By DJ Ramirez | Sports Writer
No matter how you feel about several of the changes Major League Baseball has proposed for the upcoming 2020 season, most baseball fans can agree that the real change needs to happen in the evaluation of umpire performances.
We need look no further than to the most recent incident involving MLB umpire Ron Kulpa and the ejection of Houston Astros manager AJ Hinch in the series finale between the Astros and the Texas Rangers in Arlington on April 3.
Umpires are at the heart of baseball. They are responsible for keeping the game on track and for maintaining discipline. They have a substantial amount of influence on the outcome of a game. So it should only make sense for the guy in charge to be level-headed and to try his best to be unbiased and accurate in the way he does that job.
Kulpa acted far from levelheaded and unbiased in the face of criticism from several members of the Houston squad on a call they thought he’d missed.
While Kulpa had correctly called the pitch in question, the players had already been burned by several of the veteran umpire’s missed calls in the previous inning and would continue to be subject to his bias throughout the rest of the game.
As the inning continued, Kulpa began to leer at the Astros dugout as if to prompt them to challenge his calls. This caused Hinch to go to speak to the umpire several times in order to get him to stop antagonizing his team. Hinch’s peacekeeping attempts eventually turned into arguments, and he, along with hitting coach Alex Citron, were ejected from the game.
According to the Houston skipper, when he asked Kulpa to focus on doing his job instead of staring down the Astros dugout, the umpire responded by saying he could do whatever he wanted.
First, I’d like to put it out there that I am an Astros fan, but the reason this incident troubles me goes far beyond my team taking the brunt of bad calls. As a fan of baseball overall, the inconsistency and rash temperamental nature shown by Kulpa and other veteran umpires when faced with challenges is what makes me most upset. It also makes me question the way MLB evaluates the performance of its umpires.
In a study conducted by a team of graduate students at the Questrom School of Business at Boston University showed that in 2018, 34,294 incorrect ball and strike calls were made by umpires.
In summary, the study discovered five things throughout the research about the performance of umpires between 2008 and 2018 by using data collected from Baseball Savant, MLB.com, Retrosheet, Pitch F/X and Statcast.
First, researchers found that umpires heavily favored the pitcher over the batter during two-strike counts, calling balls as strikes. Although the rate of two-strike bias has deceased over the decade from 36.68% in 2008 to 21.45% last year, the overall total percent was 29.19 over the 10-year period.
Second, the study found a persistent blind spot in the top of the strike zone. In contrast with the first point, these blind spots gave batters advantage over pitchers, as strikes in the top of the zone are more difficult to hit, but were miscalled as balls.
The result that stood out the most was that younger umpires had lower error rates than veteran umpires. Umpiring is a physically and mentally challenging job, and younger umpires also have more to prove. They try harder to make the right calls to make up for having fewer years as officials.
The last two findings the study made were about inconsistency by inning and by year. Calls throughout a game were more inconsistent in the earlier innings and in the later innings, but more consistent in the middle innings. Error rates by year have actually dropped since 2008.
The debate continues on whether umpires should be replaced by computers altogether, and this study paired with the backlash on the Kulpa incident adds more kindling to the fire.
While I don’t think the human element of the umpire should be removed from the game, technology could aid in getting more calls right. The many cameras and devices that already used to track pitches can help bring more consistency to the game. Independent leagues have already began experimenting with this technology with successful results.
MLB should also look into implementing a merit-based system when choosing officials for postseason games instead of going by seniority. This is a point the study by the Boston University students made when proposing solutions.
Baseball hasn’t changed much over the years, but at the same time it’s evolved gradually. Games shouldn’t be called the same way they were a hundred years ago. As for Kulpa, he may be able to do whatever he wants, but not at the cost of the integrity of baseball.