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MLB Umps: Evaluated but not Incentivized

2012 September 17
tags:
by Brian Goff

The egregiously poor call against in the Yankees-Orioles game when Mark Texeira slid into first base throws attention back on to several issues with MLB umpiring:

1. Umps utilize “models” to assist or determine their decisions.   On tag plays, how early the ball arrives matters in addition to (and sometimes independent of) the actual tag.  At first base, it’s a foot hitting the bag and sound of ball hitting the glove model.   On average, these models cut down on errors, but they can fall prey to big mistakes, especially when something falls outside the scope of the model like a slide into first.  (On a side note, I don’t buy the “physics against Texeira” stuff that diving is slower than running through the base;  MLB.com’s Joe Magrane cited Usain Bolt as an example since you don’t see him diving.  Well, a sprinter’s torso is what matters, not his finger tips, not to mention the track isn’t very suitable for sliding at 25 mph.  Outfielders regularly dive for balls which seems to offer some evidence of the value of diving when fingertip reach counts.)

2.  The hesitancy to employ replay is hard to understand.  Yes, it must be utilized in a time-efficient manner.  That seems relatively easy especially if a booth official is used rather than umps looking at their own calls.  The umps may resist, but eliminating egregiously poor calls would not only help the game but the umps.  I didn’t know Jerry Meals’ name before this call; with replay to overturn the call, I still would not know his name (or Don Denkinger, the horror!).

3.  While I don’t think that Texeira’s charge about the ump wanting the game over likely holds much water in this case (given the relative importance and coverage of the game), MLB umps, while tightly screened before entering MLB and now extensively monitored are still subject to very weak incentives.  They adamantly deny this as “Complex System in Place to Evaluate Umpires” discusses on MLB.com.    Evaluation alone does not incentivize as this counterpoint from JohnStruebel.com on “Alderson Fought to Eliminate Umpires Like Bucknor” makes clear.   That piece traces the contentious effort by Sandy Alderson in the late 1990s.

Alderson stepped in. He [Alderson] had long been known as an umpire critic. He was certain umpires played favorites. He abhorred both the warped strike zone that had evolved in the 1990s and the lack of uniformity with which even that was called wrote Bruce Weber in his 2009 book As They See’em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of the Umpires. Alderson wasted no time telling union president Jerry Crawford changes were coming. In their initial meeting Alderson promised Crawford umpires would soon be held accountable through a MLB-generated rating system. “I didn’t believe the noting that once selected as the best, someone remained the best for the next 35 years,” Alderson told Weber in a 2006 interview.

Before Spring Training, Alderson set his game plan in motion, issuing a league-wide memo to umpires. In short, Alderson told umps to start calling higher strikes. Crawford felt the directive was out of line and beyond the league’s jurisdiction, which it was at the time. Cut to the chase: On July 14, 1999, Alderson met with umpires in Philadelphia. The meeting didn’t go well. In fact it ended with union rep Richie Phillips calling for all major league umpires resign their job en masse on September 2. By the end of the day 54 umpires signing their resignation letter (one week later 12 of the 54 rescinded their resignations), a decision that “changed major league umpiring forever.”

The head-scratcher is that after facing down the umpires and holding the upper hand on a new agreement, MLB settled for a system of evaluation but with very limited enforcement mechanisms.

One Response
  1. September 19, 2012

    A couple points, neither of which deal with your main point, to which I have no objection:

    1) From what I have read on a Wiki-answer thread, the problem with sliding into first base is that the friction of the dirt against a player’s body is about 50% slower than the normal air resistance that comes with running through the bag. Only a dive that is so perfectly timed that the player’s body hits the ground at the exact moment his hand hits the base would avoid this friction, and most players cannot do this consistently.

    2) I find it strange that so many in American sports are zealous about eliminating the injustice of poor umpire/referee calls, but are openly willing to embrace championship formats that privilege a small sample size format over a large one.

    For instance, in baseball, the a team may have proven themselves the best team in baseball over the course of 162 games, but in order to really prove themselves, they have to start by winning a best-of-five series, in which a team that has been inferior to them over the course of a long season now has a great chance of getting lucky and winning that short series.

    From the standpoint of an economist, or even anyone who wants to enhance merit in sport at the expense of luck, wouldn’t restoring the significance of the pennant be a more meaningful reform than improving shoddy umpiring, since at least the latter applies to all teams equally?

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