Let’s Talk About Umpires (Daryll)

The other night Shawn Kelley struck out the same batter twice to end a tense game with the Atlanta Braves. After Chase D’Arnaud swung and missed on strike three, the Nationals and Braves began clearing the field, and the post-game fireworks were about to be lit…home plate umpire C.B. Bucknor called everyone back.

Turns out he thought D’Arnaud had tipped that strike three, and as it hadn’t been caught by Nationals catcher Wilsom Ramos – the game wasn’t yet over after all. Everyone came back together just long enough for Kelley to strike D’Arnaud again. Ramos turned to Bucknor with the ball in his mitt to clarify this time “That good enough for you?”.

Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth wasn’t quite as passive in the matter as he spoke with the Washington Post. He came hauling in from right field fuming at Bucknor and had to be restrained before going on to reporters after the game.

“You see a lot of things, but when it’s consistently not with the standards of the league, I think something needs to be done. I just can’t believe that every time it’s bottom of the barrel. Every time. I know I’m handcuffed here. I can’t say a whole lot. I don’t want to get suspended. But these games are serious. That’s the thing. These games mean a lot. The game is over there, and all of a sudden it’s not over. I’m not even talking about balls and strikes or anything else. It just blows my mind, that in a big league baseball game, that can actually happen.”

D’Arnaud of the Braves was also at a loss “I guess I tipped it.” He said.

Now being a Major League Umpire is a hard job – I get that. By and large – they do an outstanding job too. In 2016, 51% of calls were overturned with plays at first and tag plays making up 70% of the replay. Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant.com where you can really deep dive into the data. Somewhere Armando Galaragga is saying “too late” when Jim Joyce ruined his no-hitter on a play that now would be overturned on replay.

Yet replay can’t solve everything. Braves fans like myself still shake our heads anytime we see a fly ball drift into shallow left field with runners on first and second and correctly NOT called for the infield fly rule – unlike the 2012 wild card game that Sam Holbrook DID call and stopped short a potential Braves rally. Thanks for the career Chipper Jones – this is the game where it will all end.

Angel Hernandez has drawn ire over the years for how he reacts in situations, often seeming to coax a fight out of players or managers and following after them while they mutter about his poor calls. Who can forget when he threw out the Cubs 7th inning stretch singer Steve McMichael who criticized Hernandez back in 2001. By the way – watch the end of that clip for how the game ended…

MLB does have an umpire rating system – which it uses to select post season crews – but those reviews aren’t shared with teams and I can’t understand how umpires like Bucknor and Hernandez continue to get passing grades year after year.

What will it take to get things fixed? The game is already fighting to increase pace of play and decrease the dead time that instant replay certainly plays into. There was some talk last week about umpires getting microphones to announce their instant replay decisions like NFL refs do – but remember they are only relaying what they are being told from New York – not actually even making the decision themselves!

Umpires have gotten better at consulting with each other for tricky decisions, but in the example of the Nationals game a quick look at any TV monitor would’ve shown the outcome. Furthermore, the decision wasn’t made quickly or decisively enough for anyone to notice it. The Braves didn’t care. D’Arnaud didn’t know. It just happened – after the fact – and could have ended much differently if D’Arnaud punches strike 4 through the hole to bring in two runs. The Nationals are definite playoff contenders, and every win matters not only for the playoffs but even things like seeding for the best record and home field advantage. It’s only April – but the Nationals are already thinking about September. (The Braves are hoping to surprise people with a .500 record meanwhile).

Arguing with the umpire is a time honored baseball tradition, and Bobby Cox with his 158 ejections would tell you most of the time he was making a statement to stand up for his players than actually thinking his cursing and hat throwing would actually change the decision.

Umpires need to be better and those that don’t need to face retribution. Players get benched if they have 1 hit in 30 at-bats, what about giving umpires a few days off after some bad calls too? Perhaps fines for ejections that aren’t justified or blatantly missed calls like Tuesday or the strike 3 called by Marty Foster against the Rangers a few years ago that was two feet outside…and low…

Baseball is healthy, and its biggest objection right now is to help reduce the time in games. Umpires can be a tremendous help to that aim by moving hitters along between pitches, but not if they can’t put their egos aside and not train like everyone else.

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