Sports Opinion & Analysis

The System (Mostly) Works, Part 1 of 2

In MLB on May 12, 2013 at 1:06 am

By Chris Hallenbrook

May is still young, but already it has been a bad month for MLB umpires. From the Harper ejection (which was proper) to Tom Hallion and David Price sparing in the media to two horrendously blown calls on back-to-back nights, umpires have been the story of the past week and a half, and whenever officiating is the story that’s a bad thing. However, despite the screams you hear, the sky isn’t falling. In fact, I’m going to argue that the system is working quite well. Now, the aforementioned examples fall into two distinctly different categories: player-umpire interaction and getting the call right. Accordingly, in this piece I am only going to handle the ineptitude of Angel Hernandez and Fieldin Culbreth. The other two incidents I’ll return to next week.

Let’s start with the home run that wasn’t. This should have been an easy call. Despite Hernandez’s protests to the contrary, instant replay was exceedingly clear that the ball struck above the yellow home run line. In fact, that the call needed to be reversed was so obvious that the decision to rule it a double smacks of the old “we won’t overturn our colleague even when he is so obviously wrong a small child would have made a better call” mentality that Major League umpires deserve credit for having largely eradicated over the last decade or so. Unfortunately this was no small botched call, the home run would have tied the game in the 9th, and in the absence of the HR the Athletics failed to score, thus falling 4-3 to the Indians. As a result, the screaming has reached an occasionally hysterical pitch, with Buster Olney (or “ESPN Insider and Senior Baseball Writer Buster Olney” as ESPN insists on calling him five times a day as if it is his legal name) going so far as to make the ludicrous suggestion that the game be replayed from the time of the home run. Yes, MLB rule 4.19 covering protests does in fact allow for replaying a game if the blown call significantly damages a team’s chance of winning, and yes this call falls under those criteria. But here’s the problem, as is well known the same rule states that the umpire’s judgment calls cannot be protested under any circumstances. This is done with good reason because every game is so rife with difficult judgment calls that the ability to play a game under protest as the result of them would lead to never ending cries for the commissioner’s office to intervene. Furthermore, which side of the yellow line the ball hit on is clearly a judgment call, so the question in this case is not how to right the wrong, but how to minimize the number of mistakes that are made. Could the introduction of an instant replay official in the booth a la NCAA football or a centralized war room in New York to handle all replays NHL style lead to fewer problems? Possibly, and these options are worth considering to reduce the duration of reviews. But it is hard to see how either system would have helped in this instance as all the information needed to change the call was available and the bigger problem seems to have been Hernandez’s refusal to use his eyes, indicating that MLB should discipline him, and do so publically as is done with players and managers, in order to send a clear message that such mind-numbing ineptitude will not be tolerated.

As for the Houston pitching change that should not have been allowed, this isn’t the crisis it’s been made out to be. Yes, it was a clear misapplication of the rules, and as such it was subject for protest. Mike Scioscia did tell the umpires that the game was being played under protest, and therefore if the Angels had lost the game the league office would have reviewed the game to see if the impact of the mistake warranted the game being replayed from that spot. Now, you may be thinking to yourself that you don’t remember the last time a game was replayed after being protested. That is the point. When it comes to administering the rules as written, the umpires almost always get it right, and when they don’t it usually does not change the outcome of the game. Accordingly, this is an isolated incident that does not indicate a need to change the system, especially given the discipline the umpires received. As the crew chief, Fieldin Culbreth was ultimately responsible for the mistake, and he has been suspended for two games and fined. The other three umpires on the crew were also fined for not saying, “um, boss, what the heck do you think you’re doing?” It is thus unlikely that MLB umpires are going to forget this rule anytime soon.

So all in all, these two blown calls lead to a lot of hand wringing, but little alteration of the current system, at least on the basis of these specific calls, is necessary.

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