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.