Umpires nearly protested their way to mediocrity

There seems to be a lot of protesting going on, but it’s definitely not all created equal. After Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler said MLB umpire Angel Hernandez “needs to find another job,” the World Umpires Association decided to protest “escalating verbal attacks on umpires” by wearing white armbands during games. The silly protest lasted about 24 hours as MLB commissioner Rob Manfred agreed to hear the umpires out.

Because of his barbs, Kinsler was fined by Major League Baseball. The amount was initially undisclosed, but it was later released that the amount was $10,000. No suspension was issued. Though suspensions aren’t out of the question, fines seem to be the extent of punishment for criticizing officiating in any league.

Let’s establish something, I’m fine with arguing with an umpire. Accountability does a lot to improve performance, which is why players and managers argue, to hold the blues accountable for their call.

I spent the summer of 2016 with a minor league baseball team and spent games in the press box with umpire supervisors and professional scouts (the scouts who hung out in the box were former players). I learned a lot about the umpiring system from bottom to top and what players think about umpires. Spoiler alert: nobody likes umpires, not even the guys who train them.

During that summer working in minor league baseball, I also watched games next to the guy who ran the TrackMan system (they don’t use Statcast in the minors). One of our favorite activities during games (aside from betting on players nightly like race horses—more on that another time) was to see how far off the plate called strikes were. The umpire supervisors could usually tell about how far off the plate balls were before we consulted TrackMan. Now, this was rookie league baseball, so these are fresh umpires, but called strikes 18 inches off the plate is excessive.

Something to keep in mind, is that the blues we see at the major league level are as good as it gets for the profession. That being said, there are times that umpires seem as blind as bats. On Sunday afternoon, Baltimore Orioles catcher Caleb Joseph clearly fouled a third strike down into the dirt and it bounced into the heel of the glove of Anaheim Angels catcher Juan Graterol. Home plate umpire Chad Whitson ruled a foul tip and called Joseph out. Orioles manager Buck Schowalter argued that the ball hit the ground first, but Whitson and his crew stood by the original call because they didn’t see the ball hit the dirt. Just one example of many.

Anyone who has ever umpired can attest that it’s not an easy job, but it’s doable. It takes a sharp eye, anticipation, and thick skin. With the experience these MLB crews have, they should have all of these things. A silent protest is not the way to combat verbal jabs from players. Doing a better job would go a long ways toward stopping the “verbal attacks.”

Photo by Brigham Berthold

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