Monday, June 7, 2010

More Insight and Inside on Umpires

By David Newhan

Recently, AP baseball writer Ben Walker wrote a story on the fact that, besides scouting opposing pitchers, hitters and all of their tendencies on different counts and situations, besides compiling reports on how best to defense opposing teams and how to pitch to them, major league teams also scout umpires.

I am not talking about MLB officials going to every game and monitoring how an umpire is doing or making sure a crew is making the right calls (which they do in rating umpires for post-season service), I am talking about your favorite team compiling scouting reports on umpires based on how they call their games.

As if Questec and other computerized systems aren’t enough.

The Texas Rangers are one such team.

Manager Ron Washington likes to let his guys know who will be behind the plate that night and what his strike zone is likely to be.

Time out. Didn’t a guy by the name of Abner Doubleday come up with that determination when the first pitch was thrown.

You know, the top of the letters to the bottom of the knee deal.

Isn’t it supposed to be consistent, and now I’m laughing out loud.

Anyhow, Washington said, "we do have the tendencies (posted) on the dugout wall. The name of the umpire and his tendencies, what they call and what part of the zone they call for strikes."

Wait a second.
Again, isn’t the strike zone supposed to be consistent, didn’t MLB go through a re-education process under Sandy Alderson a few years ago in an effort to make sure umpires follow the rule book strike zone?

Well, as Jim Joyce, one of the best, proved again in Detroit, umpires are only human.

Every umpire has his own way of calling a game. Over time, players figure out which guys have "hitter zones" and which guys have a zone favoring pitchers.

In Texas, Washington goes into detail:

The type of information displayed includes how consistent an umpire is as far as calling balls and strikes, how quick he is to eject players, where the umpiring crew traveled from, and the next time that crew will be in town. It’s all valuable information for a player to have.

If we have a crew that just made a coast to coast trip and had a quick turnaround to make the game, I know that it is probably going to be a big zone tonight.

Those guys are tired and the only thing on their mind is getting back to the hotel to get some z’s. Swing the bat and don’t take anything close because they will ring you up in a second!

The compilation of data by Texas and other teams makes that process a heck of a lot easier for younger players to get to know the umpires so that they can make adjustments based on how a particular guy calls a game.

This is probably the reason that the Oakland A’s put up short bios on umpiring crew members calling their games. Manager Bob Geren said, "…(it’s a) reference to get to know them, a communication tool…we like the players to know who’s going to be there…we have a lot of young players."

See, umpires like to make young players earn their keep. Test a young guy by ringing him up on a close call to see what kind of reaction it produces. That’s good, if not totally fair as far as a consistent strike zone is concerned. Still, it all goes into earning your stay in "the show." Put a few years under your belt and you can start getting the benefit of close calls.

Let’s face it: 40,000 fans don’t fill the seats at Yankee Stadium to see Derek Jeter get struck out by a rookie pitcher on a perfect pitch on the black or for Mariano Rivera to lose a save when he throws a cutter two inches off the corner. No fan, even the best, can really tell the difference, so the veteran, as it should be, gets the benefit of the doubt. That veteran has earned it. In many cases, the zone is definitely different for the superstars. After all, they fill the seats and create the revenue.

It does help, though, for a young player to have an idea of what an umpire is apt to call. The A’s will let their players know that Ed Hickox is a sworn Daytona police officer in the off season or that Marty Foster enjoys Wisconsin Big Ten football. It’s tidbits that can make conversation over the course of nine innings helpful, and maybe you get the benefit of a close call that can prolong an at bat and lead to winning a game.

Moreover, one game might be the difference between making the playoffs and packing your bags for a long off season.

I really enjoyed Ben Walker’s article.

While I am familiar with a lot of it as a player who has spent parts of eight seasons in the big leagues, it was quite fascinating for me to read about the whole scene of teams scouting umpires.

And the fact is, I never had a scouting report on an umpire given to me, and it would have been a valuable tool.

Things like Jerry Lane is "influenced by a catcher’s receiving" or Fielding Culbrith "seems to expand the zone in 3-2 situations, as he punches out hitters on a pitch he normally calls a ball in a different count."

Tell me if that’s not a nice nugget to know when you are faced with that count during the course of the game?

All types of information is out there and technology is helping teams to organize it all.

These reports are being accumulated on every ump.

Hunter Wendlestedt "seems to want the hitter to put the ball in play", and Gerry Davis "hesitates punching hitter’s out, being towards the top of umpires' (earned run average) in 2009."

I applaud Mr. Walker on the story. It showed some of the intricacies within the game, intricacies the players tend to know about but fans are probably totally unaware of.

I wonder how long it will be until technology pushes the umpire into extinction, which would be a shame, removing the human element.

We already have umpires monitored by how consistently they adhere to a computerized strike zone.

Now, in the wake of Joyce taking a perfect game away from Armando Galarraga, there is a push for wider use of replay. Let’s see, what was that scouting report on Jim Joyce…..?

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