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Hok Talk: Officials? More like o-farce-als!

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Baseball officiating is in a terrible place, right now.

2019 World Series Game 7 - Washington Nationals v. Houston Astros
Carlos Correa doesn’t like the umpires, either.
Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After watching the World Series I knew I had to write about the umpires. Then Max put out a call in the writer slack asking for someone to write about the umpires. So I said, “Yeah, count me in!” And he goes, “Well, you just wrote about them a couple of weeks ago but go for it again!” And I said, “Wait, I did?” And that’s the story of how I remembered I wrote this article barely more than a month ago. In fairness to me, my original focus when writing that article was less about umpires in general and more about how they had been calling balls and strikes for the Royals and how much catcher framing impacted the game.

That being said, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the World Series has offered us a lot more to think about when it comes to officiating in baseball, in general, as well as calling balls and strikes in particular. It’s usually not a good idea to expand a single data point into an entire thesis but enough is going on in the following tweet that I feel confident in coming to some conclusions:

Let’s just go over what we can and can’t learn from this single clip real quick:

  • It’s unfair to assume that all umpires or even Lance Barksdale, the umpire in this clip, regularly call balls and strikes based on how the players act rather than where the ball is in relation to the plate.
  • This call likely did not affect the game which Houston won handily.
  • It clearly happens at least some of the time. If you’re a longtime fan this probably isn’t even the first story you’ve heard like this. I definitely remember Jeff Montgomery telling a story about how he struck out Paul O’Neill with a ridiculous pitch because of an umpire grudge even if I can find no evidence of that story now.
  • However often it happens, the umpire is not only willing to admit that it happened, but he’s willing to do so in the middle of the sport’s biggest series of the year. That is not the action of a man who believes he did anything wrong or that he will be punished for it.

Everyone is human, mistakes happen. Some people even argue that mistakes are part of what makes the game beautiful. I am of the opinion that you’d rather not have them, but I’m generally willing to accept them as long as they are mistakes. This was not a mistake. Lance Barksdale - can we pause for just a second to appreciate what a great umpire name that is? - admitted he did it flagrantly and intentionally because he was unhappy with how Yan Gomes reacted to the pitch. He’s willing to do it in the middle of one of the biggest games of the season, on national television, and to immediately confess to it. That’s unacceptable. And since we now have had this point driven into our skulls that they can and will even occasionally do this, I am more convinced than ever that we need to switch to AI-called balls and strikes. They’ll do it better and free up home plate umpires to better focus on the other kinds of calls they have to make. I am, however, all for somehow alerting the home plate umpire to the call and allowing him to make the signal. Strike and strikeout calls have always been a source of great entertainment to me and the sport would lose too much by sacrificing those.

That’s not all that needs fixing, though

If I had my way they’d make at least two more major changes to the way the sport is officiated. First of all, I hate the rule that defines how a runner must run to first base.

This is an incredibly stupid thing to ask a player to do. And, as Eno Sarris points out here, absolutely no one EVER runs like this. The only time the rule is enforced is when

  1. A player makes a bad throw to first and it hits the runner
  2. A player realizes that it would be easier and more effective to throw at the runner than to find an open throwing lane to the first-baseman.

That’s it. Those are the only two times. Or else right-handers would never reach base via hit. They’re in fair territory too long on singles, and they go too far into foul territory when they aim for extra bases. And it’s not like the rule should be enforced like that, the game wouldn’t be any fun. So instead we need to go ahead and take the advice of Kyle Scwarber among others:

This has a variety of positive effects. It eliminates the need for the batter to re-enter fair territory on a single in which he runs through first. It makes all of those plays safer. The runner and fielders are all safer if the fielders are attempting to stay in fair territory and the runner is attempting to stay in foul territory and when neither of them is trying to put their feet in the same place. Finally, fielders will no longer be rewarded for laziness or poor throws. The only downside is that it might look a little odd. That downside is not worth discounting the upside, to me. Also, I’m pretty sure we’d all get used to it in a pretty short amount of time.

The last change I’d like to make is to eliminate gamesmanship from the replay system. Ostensibly the entire point of replay challenges is to get the calls right. However, the system as currently set up allows for the possibility that the calls might remain wrong. A team may choose not to challenge because they’re afraid of losing the right to challenge a call later in the game or they may have already challenged a call that was not overturned and have lost their right. This is bad.

The solution I propose is to use the umpire in New York, who is already tasked with watching the game. Instead of only having him check the replays if a team challenges have him watch the entire game and call timeout if there’s a play he thinks should be reviewed. Give him 30 seconds to check it and if he can’t find anything to overturn it in that amount of time it stands. This has the benefit of saving time - the current system has the managers use a similar amount of time having a replay guy decide if it’s worth challenging before the umpires actually take a timeout to review the play - and it has the benefit of ensuring that there is a second set of eyes on every single call, making sure they’re as right as humanly possible. Adding the challenge system at the same time as replay was always stupid and this would make that system work much more smoothly and should appease a lot of the fans who hate it.

The good news is that at least the first thing baseball needs to do to fix officiating appears to be coming. A couple of days ago Rob Manfred announced that they would be testing automated strike zone calls in some minor league stadiums in 2020 following the testing they did in the Atlantic League this year and some upgrades being built into the technology. But even more telling than this new round of testing is what Manfred had to say,

Here’s our thinking on the automated strike zone: The technology exists. We have the technology,” Manfred said on MLB Now with Brian Kenny. “We’re actually going through a big upgrade of that piece of our technology during this offseason. I think we need to be ready to use an automated strike zone when the time is right. (Emphasis mine)

That phrasing suggests that there is no doubt in Rob Manfred’s mind that the “right time” for automated strike zones is coming, it’s only a matter of when not if. Honestly, everything about this is good news. They’ve been testing it, they’re upgrading the systems, and they’re going to test it some more before finally implementing it. Hopefully, the majority of the kinks will have been worked out by the time it makes it to major league baseball. Also, based on the pace of the testing so far, it seems likely to be coming soon.