Poor umpiring an unwanted playoff sub-plot

MLB announced start times for ALCS Games 1 and 2
ALCS Preview: A tale of two managers

An umpire’s job is not easy. No matter where he’s positioned, he has to be on top of the game: the count, the outs, the men on base, the hitter at bat. He has to make instant calls on bang-bang plays, and if it’s a close play he has to face an irate manager. This is why umpires go through such a rigorous training period, which includes years, possibly a decade or longer, in the minors. There are measures in place to ensure that only the most prepared umpires make the majors.

Even after years of training and with decades of experience, umpires make mistakes. We have seen many of them in the past week alone. There were mistaken calls in Game 1 of the Angels-Red Sox series, Game 2 of the Yankees-Twins series, and Game 3 of the Phillies-Rockies series. As is the case with all blown calls, it had an effect on how the game unfolded. While the Yanks-Twins and Phils-Rox calls had a more direct impact on the game, even the Angels-Sox blown calls changed the tenor of the game.

Game 1 of the Red Sox-Angels series featured three questionable calls by first base umpire C.B. Bucknor. The first came when Alex Gonzalez threw wide of Kevin Youkilis at first. Youkilis caught the ball while off the bag, but reached back and appeared to tag the runner, Howie Kendrick. Bucknor saw it differently, calling Kendrick safe. “He said I tagged him,” said Youkilis of Bucknor, “but he said [Kendrick] was on the base when I tagged him.” The replay clearly showed that wasn’t the case. Youkilis made the tag before Kendrick touched the bag.

Youkilis and Bucknor had another run-in later in the game. This time the grounder was to Mike Lowell, who threw high. Youkilis made a nice play to recover, and appeared to land on the bag before Kendrick (again). As Youkilis fell backward, Bucknor again called safe. Red Sox manager Terry Francona was more upset this time, and rightfully so. Replay clearly showed that Youkilis hit the bag before Kendrick.

In between those two plays, Bucknor made a questionable call that favored the Sox. With a runner on first, Chone Figgins laid down a bunt. Jon Lester fielded and threw to Dustin Pedroia, who was covering first. That throw went high, forcing Pedroia to leap for it, and it appeared Figgins touched before Pedroia landed. Bucknor called Figgins out. The latter said something to Bucknor, presumably something about a make-up call.

Almost every write-up I read of the game and the incident noted that the blown calls didn’t affect the outcome of the game, because neither team scored when they received the favorable calls. That ignores the extra toll on a pitcher. Jon Lester would have thrown fewer pitches had Bucknor got the two calls right at first on his side. Then again, he would have thrown more pitches had he gotten the Figgins call right. In any case, it most certainly does affect the outcome of the game, regardless of whether anyone scored in those innings.

The Joe Mauer incident needs no explanation — we all saw it. Leading off the 11th inning, Joe Mauer sliced one down the left field line towards the line. Melky Cabrera chased, but could not catch the fly, which bounced off the dirt and into the stands. Left field line umpire Phil Cuzzi emphatically signaled foul as Yankees fans let out a collective breath. Replays came immediately, though, and they showed that not only did the ball bounce in fair territory, but it also grazed Melky’s mitt.

The picture above shows Cuzzi in perfect position to make the call. He was mere feet from where the ball landed. One explanation, NJ.com’s Steve Politi notes, is that umpires aren’t used to playing the lines. For 162 games during the season there are only four umpires. Only for the All-Star game and the postseason does MLB employ six umpires per game. That can make for some uncomfortable plays for the line umpires — during the 1996 World Series, Jermaine Dye couldn’t get around line ump Tim Welke, which allowed a Derek Jeter fly to land for a single. That led to a three-run inning, which set up Leyritz’s blast. But I digress. Damn nostalgia.

In his article, Politi talks a bit more about the two extra umpires, and it’s a worthy read. Rob Neyer expands the discussion.

The latest is perhaps the strangest, because it involves one blown call and one questionable call, from different umpires, on the same play. The Phillies and the Rockies were tied at five in the top of the ninth, and Huston Street was on to face the top of the Phils order. With Jimmy Rollins on second with one out, Chase Utley chopped one in front of the plate. Street fielded and threw to Helton to seemingly retire Utley.

Starting at the end, the picture above shows that Helton kept his foot on the bag, and that he had received the ball before Utley touched first. Yes, that’s a close place, and obviously the human eye, in real time, doesn’t have that kind of precision. However, for the first base ump, Ron Kulpa, said Helton was off the bag. After watching the replay, it seems like a tough call. But, for Kulpa to say Helton was off the bag is to say that he definitively saw it. I’m not sure how he can make that call on such a bang-bang play. Replay showed that Helton did a good job to remain in contact with the bag when the throw arrived. Tough call, but blown.

The worse call is at the beginning of the play. Replay showed that the ball hit Utley while he was in the batter’s box, rendering it technically foul. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals didn’t see it, though, and none in his crew stepped forward and said that it hit Utley. Rollins advanced to third on the play, as he would have normally, but with Utley safe instead of either out or back at the plate, the Phillies found an opportunity. Ryan Howard hit a sac fly, and that was the difference in that game.

Complaints all year

While these three games garnered national attention, we’ve seen plenty of umpire issues this year. These complaints range from the Yankees legitimate beef with Marty Foster to general outrage over the strike zone. TBS isn’t helping the latter situation with its PitchTRAX feature, which has showed umpires consistently calling pitches outside of the “zone” strikes. That seems to be a PitchTRAX issue, though. You can read more about TBS’s balls and strikes feature at Fack Youk.

I have to wonder, though, if umpire complaints are becoming louder because fans now have a forum to vent their frustrations. If an umpire blows a call, not only will the replay get airtime on multiple stations, but will also appear on the Internet — if not in video form, certainly the stills. Even if we’re not looking for information on blown calls, it’s right in front of our faces.

As for a potential fix, there doesn’t seem to be any in the offing. Bud Selig doesn’t want to expand replay, and beyond that there doesn’t seem to be a way to cut down on bad calls. With human umpires, they’re unavoidable. All MLB can do, really, is to carefully review umpires and hand out assignments based on merit. The umps might mean well, but accuracy trumps all.

An interesting story to watch going forward: Will Bucknor, Cuzzi, Meals, and Kulpa be disciplined for their calls? I’m not saying they shouldn’t umpire LCS games, but if MLB is serious about improving umpire performance, it would make sense to punish those who make bad calls.

MLB announced start times for ALCS Games 1 and 2
ALCS Preview: A tale of two managers
  • bx.boy

    YES network paying you guys by the word?

    • whozat

      Yeah, I hate when people give me lots of free content for literally no reason other than they love writing about the Yankees.

      • Salty Buggah

        That and I dont think YES pays RAB like that. They only pick some select articles from RAB, no matter how many are posted.

    • http://www.secondavenuesagas.com Benjamin Kabak

      Is your attention span to short for a 1200-word article? Here’s an idea: Skip it instead of leaving an unnecessarily obnoxious comment.

      • ShuutoHeat


      • JMK aka The Overshare

        That comment was too long for my liking. Can I get a Cliff’s Notes edition?

        • Salty Buggah

          Short version: You’re a stupid jerk.

          • JMK aka The Overshare

            Go Rockies!

  • http://cache.daylife.com/imageserve/0awG8jw7Ax5xR/610x.jpg Drew

    I’ve heard the “we’re not used to playing the lines” excuse at nauseam. Please, see the ball and make the right call. It’s really not that difficult to see a ball(the Mauer play) land in fair territory.

    As for the umping in general, the shotty calls have obviously continued into October.

  • Ivan

    The umpiring has been awful all season. Doesn’t surprise me that the poor performance has continued.

  • http://www.puristbleedspinstripes.com Rebecca-Optimist Prime

    And what credence do you give to the idea that the quality of umpiring hasn’t changed so much as our technology has?

    I mean, instant replay did not always exist, even for the broadcasters….

    • JGS

      what difference does it make?

      Scenario A: the umpiring has gotten worse
      solution: implement more extensive replay

      Scenario B: it was always this bad, we are just noticing it more
      solution: it used to be that we couldn’t do anything about it. Now we have three dozen camera angels on everything and instant replay. implement it more extensively

    • ARX

      My gut says its getting worse, since isntant replay isn’t exactly new and I can’t remember this many bad calls even as far back as 5 or 6 years ago…but the key words there are ‘my gut’ and ‘remember’. What MLB needs to do is something like the steroids ‘survey’: sample a large enough group of games + ALL playoff games), monitor the umpiring and ball/strike calls, and take action based on that.

      • JGS

        I’m still mad at Jim Evans for the 1995 ALDS against Seattle. That might be more because I was nine at the time though

  • Davor

    The only remedy for errors like Cuzzi’s is to properly train the umpires. Based on tennis matches I’ve seen, the only way to get this right is to focus on the line, preferably from at least 20 feet or so, and ignore everything else. From replays it seems that Cuzzi constantly tried to find the ball in the air and Cabrera’s position. When you actually move your eyes to follow the ball, it is not impossible to “move” the point of impact a foot or so in the direction the ball travels. Couple of days spent with linesmen during some low-level tennis tournament, and MLB umpires would be much more likely to get close fair/foul calls right. Problems that even so trained umpires would have: trying to see simultaneously if LF touched the ball, if he touched it inside or outside the grounds and where the ball landed afterward.

    • JGS

      In fairness to Cuzzi, you don’t miss a call like that because you are improperly trained, you miss a call like that because you made a mistake. When was the last time you saw an MLB ump miss a line call?

  • http://www.theyankeeuniverse.com/ The Artist

    An interesting explanation on the Mauer/Melky call was that somehow Melky confused the umpire, and his shoes may been involved. If you look at Melky’s cleats, they have a white stripe running across them, and when he’s running at full speed the white blur could have confused Cuzzi.

    So I go back and review the replay in slow motion, and even Melky’s foot lands in fair territory on the play.

  • http://kikojones5.blogspot.com Kiko Jones

    Short of expanding replay, assigning umps to the post-season based on their accuracy during the regular season is the best option. (These guys are regularly graded on performance, right?) Then again, I believe the folks here at RAB recently wrote about this currently not being an option due to the umpire union’s guidelines or something.

    Something’s gotta give, tho: way too many bad calls all across this particular post-season.

  • Phil

    Just an FYI, the ball that fell in back in 1996 World Series actually fell in foul down the RF line. That gave Derek a 2nd life which lead to a hit later in the AB.

  • LG

    My proposal to MLB: In each game give each team two “instant replay reviews”. If there is a questionable call, the manager can use “a review” to have that call reviewed over instant replay by the umps. If it was a bad call and the ump was wrong, that team is not charged for that “review”, if the ump was correct then that team is charged. I don’t think this system should be used for strikes/balls.

    I think this would be a good use of instant replay where it can be used to overcome glaring umpire errors without breaking up the overall rhythm of the game. Games, especially this time of the year, should not be decided on umpiring mistakes.

    • Doug

      watch football much :-)

  • Doug

    Have another theory on how the ump blew the Mauer call, one that I haven’t seen posited before. Since he’s a lefty, the ball Mauer hit had such extreme slice and was coming in at such an angle towards the foul line, that the eyes’ natural tendency is to think it was foul.

  • Tank Foster

    Expand replay, and use technology to assist umpires in real time. It’s not such an awful thing to consider.

  • Bo

    theres been poor umpiring going back to the turn of the century. This isnt new. Those arguing for instant replay better save your breath. It took baseball this long to just have home runs reviewed.

  • Rob in CT

    I want expanded replay review, but I want it done QUICKLY. There should be someone at a central HQ location who makes the call based on the TV replays and simply relays that decision to the umps on the field. The whole thing where they come off the field, review it for a while, and then make a call takes too long, IMO.

    The bigger question is how to decide which calls to review. If you let teams challenge unlimited calls, the game will grind to a halt as every close play is reviewed. If you limit the number of challenges, the team has to have some time to decide whether to use a challenge (so that someone in the clubhouse watching TV can tell the manager to challenge), but not forever.

    Also, which plays shall we allow to be reviewed? Fair/Foul seems obvious. What about close plays on the bases? How about the “area play” during a DP turn? Sac flies (did he leave early?). Or all plays, subject to a limit per team?

    All in all, I think they need to do two things: 1) expand replay and 2) redouble their efforts at training the umps. If fair/foul is something they’re uncomfortable with, damn, get them used to it!

  • gargoyle

    Players make mistakes, managers make mistakes, umpires make mistakes.

    Lets not go down the road to expanded replay.

    • http://www.riveraveblues.com Joseph Pawlikowski

      Terrible argument. The players and managers are participants in the game, so their mistakes are by definition part of the game. The umpires are there to enforce the rules. Their mistakes are not made as participants, therefore different.

  • Tank Foster

    They should begin by developing a real-time system for umpires to use with balls and strikes. What you do is you start with one of the current visual systems like Pitch track or whatever it’s called, and you validate the system in terms of it representing the true definition of the strike zone. Once you’ve done this, you’ve established it as the gold standard. Then you pay someone with MLB umpiring experience to call balls and strikes using the system, and do a correlation study between this method and umpires calling games. You study it, for a long time. You look at whether umpires are accurate with high-low, inside-outside, etc., and how consistent they are. It may be that umpires are accurate with high low, but not with inside outside. Or maybe they are not accurate at all. Anyway, once you know the magnitude of the problem, you decide how to use technology to address it.

    I think video should be used for calling balls and strikes because strike zones seem so subjective; every umpire has his own. This is the way baseball has always been, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to make it better. I would want it studied, though, because I’m aware that my perception that strike zones are subjective may not be correct.

    As for the other stuff – boundary calls, safe/out, etc., I think we need something like the NFL and a replay official somewhere in the stadium to make those calls.

    MLB can afford to spend the money on the technology and the personnel to make it happen.

    • http://bronxbaseballdaily.com Matt ACTY/BBD

      I think video should be used for calling balls and strikes because strike zones seem so subjective; every umpire has his own. This is the way baseball has always been, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want to make it better.

      B-I-N-G-O. It’s absolutely ridiculous that each umpire has a nuanced and differing strike zone. It’s the most fundamental element of officiating a game and the fact that it’s not standardized is just ridiculous. Pitchers and hitters should not have to play a guessing game as to what the strike zone is going to be, depending on who the umpire is.

      /broken record

  • cr1

    Most people don’t want robots calling plays in MLB. That leaves the solution to working on the human factor. Can we get a post on the union rules that affect who gets to ump in various situations? Then can we get one on the relative accuracy of the individual umps? That way we can see whether union rules systematically favor other factors (like longevity) over accuracy.

    It’s not only players that get older, slower, blinder, deafer and more convinced of their own superior judgment with advancing age. Luckily we don’t decide who plays on the basis of longevity. It shouldn’t determine who umpires the games, either.

  • Adeel

    there should be an extra (5th or 8th) umpire in a video room to instantly review a play if called upon. The only person who can instigate a review should be an umpire if he is not sure of the play. Teams would not have a right to challenge any play. This way an umpire has the ability to admit “not sure” and go to a video review. Since someone is in the review booth and is probably already looking at the replay by the time an ump signals for a review; there will not be a delay in game. Since teams can’t challenge, you won’t have to wait for a “challenge flag” in order to review the call. Since this ump would always be in the video room, you wouldn’t need two extra “line umps” for playoff games either.

    I have another idea on how to deal with balls and strikes (and keep the human element while incorporating technology).. but that would probably make this post too long.

  • misterd

    I don’t have any short term solutions, but over the next 10 years baseball really needs to do the following:

    1. Gradually expand instant replay to call other than HR. That experiment has proven a success, and umpires should be able to rely on it more. There are any number of ways to do this (ump in the booth, manager challengers, etc), but that can be worked out with MLB and the unions.

    2. Agressively recruit new umpires. Eventually, there should try to have at least 4 man squads at every AAA game, and if possible 6 umps at the major league level. Doing this, however, will require dramatically increasing the umpire’s pay. Experienced umpires should not be making less money than the rookie called up from AAA.

    3. There needs to be greater accountability. Umps should be grilled in the post game. There should be systems in place to promote or demote umpires based on their performance. And I would suggest letting the teams choose which umpires be allowed to call the post season.

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