Since we are now well into MLB spring training, we thought we’d share an excellent article written a few years ago by Steve Gilbert at MLB.com about a typical life of an MLB umpire. We all know it’s far from an easy gig, and can cause quite a bit of unnecessary stress. Steve’s article from a few years ago tells the story of what it’s like umping in the big show, from MLB ump Jeff Kellogg’s point of view. We hope you enjoy the read!
News of late from Major League Baseball is that there has been discussion about altering the definition of the strike zone for the first time in almost twenty years. The reason, those- in-the-know state, is that the predominantly low strike zone has been the culprit of low-scoring games the League has seen over the past few season. So will umpires start to readjust their zones in order to appease League officials?
Concern around baseball about the strike zone filtered down to the MLB’s Playing Rules Committee, which must formally adopt a rules change before it’s implemented. The committee will pay close attention to the size of the strike zone in 2015 with an eye on change as early as 2016 after studies showed it has expanded significantly since 2009, coinciding with a serious drop in run scoring. It is well known that the low strike is considered a significantly more difficult pitch to hit.
Runs per game fell to 4.07 in 2014, the lowest mark since 1981 and the 13th fewest since World War II. This alarming stat has the Rules Committee taking a serious look at the situation.
Research has shown that since 2009, the average size of the called strike zone has jumped from 435 square inches to 475 square inches. The results: Pitchers are throwing more in the lower part of the zone, and hitters are swinging at an increased rate, knowing the tough-to-drive pitches will be called strikes.
The problem, sources said, stems from technological leaps that caused unintended consequences. In 1996, when the league last changed the strike zone to extend it from the top of the knees to the bottom, beneath the hollow of the kneecap, it did so to encourage umpires to call knee-level strikes. The lower end of the zone, in practice, was about three-quarters of the way down the thigh, so the idea was that by adjusting the eye levels of umpires to look lower, the result would be a more traditional strike zone.
Then along came Questec, the computerized pitch-tracking system, followed by Zone Evaluation, the current version tied in to MLB’s PITCHf/x system. With a tremendous degree of accuracy – especially in recent years – the systems tracked textbook balls and strikes, and the home-plate umpires’ performances were graded on a nightly basis. Over time, not only did umpires’ strike zones move down to the knees, they went to the hollow and even a smidge below.
“I don’t think the Playing Rules Committee at the time of the last change ever expected that the umpires would call strikes at the hollow of the knee,” said Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, the current chairman of the committee. “To their credit, the umpires now are.”
So we just got through Memorial Day Weekend – two months into the current Major League Baseball season. Besides the fact that many of the major market teams are not playing anything resembling Major League quality (Mets, Red Sox, Cubs), fans are still trying to digest the pros and cons of instant replay rules.
MLB’s new, expanded replay rules went into effect at the beginning of the season, after several years of debate on whether they would improve questionable calls made on the field. The baseball purists considered it blasphemous. The younger generations raised on electronic gadgets were wondering what was taking the League so long.
Now with fans, and officials alike able to view any questionable call from dozens of camera angles, how many times have you seen it used as intended, to correct a terrible call? we’ve already seen one aspect of the new rules overturned – the infamous “ball transfer” call. Could others be far behind?
We’ve seen replays where everyone on the planet agreed a call should and would be overturned, only to see the umps rule otherwise. It seems managers are more than willing to halt a game for micro-examinations of the closest of close calls, all with the hopes of getting that edge, or a call reversed.
The overwhelming application of this replay rule — and the same happened and still does with the NFL’s version — is it quickly and predictably has not met either its need or demand. And that’s not likely to change, not unless common sense suddenly becomes common.
Of course, as seen for over 25 years during NFL telecasts and now in MLB telecasts, “conclusive evidence” on close plays often is more a matter of opinion than fact. Like a verdict being vacated on appeal, one judge’s conclusive evidence is another’s reasonable doubt.
Are these new rules really helping the umps getting the call right? Are most of them review-worthy at all? It’s hard to tell whether managers go to replay not so much to get the call right, as to see if another set of eyes may view a replay the same way said manager WANTS to see it – correct or not.
The typical Major League game clocks in at over 2.5 hours, not factoring in instant replay challenges. Does expanding the length of the game to MAYBE get a questionable call right really give what the League and its fans want? As the old adage goes, be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.
There will always be player altercations when a pitch lands on a hitter’s body – the harder the pitch, the more likely the altercation. And that will always require the men in blue to step in to restore order. But where is the line drawn when an umpire chooses to physically attempt to defuse a delicate situation? We will see shortly when MLB officals meet to discuss umpire Paul Nauert’s actions during this past Monday night’s benches-clearing exchange in the Tigers-Orioles game.
In case you missed it, the Orioles’ Bud Norris came in a little too close with a fastball thrown to the Tigers’ Torii Hunter. After the typical posturing and shouting, the only actual person-to-person contact in question from the whole incident came from Nauert, who appeared to put his right hand up to Hunter’s face in an effort to calm him down. That slight contact will be reviewed as part of Major League Baseball’s investigation into the incident.
The incident came on the follow-up to the original exchange between Norris and Hunter, as Hunter was making his way to first base. Nauert had spent the first part of the argument trying to calm down Norris on the mound. The tempers had seemingly cooled, and Norris, who had been ejected by home-plate umpire James Hoye, was at the dugout steps when he and Hunter began jawing again. Hunter began shouting back from first base as Tigers first-base coach Omar Vizquel tried to keep him from taking any steps toward the dugout.
The review is part of the standard operating procedure for all on-field incidents, an MLB spokesperson said. Hunter, however, doesn’t believe it’s worth reviewing..
“That doesn’t make sense,” Hunter said Tuesday. “I mean, he was just trying to get me to calm down. He was just saying, ‘Torii, you’re better than this. Come on.’ …
“I’ve known him a long time. He wasn’t smacking me like people think. He was trying to calm me down: ‘Come on, baby, come back, come back.’ Because I was losing it. He was just trying to help me. There’s nothing to really investigate.”
Nauert clearly wasn’t trying initiate a physical altercation with Hunter. Given the length of time they’ve known each other, it looks like Nauert was trying to diffuse the situation the best way he felt would work. If Hunter himself felt like there was no ill will involved, should MLB be overly concerned? When players make contact with umpires during arguments, they almost always pay the price for that contact. So maybe this reverse scenario deserves a closer look. However, would this situation be that much different if Nauert was physically pulling Hunter off a pile if Hunter was brawling with Norris? Where is that proverbial line in the sand with regards to player-umpire contact?