There is one thing any baseball player or fan can agree on, regardless of team affiliation, the umpires are terrible. I mean I have never met anyone who likes the men in blue (black?). It is a thankless job which falls into the category of necessary evil in the minds of baseball players, coaches, and managers. To the average fan, the umpires represent a group of blind, nefarious, and inept individuals who have an axe to grind with their team or favorite player. We can easily forget the umpires toil in the minors, trying to earn their shot in the big leagues, just like the players do. In many ways being a major league umpire is more difficult than being a major league player. Being a MLB umpire is just about a lifetime appointment, a U.S. Supreme Court justice is the only job I can think of which is more secure. The umpires stay in the same small towns in less than big league accommodations, just like the minor league players. There are no home games for the umpires, so seeing their families during the season is a luxury. I have some sympathy for umpires. I know by and large they want to do a good job, and don’t want to become the story of the game. I have a few suggestions, none of which are revolutionary, that can only make things more accurate, or at least make the tough calls the umpire makes a bit more transparent.
First of all, I would love to see a cricket style, Umpire Decision Review System, replay set up used. I watch a lot of cricket during the baseball off-season, and it has always seemed obvious to me baseball should adopt this. In cricket, the play can be challenged and it goes to the replay umpire who requests to see different angles of the play, they then give their decision to the umpire on the field who signals safe or out. The replay umpire is the final verdict. Fans watching the game hear the whole conversation, so we have insight into what is being reviewed and how the decision is being made. It is a much more transparent way to handle replay. We may not like the final call, but we know what they were seeing. The whole replay decision comes within about a minute or two, and then the game resumes. The current MLB replay system relies on the crew chief and the umpire who made the call on the field talking to another umpire who is in the Major League Baseball Advanced Media headquarters in New York. The play is then reviewed with the verdict being sent back into umpires on the field. They then give their final ruling, but the fans and players have no way of knowing what they were discussing. This opaque process leads to lots of conspiracy theories and a lack of faith in the call, because there is widely held belief the replay umpires are reticent to overturn their on-field counterparts.
Second, the automated strike zone is needed to improve the accuracy of ball/strike decisions. I am well aware of the culture of baseball and the esoteric nature of individual umpire strike zones. I have had plenty of conversations with umpires asking them what their strike zone is, because the actual rulebook doesn’t seem to apply in this part of the game. I will freely admit pitch framing is a skill, but missed balls and strikes can have a huge impact on at-bats and the ball game as a whole when it is extrapolated out to a macro view. The biggest difference comes on 1 and 1 counts. Using the last full season data from 2019, MLB batters hit .352 on 2 balls and 1 strike counts versus .162 on 1 ball and 2 strike counts. Needless to say, but an umpire giving a bit to the pitcher off the edge of the plate can have a major change on the game state. The most egregious example of that I can recall goes back to Game 5 of the 1997 NLCS (Yes, I am old enough to remember this.). It might be a bit of hyperbole (But not really) to say the home plate umpire Eric Gregg decided the strike zone was anything the catcher caught on the fly. If someone queues up that grainy video on YouTube, they will see why my decision about the automated strike zone was made that day. I don’t need to hear about an umpire having a large or small zone. The NBA got rid of their referees who were on their own program(Joey Crawford, anyone?), MLB should follow suit.
The third thing is the least likely to ever happen, but it would be nice if the umpires had media availability to explain their calls. Following a recent game between the Mets and Marlins, the home plate umpire, Ron Kulpa, admitted to missing the call which gave the Mets a walk off win when Michael Conforto stuck his elbow in front of a pitch. If umpires had to publicly defend their calls it could make for some great theater, but it would also improve the relationship with the umpires and the fans. They can apologize to the players quietly, but the public at large does not know when this happens. No one wants to see a crying Jim Joyce after costing Armando Galarraga a perfect game, but it did humanize him to see in the post-game expressing how terrible he felt about missing the call. We could also find out as fans what happened when someone gets ejected from the game, since we don’t always get to hear Aaron Boone when he refers to his Yankees in the batter’s box.
One of my best friends growing up had a father and brother who were professional umpires I could go on for a while about the debates we had about the things umpires would do and how they interpreted the game. I firmly believe the game is better when the rules are consistently applied as they are written in the rule book.