Opinions

MLB Needs a System of Recourse for Umpires

Alec Bohm took a slight lead off third base as the ball left Didi Gregorius’s bat, a high popup into shallow left field that traveled about 230 feet from home plate. It fell into the glove of Marcell Ozuna. A harmless flyout, with the majority of MLB left fielders able to make that throw home. Bohm tested Ozuna’s arm, though, tagging on the play and attempting to score. He was challenged by a pedestrian 77 MPH throw by Ozuna that took two hops on its way home. Bohm beat the throw, and on a close play was called safe at home on the field. The pivotal play was promptly challenged by Atlanta, and video evidence confirmed what some fans thought they saw initially: Bohm never touched home plate. Furthermore, Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud successfully applied a tag, so Bohm was clearly out.

The replay review lasted several minutes, after which the umpiring crew came back with the decision on the play and, ultimately, the game: Bohm was safe at home. The replay crew declared that inconclusive video evidence left them unable to overturn the call on the field. The Phillies got away with a free run that won them a nationally televised game, and the umpires still haven’t heard the end of it on social media.

The call should have been made correctly on the field, as it was very clear on replay that Bohm never got a piece of the plate. This sequence of events highlights a larger trend as umpires continue to get important calls wrong and conflict grows between the umpires and both the game’s fans and some of its most prominent players and managers: there is a tendency for umpires to prioritize their reputation as a group. There is value in MLB umpires unionizing and advocating for one another, but it cannot get in the way of making the correct calls, and there needs to be a system of recourse for umpires making the wrong calls.

I want to get one thing out of the way first: while many of the actions of the MLB umpires association receive scrutiny, and I will challenge some of them in this article, it remains vital that the umpires have a union. They are a group of employees of MLB at the end of the day, and they are thus deserving of the ability to unionize and advocate for their rights.

That being said, umpires, and the Umpires Association as a whole, now has an established track record of failing to respond constructively to criticism of the officiating that occurs on the field. One of the earliest hallmarks of this occurred in 2017, when the Umpires Association responded to Ian Kinsler’s suggestion that Angel Hernandez find a new line of work following poor ball-strike calling in a game by wearing white armbands during games in protest of “escalating verbal attacks” against umpires.

What did Kinsler say that sparked such a response? In a post-game interview, Kinsler said that calls like those that he ultimately got ejected for in that game are “changing the game,” suggesting that Hernandez “needs to find another job” and “stop ruining baseball games.” That’s no praise, but that’s well within valid criticism of the job that Hernandez was doing on the field. Kinsler does not have the power to fire Angel Hernandez, and he made no actual threats to Hernandez or any other umpire. To call Kinsler’s remarks “attacks” is true, but they were not attacks on Hernandez – rather, Kinsler was attacking the job that Hernandez did, and at the professional level that criticism is entirely fair, and even warranted. The players have every right to expect the best of the umpires that take the field at the Major League level, and they also have the right to speak up when they believe that the umpires are sub-par. The Umpires Association’s response in this case was extreme given the fair criticism of their work.

Fast forward to 2021, where there have been several highly questionable calls through less than two weeks of play. Many calls are not reviewable, including all ball-strike calls, of which there have already been many made poorly. The most notable non-reviewable call marked the conclusion of the contest between the Mets and the Marlins this past Thursday. With one out and a 1-2 count, Michael Conforto stuck his elbow into a pitch that came in the zone for strike three, but home plate umpire Ron Kulpa paused himself during the strikeout call and awarded Conforto first base. With the bases loaded and the game tied at two in the bottom of the 9th inning, this scored the game’s winning run. Hit by pitches are a reviewable play, but the only aspect of the play that can be reviewed is whether the batter was hit or not. Hit by pitches are deemed null if the batter made no attempt to get out of the way of the pitch, but this is not a reviewable part of the play. The ball did hit Conforto, and because Kulpa called it a valid HBP on the field, the run was good and the game was over.

There’s an even larger issue, though, with plays that are reviewable. Already this season there have been several replay reviews that have come up with calls that are evidently incorrect based on the video evidence that is available on TV broadcasts, with the most notable and consequential being the aforementioned play at home plate from this week’s Sunday Night Baseball. Just a few days before, the umpiring crew underwent a long replay review to determine whether a slide at second base in the Angels-Blue Jays game violated the recently instituted slide rule that states that a runner sliding into second base on a potential double play cannot go out of the way of the basepath to interfere with the player turning the double play. In both cases, a video review favored the call on the field despite that call being clearly incorrect. I’m not going to go too in depth about either play – these are my opinions on the plays, and they appear to be the prevailing opinions of most fans. Here is a replay of the Bohm play at home:

Here is a screenshot of the aforementioned slide in the Angels-Blue Jays game:

For what it’s worth, ESPN National Baseball Writer Buster Olney was outspoken on Twitter about the play at the plate on Sunday Night Baseball:

In both cases, the umpiring crew on the field made a bad call, and in both cases, the replay review upheld that call despite plenty of video evidence. There’s not much more to be said than that. It can be argued that the umpires in the review room at best had inconclusive video evidence, but I don’t think that argument holds water. The right call needs to be made on the field, and when it isn’t, the right call needs to be made by the review.

Ultimately, what is needed is a system of accountability for both umpires on the field and those reviewing the calls when challenges occur. The current system, in which valid criticism is met with resistance and further polarization, is not a system where progress is made towards the goal of both sides, which is games being called correctly and fairly. There are several means by which that accountability could be accomplished, and I won’t go into them too much because I can’t speak to which would truly be effective. One example of this is the system that is in place in the KBO, where umpires can be demoted or promoted based on their performance. Such a system in MLB, paired with the Umpires’ Association, would allow umpires the job security associated with knowing that they would not be fired for poor performance while also allowing MLB to prioritize umpiring that is as accurate as possible at the Major League level.

Even if such a change cannot overturn real-time calls in games, what it can do is actually make umpires accountable for making errors in games. One of the primary criteria for MLB umpires is experience, regardless of how well an umpire actually does his job in the present. A system in which an umpire actually receives retribution for calling a game poorly without having to feel like his job is at risk would go a long way in promoting a much healthier relationship between umpires and all other parties involved in a given baseball game. More than anything else, this can lead to calls being more consistently made correctly on the field, making any given baseball game a better experience for everyone.

Ryan Ruhde

Cubs, Royals and general analysis writer. Emory University Psychology Major/Music Minor and Pre-Med, class of 2023. Find me on Twitter @ruhdolph

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