By Mark Kolier
The World Series is over, but I found myself listening to World Series Game 3 this week on a drive home. It was a great experience since it was unusual for me to listen to such an important game as normally, I’d be watching on TV. The ESPN radio crew of Jon Sciambi, Jessica Mendoza, Eduardo Perez, and Buster Olney were a good listen. In the bottom of the ninth inning, an egregious called strike three was made by home-plate umpire Alfonso Márquez, who by all accounts had a bad night calling balls and strikes.
The pitch (as Mendoza noted) was at least two balls outside the strike zone. The broadcast crew pointed out how differently the ninth inning would have gone had that leadoff batter, Gabriel Moreno, walked instead of being rung up for strike three. Baseball fans know that having a runner on first with nobody out with the team behind by two runs puts tremendous pressure on the pitcher and the defense. That never happened, as on the subsequent 3-2 pitch, Moreno grounded out weakly to Corey Seager at shortstop. Rangers closer José Leclerc quickly put away the final two D-backs.
Umpires. Hate ‘em or hate ‘em. On our podcast recently, my son, Gordon, and I were discussing that two umpires, former National League umps Ed Montague and Joe West, are among this year’s candidates for Hall of Fame induction by the Contemporary Era Committee. Gordon knows West, but not Montague. As a fan, I watched both umpires throughout their entire careers. I don’t remember them being especially good or bad umpires, but by the accolades being laid upon them, they appear to be better than most. I’ve always felt the best officials in sports are the ones you never notice.
For whatever reason, there’s a general desire to have umpires be enshrined in Cooperstown, although there are only 10 in the Hall of Fame. They are Al Barlick, Nestor Chylak, Jocko Conlan, Tom Connolly, Billy Evans, Doug Harvey, Cal Hubbard, Bill Klem, Bill McGowan, and Hank O’Day. Does the average fan recognize any of these names?
Baseball history fans will recognize Klem. I remember Barlick as a NL umpire when I was a kid, and it turns out that he umpired for 57 years (1936-1993). That exceeds Connie Mack’s 50 years as manager of the Philadelphia A’s! I’m cool with Al and probably would be with the 8 others besides ol’ Bill Klem. The odd thing is that I am for a slightly larger Hall of Fame, but I don’t think that non-players should be a priority when there are so many deserving players who are not enshrined.
We all understand that umpires have been a part of baseball since its earliest days. Players are smartly not relied upon to call their own games. Without diving into a deep history of MLB umpiring, it can’t be ignored that almost 30% of the humans on the field (four out of 14) are wearing blue and not wearing baseball gloves, nor are holding a bat. These umpires have been and still are THERE!
Players have their own relationships with umpires, since they can’t and shouldn’t ignore them. The fraternities of MLB players and MLB umpires are relatively small and exclusive. You see the same umpires on the field all year long. You get to talk with them occasionally and know them.
Not a news flash: Modern technology has changed EVERYTHING about MLB umpiring. It’s important to distinguish MLB umpiring from other umpiring, since technology plays a much larger role in the Majors and the Minor Leagues are now a testing ground for how MLB umpiring might look in the future. At levels below that (college, high school, etc.), technology and umpiring are much more disconnected due to the lack of availability of technology like Automated Balls and Strikes (ABS) and video replay.
Before I get to ABS, think about what baseball was like before real-time video replay would show what really happened on the pitch or play, making a fool out of the umpire for missing what now seems obvious. That had to be a horrible day for umpires. Previously, fans, writers, and broadcasters could only rely on what they saw LIVE.
The expression “Kill the Ump” was not born out of the first bad call on a baseball field. It evolved over time. But sometimes it had to be scary for an umpire when fans’ vitriol boiled hot after a particularly close play. In those days, umpires might fear to “meet” someone in the parking lot after the game had them taking precautions and protection from crazed fans who were ready to take things too far.
For a long time after video replay was available, stadiums would not show close plays for fear of inciting a riot amongst the fans when a bad call against the home team was revealed. Today, we see a replay of a close play nearly immediately and from a variety of camera angles. This in turn allows fans to see what the MLB office in New York sees (although there’s been talk that MLB gets more camera angles than what is shown on the broadcast) and while the system is not perfect, the right call prevails nearly every time.
Which brings me to ABS. If the predicate is that balls and strikes should be called correctly to enable the best version of MLB to be played, then ABS should be employed as soon as possible. Today’s umpires are good at calling balls and strikes, with over 90% accuracy checking against ABS being achieved regularly. But ABS would be perfect. If a defined area for a strike vs. a ball is created and it can be clearly measured, we all then agree on what is a ball and what is a strike. Either the ball crossed that plane and it was a strike, or it was a ball. Seems easy and clear-cut right? But it never is. Agreement on the 3D model is not yet universal, but that will eventually be resolved.
Triple-A tested ABS two ways this past 2023 season.
1. Balls and strikes are called by the Hawkeye system and instantaneously relayed to the home-plate umpire.
2. ABS challenge system where the ump calls balls and strikes as usual, with a limit on challenges available to each team.
Most see option two being done first. And even if option one was to be adopted, it does not mean the home-plate umpire is made irrelevant. There’s plenty to do, including keeping up with the pitch clock, keeping track of mound visits, watching for balks, and of course plays on the field and at home plate. I think ultimately Hawkeye will call balls and strikes, which would remove all uncertainty.
We’ve heard pitchers describe the difference in having pitches called by ABS. Some pitches that were balls are now strikes, and some that would be called strikes are – properly – called balls. Batters must adjust as well. Here’s my point: It will be better than what we have now. I don’t buy the talk and romance about losing the “human” element and the cute unpredictability in having live umpires call balls and strikes. Like the old “6 million-dollar man” TV show from the 1970s, in which Government man Oscar Goldman famously says, “We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better, stronger, faster.” Right!
I also think technology could help call check-swing strikes instead of deferring to the corner umpire’s view from 100 feet away. Decide how far is too far, have a camera view and depict where the swing stopped. It will be better than what we have now!
As far as ABS is concerned, aren’t baseball fans ready yet? I know I am.
About the Author: Mark Kolier along with his son Gordon co-hosts a baseball podcast called ‘Almost Cooperstown’. He also has written baseball-related articles that can be accessed on Medium.com and now Substack.com.