Home Plate Umpiring…

I am getting back into my routine of watching sports on TV after spending 3+ weeks on our road trip where sports watching was sporadic to say the least. I got to catch several baseball games over the weekend and noticed something about those games that ties into a “larger issue”. What I noticed is that home plate umpires seem to be getting worse at calling balls and strikes. I know that there are periodic cries for the umpires to call the strike zone that is in the rule book; frankly, I would welcome that change but what I seem to be seeing is more pernicious that that. Home plate umpires are not calling balls and strikes consistently.

During the annual cries for “calling the strike zone in the rule book” there are responses to those cries many of which go along these lines:

    Hitters and pitchers can recognize in less than an inning what this particular umpire is calling a strike in this game. Both the hitter and the pitcher will adjust and the game can proceed from there. There is probably a kernel of truth in that.

However, what I am seeing is that the strike zone does not only vary from umpire-to-umpire (game-to-game) but it varies inning-to-inning. Maybe I have just been unlucky and happened to tune in to see those games where the strike zone was randomly wandering all over the place – but I suspect that is not the case.

Let me be clear; I have no problem whatsoever with an umpire “expanding the strike zone” in a 13-2 game in the top of the eighth inning. It is time to wrap that one up and to get ready for the next game on the schedule. However, from what I see, there is no way to “expand the strike zone” because to expand it would require that there has been a stable/uniform strike zone since the first inning. I actually started to think over the last weekend that the umpire had pretty made up his mind what he would call on the next pitch before the ball left the pitcher’s hand – assuming of course that the ball did not bounce 3 feet in front of home plate or that the batter did not foul off the pitch.

Let me be clear about one more thing; I do NOT want to see any technological solutions to this issue. I want home plate umpires to get better at calling balls and strikes. For the moment, it seems to me that home plate umpiring has hit a new low – and the umpires are furiously digging to make the hole deeper.

This observation links in some way to the larger issue of baseball’s “pace of play”. I read a report that cited Elias Sports Bureau data and I will take that data as fully authoritative.

    The shortest nine-inning MLB game happened in 1919 (Giants/Phillies); it took 51 minutes to play that game. [Aside: I suspect someone was double-parked outside the stadium and nudged that game along at every opportunity.]

    The longest nine-inning MLB game happened in 2006 (Yankees/Red Sox); it took 4 hours and 45 minutes.

    From 1950 to 1970, the average game took 2 hours and 27 minutes.

    From 1980 to 1990, the average game took 2 hours and 39 minutes.

    Last season, the average game took 3 hours and 4 minutes.

Baseball has identified some things to try to “speed up the game” such as keeping the batter in the batter’s box instead of strolling around between every pitch. Yes, that will help a little. The fact that there are 2 minutes and 30 seconds between each inning – to air all of those commercials on the radio and TV outlets don’t you know – means that a nine inning game will have 17 such intermissions adding up to more than 40 minutes of elapsed game time. Those 40+ minutes are not going to be removed from the game so it remains baseball’s challenge to find means within the play of the game to “move things along”.

A stable and predictable strike zone – inning-to-inning for now but someday game-to-game also – could be a way to increase pace of play. Moreover, if that stable and predictable strike zone happened to be the one in the rule book, it would cause batters to be more aggressive and not run deep into every count. Now, how do you get the umpires on board with all of this…?

Michael Sam left the Montreal Alouettes’ training camp several days before the opening game of the CFL exhibition season. The team has put him on their “suspended list” and here is what the team General Manager, Jim Popp, had to say about Sam’s unexpected departure:

“There’s nothing to tell you. He wanted to go home, and that’s what he did. I don’t know why. When a guy wants to go home, they go home. He had some personal things to take care of.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he returns. I’m surprised he left. I was very surprised. If he doesn’t come back, I would think football’s over for him. He’s the one that has to face that. But I don’t think he doesn’t want to play football. That’s why he came here.”

I am going to practice mind-reading here even though I have acknowledged many times in the past that I have no ability whatsoever to read minds. I wonder if the constant scrutiny that Michael Sam has to endure and the microscope that examines his life have begun to get the best of him. I know the history of Michael Sam and of the attendant coverage that he creates out of whole cloth just because he is who he is. And now I have begun to wonder if that focus and that level of examination has gotten in the way of him becoming an honest-to-God professional football player.

Finally, here is important perspective provided by Dwight Perry of the Seattle Times:

“Bidding on eBay for a Detroit stadium urinal autographed by ex-Lions star Barry Sanders has surpassed $2,000.

“$2,000! Imagine what you could get for one signed by Whizzer White.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………

11 thoughts on “Home Plate Umpiring…”

  1. I kinda like the slow pace of baseball games. I read about 100 pages of Capital in the 21st Century during a Braves game recently. The ads didn’t phase me or Thomas Piketty.

  2. The only reason Michael Sam is under the microscope is his own damn fault. Had he just wanted to be a professional football player, then he should have not made the ‘gay’ pronouncement. Once he did that, it was no longer about a desire to play a game. It became his circus, his monkey.

    1. Trent:

      Of course, you are correct. At the same time, perhaps the media focus and coverage has gone just a tad round the bend. It has stopped short of something like “Michael Sam – the first openly gay pro football player in North America – demonstrated his love for foie gras by ordering it as a main course at Fifi’s French Restaurant in Wherever.” But maybe it has not been that far short of that…

  3. Here in Las Vegas’ Cashman Field, where the 51’s play, there is a clock running between pitches to speed up the game.

    1. Rich:

      I know that they are trying that idea out in minor league games. I have not been to a game where I have seen it in action. How is it working there? Do you notice a significant difference in “pace of play”? Are the umpires calling the rule strictly?

      1. I have only attended two games so far this season, and my wife and I agreed at one point that the game seemed to move along quicker than in the past. I needed her opinion on this because the games just happened to on Dollar Beer nights, and there may have been some warpage in my time/space continuum.
        By the way, she just came in and says, ‘Absolutely! Now if they could only put a timer on the National Anthem’. She used to be scorekeeper for the team (when it was called the Las Vegas Stars) and said that the press box people would have contests to determine how long The Star Spangled Banner would be. A true Las Vegan, she also says there should be an over/under on that song.

  4. I would be interested in hearing your reasons for not wanting any technological solutions to the calling of balls and strikes. For the record, I am old enough such that Carl Yastremski was my baseball hero growing up, but even an old guy like me would love to see technology expanded to get the calls right. When I watch games now with the broadcast showing the “Fox Tracks” (or whatever they call the box showing each pitch relative to the strike zone), I’m struck by how fast (instantaneous) and accurate (I have NEVER thought the location didn’t match the slow-mo replay) it is. Why not have an automatic ball/strike umpire based on that technology, with the NO challenges or arguments allowed? More accurate, more consistent, and probably faster.

    1. Alan:

      You are a youngster; I saw Ted Williams play – and Joe DiMaggio too. But let’s not quibble about age.

      I fear that the moment MLB installs some kind of “technical ball-and-strike caller”, there will be vulnerabilities that will raise questions about which teams are “fiddling with device” and which ones are not. Moreover, if the devices and be “fiddled with”, my suspicion is that every home team will do so and every visiting team will seek a surreptitious counter-measure that it can use to “level the playing field”.

      With regard to your idea of NO challenges or arguments, that rule exists now. I guess the only step forward in the No challenges arena with regard to the automatic ball-and-strike caller” would be that there would be no one with whom to argue/challenge.

      My preference is for umpires to stop being part of the show and get down to doing their job as competently – and anonymously – as possible.

      1. I must respectfully disagree with the “fiddling with the ball/strike caller” argument. This is far, far more likely when the caller is human than when it’s electronic. Even without cheating/bribery (i.e. malicious intent), umpires are human and are influenced by the situation, the crowd, the reputation of the batter, the reputation of the hitter, etc. That constitutes “fiddling” in my mind.

        1. Alan:

          I meant “fiddling” in the sense of “hacking” or “tapping into the controls”. Indeed, the human element brought to bear by every umpire is imperfect and its variability can fit a definition of “fiddling”. What I would prefer is for the umpires to be more consistent and more competent thereby minimizing many of the human element situations you correctly identify.

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