First Pitch: Are Angel Hernandez, Joe West and MLB umpires hurting baseball?

With baseball fans on high alert and their profession as a whole in jeopardy, MLB umpires aren’t doing themselves any favors so far this season.

While Angel Hernandez, Joe West and a select few veteran umpires are forever at the forefront of the industry, those who call balls and strikes for a living are receiving extra criticism in 2021. The reason why is simple: There’s another option emerging.

An electronic strike zone wouldn’t fully remove umpires from the game, but it would decrease their authority significantly. No longer would the voice and/or opinion of a Hernandez or West be necessary every pitch. Instead, software would determine the strike zone for them. On the surface, it’ll create a flawless system, and remove some unnecessary drama from the game we love.

In late 2019, the umpires’ union agreed to testing of an electronic strike zone in the minor leagues, with the intent of perhaps applying it to the MLB level in the years to come. Rob Manfred has some authority in this regard, and while you should expect him to remain cautious about making an institutional alteration to the game itself, he hasn’t been shy about other rule changes in recent years. If it improves the sport, and potentially improves the pace of play, Manfred seems to be all for it.

So far this season, the end result of at least two games, if not more, have been directly impacted by bad decisions from umpires. Look no further than Mets-Marlins on April 8, where a hit-by-pitch on Michael Conforto actually should have been strike three. Conforto clearly leaned into the strike zone, walking off the Marlins in the process.

Just a few days later, Alec Bohm of the Philadelphia Phillies was somehow called safe on a play in which he never touched home plate. This was the game-winning run.

The decision was upheld by instant replay, which makes it all the more infuriating.

An electronic strike zone and new instant replay moderation won’t be enough to fully take the human element out of the game, but at the very least it would help eliminate mistakes this obvious. As much as I love manager blow-ups, it’s time for a change.

Are umpires worse in 2021 than in years past?

The calls aren’t necessarily getting worse in 2021, they’re just more publicized than ever before. We literally have social media accounts dedicated to tracking those who spend their days policing the rest of baseball. In fact, I spoke to one on this very issue.

Dylan Yep runs the Twitter account Umpire Auditor, which posts the worst strike zone calls by distance on a daily basis. Yep grew up around baseball and was routinely frustrated by bad calls at the highest level of the sport, brought on when ESPN debuted its ‘K Zone’ in 2014. That inspired Yep to publicize a program to track the previously-untrackable — MLB umpires.

1. Is it possible to measure who the worst umpire in MLB is, or at least in terms of strike zone? If so, who tops the list in terms of frequency of bad calls?

Dylan Yep: “There are a lot of characteristics that go into determining the worst umpire, but if we’re looking at correct call percentage: Through April 18th, umpire Sean Barber is the lowest ranked umpire of 2021. He’s missed 60 out of 376 calls for a correct call percentage of 86.2%. For context, umpires have called 91.4% of pitches correctly this season. The lowest ranked umpire of 2020 was Larry Vanover. He missed 145 out of 1307 calls for a correct call percentage of 88.9%. Umpires also called 91.4% of pitches correctly last season.”

2. MLB is already trending towards so-called robo umps — or electronic strike zone, depending on how you phrase it. Is implementing this in MLB inevitable? And if so, what of the so-called ‘human element’?

DY: “I do believe that the implementation of an electronic strike zone is inevitable. MLB has expanded its testing of the automated ball-strike system (ABS) in the minor leagues for the third consecutive year. Further, MLB made it clear in 2008 with the implementation of instant replay reviews that the “human element” of umpiring isn’t untouchable.

Finally, the proliferation of social media means that awareness of and frustration with blown calls is spreading faster than ever, putting increased pressure on MLB to implement a solution. Reframing blown calls as the “human element” strikes me as a coping mechanism. Older baseball fans have spent the vast majority of their life with no choice but to accept flawed interpretations of the strike zone…Regardless, if umpires blowing calls is what gives baseball its humanity and not the 26 players on each team, then the game has much bigger issues than who calls balls and strikes.”

3. A best-case scenario for any sport allows officials to fade into the background, calling the game fairly but not inserting themselves into the middle of controversy. In MLB, that’s simply not reality. What do you blame for the rise of umpire criticism among fans? Are they simply worse in 2021, or does social media, attentiveness and umpire personality (ex: Angel Hernandez, Joe West) play a role?

DY: “Actually, when it comes to correct call percentage, umpires have very slowly, but consistently improved over the past several years! However, umpires have never been more scrutinized. Only in the last decade does every game now have a superimposed strike zone on the screen. Combine that with the proliferation of social media –which feeds off of controversy — and umpires were bound to face a spotlight.

A small handful of umpire personalities have also received a disproportionate amount of criticism, which further amplifies conversations about umpiring. For example, the tweets I make about Ángel Hernández have incredibly high engagement rates. This is likely due to the high profile nature of controversies both on and off the field that he’s been involved in…He’s certainly made his share of blown calls, but he’s actually a pretty middle of the road umpire when it comes to correct call percentage. Last year, he was ranked as the 57th best out of 90.”

4. Despite instituting instant replay, we’ve seen some egregious calls early this season, with the Marlins and Braves clear victims. Is expanding replay an easy answer? And if so, how would that look?

DY: Expanding replay is complicated…Games are historically long and what most viewers consider “action” is decreasing in frequency…I believe that expanding replay would address many blown calls, but MLB is ultimately an entertainment corporation and, further slowing pace of play, regardless of the benefits, is currently an untenable solution. If MLB wants to reduce the number of officiating controversies, then they need to address the root cause — discretion.

In many aspects of baseball, umpires are given discretion to interpret the rules…Why is this so problematic? Because humans make mistakes. Because we need to acknowledge that we’re asking umpires to do things that humans simply weren’t designed to do. For example, tracking a 98 MPH slider that’s exploding across your field of vision and determining its precise location. Oh, and doing it correctly 100 times in a row.

Speaking generally, MLB should automate umpiring and/or clarify rules to reduce the power of an umpire to exercise discretion. For example, you reference a Marlins game where they lost on a walk-off HBP in which the batter leaned into the strike zone to get hit. The umpire was given discretion to determine if the batter leaned in or not. However, this all could’ve been prevented if this decision had been automated. An electronic strike zone would have determined that the pitch was in the strike zone and called a strike. MLB is setting umpires up to fail and will continue to do so until they begin addressing the root problems of umpiring.”

The future of MLB umpiring is vague, and won’t be met with open arms by everyone

The electronic strike zone was slipped into the league’s implementation of rule changes at the minor-league level, with consultant to the commissioner’s office Theo Epstein commenting on the alterations to the game as a whole.

“The game on the field is constantly evolving, and MLB must be thoughtful and intentional about progressing toward the very best version of baseball – a version that is true to its essence and has enough consistent action and athleticism on display to entertain fans of all ages,” Epstein said in a statement.

So-called ‘robot umps’ will use a strike zone of 15 inches square to 18 square inches, thus making pitch framing and umpire interpretation useless. In the Atlantic League, which already used the TrackMan electronic strike zone in 2019, the feature was met with some hesitancy.

Per the Associated Press, TrackMan “got mixed reviews from players, with complaints about how the TrackMan system grades breaking pitches down in the zone.”

It would appear that just like the human element, an electronic strike zone will take some tweaking to start.