SweetSpot: umpires

Needless to say, there are some kinks to be worked out in the replay system and the new rule about home plate collisions.

A complicated issue arose in Tuesday night's Astros-Blue Jays game. Here's the play in question: Eighth inning, L.J. Hoes on third, Dexter Fowler hits a trickler back to the pitcher, play at home plate.

OK, it's a bang-bang play and Hoes is called out. But did Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro block the plate before he had the ball? Rule 7.13 states "The catcher may not block the path of the runner attempting to score unless he has possession of the ball." The overhead camera angle clearly shows Navarro standing in front of the plate before he receives the throw from pitcher Brett Cecil. On the other hand, once Navarro did catch the ball, he does sort of sidestep out of the way and appears to give Hoes just enough of a lane to slide to a corner of the plate. But I can see this either way, since Hoes certainly didn't have a path to the entire width of the plate. Rule 7.13 also states that "all calls are based on the umpire's judgment."

Anyway, Astros manager Bo Porter came out to discuss the call, and this is where things apparently got even more confusing. According to Evan Drellich's blog at the Houston Chronicle, Porter asked that both the tag itself and Navarro blocking the plate be reviewed. But Porter said he didn't challenge the play:
"That wasn’t a challenge. It was after the sixth inning, so it was more to the umpires' discretion. One, I felt like [Navarro] blocked the plate before he had the ball. And two, I thought Hoes cut underneath the tag. I felt like he tagged him a little high. I thought his foot may have gotten in there.

"After the sixth inning, you know, it's to the umpires' discretion. They can decide to go look at it. Now, I asked them to go look at it, and because it's the seventh to the ninth inning, they decided that it's a close enough play that they should go look at it."

Except the umpires viewed it as Porter issuing a challenge, since he hadn't used his earlier in the game. And they reviewed only whether Hoes had scored before Navarro applied the tag -- not whether Navarro had blocked the plate.

Did the umpires make the correct call? Navarro did tag Hoes in time, which the replay confirmed. According to the rules, blocking the plate -- since it's a judgment call -- cannot be challenged by the manager. The umpires can check the replay on blocking the plate at their discretion but did not do so in this case. It appears they got the technical aspect of reviewing the play correct; it had to be considered an official challenge by Porter, and they didn't have to review the block since it was a judgment call.

In the end, this type of play at home plate remains a good old-fashioned judgment call by the umpires. There's a gray area that I think is ultimately unavoidable. There are going to be obvious cases of the catcher blocking the plate illegally at some point, but I don't think this was one, so I reluctantly say the umps got it right.

What umps' new contract means

January, 19, 2010
On the new agreement between MLB and the umpires, straight from the horse's mouth:

    As part of the agreement, Commissioner Bud Selig will have more flexibility to dictate expansion of the instant replay system and umpires will now be able to work in successive World Series. There was also a 2-percent pay raise across the board and buyouts that will allow veteran umpires the ability to retire early.

    Under the old agreement, the six umpires who called a particular World Series would not be able to do so again for two years, although they were available to work the Division Series and the League Championship Series the next postseason. That flexibility alone will allow baseball to use its best umpires throughout the playoffs on a rotating basis, although umpires still won't be able to work successive series in a given postseason.

    As far as replay is concerned, it now covers boundary calls on home runs -- fair or foul, in or out. That issue was negotiated with umpires outside of regular collective bargaining in 2008 and the program was put in place in August of that year.

    Selig said recently that he would consider expanding replay after a spate of missed calls plagued the first two rounds of last year's postseason. The expansion of replay is now a matter before Selig's 14-man Special Committee, which met this past Thursday and is expected to convene again during the next few weeks.

There are three obvious ways to improve the umpire, and this agreement would seem to address two of them.

One way is to have the best umpires on the field during the most important games. The new agreement manifestly improves Major League Baseball's ability to do this.

Another way is to increase the use of video review. There's nothing here that mandates more video review, but at least if MLB decides to take that step, it won't have to worry about negotiating with the umpires; that step might not be the first step, but it's a necessary step and now it's done.

The third way is to drop some of the dead weight, and there's still no obvious mechanism for doing that.

Or is there? There's that single half-sentence ...

and buyouts that will allow veteran umpires the ability to retire early.

That strikes me as very carefully worded: allow and the ability.

But what if it means, just as much, something like this:

and buyouts for older umpires whom MLB determines aren't still working with great skill.

Every season, there are probably more than a dozen older umpires blowing easy while, at the same time, just as many highly skilled umpires are working for peanuts in Triple-A. Frankly, it's as if Chris Coghlan had to spend 2009 in the minors because Luis Gonzalez decided he wanted to play another season for the Marlins.

The Players Association wields great power, but its members don't yet have the ability to play as long as they like. Umpires, for the most part, do.

The new agreement probably doesn't change that. But if a hefty buyout is what it takes to convince an old umpire with failing eyesight and reflexes to retire ... well, Major League Baseball is going to pull in something like $10 billion this year. Seems like a small price to pay.

Latest defector is an umpire

November, 30, 2009
I've heard of players defecting from Cuba. Lots of players. But umpires, too?
    El Nuevo Herald is reporting that Nelson Diaz, an umpire for 26 years in Cuba, has defected to the U.S. and arrived in Miami on Sunday.

    Diaz was behind the plate when Cuba sent a team to Baltimore for an exhibition against the Orioles in 1999. He also worked in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympics, but Cuba didn't pick him for the 2009 WBC because of fears he would defect.

    Based on his experience, Diaz is obviously qualified to join MLB's umpiring roster, though it's unclear if any spots are opening up over the winter. MLB has incredibly little turnover when it comes to umpires.

The problem isn't that MLB has incredibly little turnover (which is true). The problem is that even if a space were open on the major league staff, Diaz almost certainly wouldn't be allowed to fill it. Like anyone else, he would almost certainly be required to start in one of organized baseball's lowest leagues and work his way up. Theoretically, he could reach the majors in two or three years, and I suspect that's what he's got in mind.

There was a time, when the American and National League presidents (remember them?) administered the umpires and could essentially do whatever they wanted. In the 1920s and '30s, an ex-player would occasionally join one of the major league staffs after having served little or no apprenticeship in the minors.

Generally speaking, today's system makes sense. Because aspiring professional umpires haven't worked above high-school or perhaps the college level, they're not accustomed to the speed and the skills of the pro game. Working their way up the ladder, they (ideally) do become acclimate to the highest levels of the sport.

But Diaz is already most of the way there.

We know there are umpires in the majors who shouldn't be. We may reasonably surmise there are umpires not in the majors who should be. After this October's collective failure of umpiring, MLB signaled a willingness to at least consider steps to improve things. A great first step would be to fast-track Diaz to the Triple-A level, where whoever's in charge can get a good read on his skills. If only he were a bit younger.

MLB gets umpires they deserve

October, 19, 2009
Fay Vincent writes sensibly (as usual) about the umpiring mess:
    The beginning salary for a junior umpire is about $9,500 for the five-month season, hardly a living wage. A young umpire may spend as many as 10 years in the minors, earning at most about $20,000 at the Triple-A level and scratching around for other work during the off-season.

    To attract the kind of young people any business would want, Major League Baseball should establish a thoroughly professional training system for umpires — and ensure that every official it hires is up to the job.
Well, yeah. Major League Baseball has always claimed, reasonably enough, that they've got the best umpires in the world. But that's really begging the important question. Do you want the best umpires? Or do you want better umpires. If you've got 10 candidates for a job and you choose the best candidate, you might be pleased with yourself. But what if you had 100 candidates? Wouldn't your final choice probably be better than when you had only 10 candidates?

Frankly, everyone associated with Major League Baseball should be embarrassed. It's easy and fashionable to blame the umpires when things go wrong, and appropriate enough as these things go. But these umpires we so love to criticize and ridicule are the only logical product of that terribly inefficient system -- which is hardly a system, really -- that's used to train and develop top-notch umpires.

The umpires have always complained that Major League Baseball doesn't care about them. They've probably got a point. For the rest of us, though, the real problem is that Major League Baseball doesn't care enough about umpiring. Maybe the Great Umpiring Fiasco of 2009 will result in some needed reforms.

Blame umpiring on injuries

October, 16, 2009
According to Tracy Ringolsby, there's a hidden reason for the apparently subpar umpiring we've seen this month ...
    The quality of the umpiring has taken a hit because at least a dozen umpires, including seven crew chiefs, were left out of postseason assignments this year due to injuries.--snip--

    While federal laws prohibit Major League Baseball from discussing injuries of employees, FOXsports.com has learned that the sidelined umpires include crew chiefs John Hirschbeck (testicular cancer), Charlie Reliford (back), Jerry Crawford (back), Tim Welke (concussion), Ed Montague (concussion and neck), Gary Darling (ankle and foot) and Rick Reed (stroke).

    Other umpires who are sidelined by injuries include Kerwin Danley (concussion), Alfonso Marquez (back), Brian Runge (details unknown), Bill Hohn (back) and Ed Hickok (concussion).

    Several of them did return from the injuries in September, but given their limited time on the field this year they were not included in the list of postseason candidates.

The situation makes me wonder about MLB's retirement policy for umpires. You get the impression that veteran umpires are like Supreme Court justices or Bud Seligs: they'll quit when they think it's time, not when anyone else does. I understand the rational with the judges; the notion is that they should not be subject to political pressures. But, should umpires be allowed to umpire forever?

Practically speaking, older umpires occupy slots that would otherwise be held by younger umpires, who presumably be 1) learning their trade at the highest level, and 2) more likely to be healthy enough to work in October.

But of course all those injured and (mostly) older umpires are just one part of the problem. Ringolsby:
    Major League Baseball has a selection process that is weighted by how the umpires are ranked, but there are restrictions that include the rule that an umpire cannot work the World Series in back-to-back years, a nuance the umpires wanted in the CBA (which expires Dec. 31) so that more umpires are afforded the opportunity of a World Series.--snip--

    Umpires also cannot work consecutive postseason series, meaning an umpire cannot work the LCS and the World Series in the same year. That is supposedly designed, by the request of the umpires, to assure that an umpire does not get physically or mentally worn down during the showcase events.

    As a result, Tim McClelland, generally ranked at the top of the list of umpires, and fellow crew chiefs Gary Cedarstrom and Dale Scott are working LCS games this weekend, but after working the World Series a year ago they cannot be included on the World Series crews this year.

    That means even with a system based on merit, the six best umpires in baseball do not work the game's premier event because (1) every other year they cannot work the World Series and (2) it's not like baseball can treat the LCS as a secondary event because the ALCS and NLCS do determine the participants in the World Series.

Physically or mentally worn down during the showcase events? The umpires can work for weeks on end during the regular season, but they can't work 14 games -- at the very most over the course of three weeks? Really?

Naturally enough, the umpires just don't want to work any harder than they have to. And while there is a moderate financial incentive for them to work postseason games, every full-time umpire receives a standard postseason bonus whether he works postseason games or not (which is of course to soothe the tender feelings of the umpires who are not selected).

Anyway, it's obviously not any ideal system. If Major League Baseball asks the most fundamental of questions -- "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this how we would do it?" -- the answer must almost certainly be no. Fortunately, Major League Baseball has the perfect chance to ask that question. Because according to Ringolsby, the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the World Umpires Association expires at the end of this year. Nobody's got any excuse if the umpiring isn't better in 2010 than it's been this fall.

Umpire makes up rule

July, 6, 2009
Uh oh. Methinks an investigation should be conducted of this affair:
    When Derek Jeter was called out attempting to steal third base with no one out, he asked third base umpire Marty Foster for a reason.

    Jeter thought he was safe. The ball had beaten him there, but he moved his left hand around Scott Rolen's glove and replays showed he touched the bag before Rolen's tag.

    "He didn't tag me," Jeter told Foster.

    "He didn't have to," Foster said, according to Jeter. "The ball beat you."


    Jeter, who rarely argues any call, couldn't believe what he was told.

    "I was baffled by the explanation," Jeter said. "I was told I was out because the ball beat me and he didn't have to tag me. I was unaware of that change in the rules."

    Foster was not made available to reporters after the game. Crew chief John Hirschbeck said Jeter may have been in the right, but couldn't say for sure. He had not spoken to Foster about his exchange with Jeter.

    "It would make (Jeter's) actions seem appropriate if that's what he was told," Hirschbeck told reporters. "It used to be if the ball beat you, you were out, but it isn't that way anymore. It's not a reason to call someone out. You have to make a good tag."

    Girardi said Jeter's decision to try and steal third with none out in the first inning is the right move -- only if he makes it safely to third.

    "The idea to be aggressive, I don't have a problem with," Girardi said. "But you have to make sure that you're right. And he got called out."

    It's the old baseball adage: When the throw beats the runner, the call is already made. Jeter said it only bothers him when he is the victim of such a play. Plenty of times before, he said, that call has benefitted him.

I was watching the game, and the replays were clear: Jeter should have been safe. The umpires missed several other calls in this game. But that's going to happen. What's not supposed to happen is missing calls and then admitting that you don't really care if you missed them -- can't be bothered to get them right.

In fact, I would argue that if Foster really told Jeter that a tag is not necessary, he should be disciplined and perhaps fired. Every time I write something like this, the D.o.U. -- Defenders of Umpires -- jump all over me. The defenders claim umpires have a hard job and should be allowed to make mistakes. How can I possibly criticize these poor guys who make $300,000 for six or seven months of work? Well, maybe I'm too rough on the arbiters.

I'll tell you this, though: I have a newfound admiration for Jeter. Because if I made a foolish decision and then, thanks to a bit of luck and a great deal of skill, turned my mistake into success only to have an umpire decide to make his own rule, I'd want to punch him in his big fat mouth.

Monday Mendozas

April, 13, 2009
Today's links were amalgamated while I watched golf highlights for the first time since Tom Watson was making hay ...

• One of the things that makes baseball so endearing is the silly old fourth-out rule. You have to love it.

• Did you hear the big news? Jack Wilson is off to a hot start! It's true! He's 7-for-22! Granted, if two of those seven hits had been non-hits, nobody would notice how hot he's started. But it's April and we have to write about something, so ...

• As Doug Glanville writes, even ballplayers aren't invincible.

• R.J. Anderson wonders if Juan Morillo and his 97-mph heat have a future (short answer: probably not).

• I do Tweet occasionally (@RobNeyer), but I'm not exactly sure if this is a cool thing. Could be, though. Why don't you try it first, and let me know!

• Hey, Dallas McPherson has a job! Well, sort of a job. First he gets to spend some time in extended spring training. Then he gets to spend some time in Fresno, backing up someone named "Ryan Rohlinger." But if Travis Ishikawa doesn't hit and Pablo Sandoval continues to look like a first baseman trying to play third base, McPherson might eventually wind up having some fun with the big club.

• Wondering where Baseball Prospectus' top 100 prospects landed this spring? Here's where.

• I used to want to write a book about umpires. But I didn't, in part because it would have been a lot of work. OK, that's mostly why. But also because I figured nobody would care. But Bruce Weber's written a book about umpires and he got on "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross! So I might have been wrong about that one.