, Dustin. Reminds me of what my college coach used to yell at us after (or during) the games. If he was really upset about our play that day, it would go something like this:

    “I don’t want to hear or see any of you little bitches whining on the field about the umpires ever again, or I’ll bench your fucking ass. When we start doing all the little things we need to be doing to control the game we can start worrying about how someone else is doing his job. Until then, shut the fuck up.”

    I try to apply that rambling to any call that goes against the Jays and makes me feel like it cost them the game. It didn’t. It may have had a sharp impact on the results, but if the team does what it’s supposed to the game should never be so close that you can even leave it up to human error. The Red Sox didn’t lose that game because the ump had a wide strike zone on Cody Ross. They lost it because for 9 fucking innings they didn’t score a run.

    Quit bitchin.

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