By Ken Schultz and Kevin McCaffrey
In a little over eleven weeks’ worth of baseball, here’s a partial list of home plate umpires who have worked Cubs games:
Jordan Baker. Laz Díaz. Ted Barrett. John Tumpane. Somebody named Stu Scheurwater. Ángel. Goddamn. Hernández. (In a Busch Stadium game, no less! You might as well have an umpiring crew of Jon Hamm, Nelly, Fred Bird, and a sentient tiki torch.)
I’ve had all I can stands. I can’t stands no more.
It feels like the Cubs have had to deal with an embarrassingly bad strike zone at least once a series. And they haven’t even seen CB Bucknor yet. (True Story: If you watch 50 Cent’s first pitch with the ballpark ambient sound up, you can hear Bucknor yell “Strike One!”) All of which leads me to think it’s time to demand something that we’ve frequently discussed in person:
Pitch framing should no longer be a thing.
There are so many amazing skills on display in any baseball game. But I’m utterly sick and tired of hearing baseball people wax rhapsodic about an “ability” that essentially boils down to “making bad umpires even worse.”
It’s gotten to the point where I watch Leslie Nielsen call strikes in The Naked Gun and think “I didn’t know the 1988 Angels had a Molina brother…”
What you’re saying is 100% on target, and by that I mean, a strike. Or is it a ball? Who knows! There’s no way of telling!
I appreciate when catchers are good at framing, because they are taking time and effort to do something to help their team in a real way. Good on them! As a mildly psychotic Cubs partisan, I wish Willson was better at framing. And by framing, I mean fraud.
Framing is obviously a “thing.” But it shouldn’t be. I don’t like that there’s an element of baseball where Criss Angel would have an 80 grade tool just because he knows how to make your eyes lie to you. (Related: when Hernández calls a strike in the other batter’s box against a player he personally dislikes, if you listen closely, you can hear him scream-whisper “Mindfreak!”)
Forget animals in the clubhouse and karaoke contests—at this point, Joe Maddon should have special guest David Blaine in to work with Borzello & Co. It’s very silly, but I’m not 100% sure it wouldn’t be helpful.
LEN KASPER: 2-2 the count, Hendricks sets to fire. CALLED strike 3! The inning is over and… it seems that Contreras has also turned the ball into a flock of doves!
JD: And he ran… he ran so far away…
LEN KASPER: I think that’s Flock of Seagulls, JD.
JD: I’m on a quart of Nyquil right now, Lenny, give me a break.
Defenders of the human-called strike zone are the baseball equivalent of parents who say “life isn’t fair!” to defend solvable problems they’re too lazy—or let’s say, “old school”—to solve. Yes, not everything is fair, but we could be more fair, right?
The most frustrating part to me is that umpires don’t seem to be getting any better, and I’m not even sure what incentive they have to improve. They’re among the least accountable groups in all of major sports – the worst ones last forever and still get high-end assignments regularly (Joe West has made the World Series more times than the White Sox, 6-5), and unlike literally everyone else involved with the game, they never have to face the press for their mistakes.
In general, regardless of what my hours spent on my PS4 may tell you, I’m team humans > machines. But in this case, we have humans who aren’t earning it, so if they’re not willing to improve, then bring on the robots, baby!
This is a good summation of the case against framing. And not just because it’s a well constructed and coherent argument—you’ve also inspired what has to be the greatest MLB crossover of all time…
Criss Ángel Hernández.
The umpire whose strike zone makes even Kris Bryant go emo.
And sweet merciful Jehovah, I had no idea that Joe West has more World Series appearances than the White Sox. As with our South Side neighbors, I fully support the idea that anytime MLB assigns Cowboy Joe to the Fall Classic, the host city’s fire commissioner should respond by turning on the air raid sirens.
You’re absolutely right that umpires aren’t really held accountable. I have to think that at least some of that is because a lot of baseball analysts look at an embarrassingly bad strike zone and instead of calling him out, they proclaim “That’s why Yadi’s a Hall of Famer!”
(Controversial analysis that really shouldn’t be: He’s not. #TeamLovullo4Lyfe)
More to the point, I’m tired of Contreras getting dragged because the one part of his game that needs improvement revolves around umpires not doing their jobs. Even after trying to make adjustments to his framing this spring, his numbers have drastically worsened as his -9.1 framing runs have led to an ugly -7.5 FRAA thus far in 2018. Meanwhile, his throwing runs (0.1) and blocking runs (1.6) are both average to good.
So he does everything right except, as you say, fraud. Good quality in a person, bad quality in a catcher.
And Willson is not a bad catcher. But his inability to manipulate the Jordan Bakers of the world is making him appear to be one. That makes me feel like… well… Willson Contreras reacting to a Jordan Baker strike zone.
That link is a good reminder that Willson can pimp an ejection as well as he can pimp a homer (or a double, or a walk), and as fun as that can be sometimes, it would be nice to see him have less “intangible” BS to deal with back there. I fully believe that Willson is working to be the best pitch framer possible, but all you need to do is to look at his Twitter fave history to see that he has, in some situations, been dealt less than an ideal hand there.
Some things are just going to be unquantifiable—leadership, “clutchiness,” the magical properties of a relief pitcher turning his hat ever so slightly to the left—but what should be super tangible is what a friggin’ strike is. How close do you think we are to that? I’d love to know, because I’m trying to limit things to get unreasonably angry about and it would be great to cross something off and get into the quadruple digits.
We know from BP Director of Technology Harry Pavlidis and Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight Sports that based on current Statcast technology, the machines aren’t ready to usurp humankind yet. According to Pavlidis, “Both (radar and the umpire) would probably be about 90 percent. An automated system would not have the big misses but would actually miss more on the margins… The bigger difference would be the zone wouldn’t expand and contract during at bats.”
Apparently right now, robot ump technology is essentially answering the question: “What if CB Bucknor were made of liquid metal?” But if and when we get to the point where Statcast is even an incremental improvement over human umps, I say go for it and make the replacement immediately.
Because with machines calling balls and strikes, we know that MLB’s tech people will always be working to enhance Statcast’s precision, and over time it should only get better. Given how much framing influences today’s game, you cannot possibly say the same thing for the current crop of umpires.
I reiterate… Ángel. Goddamn. Hernández.
Lead photo courtesy Charles LeClaire—USA Today Sports
Kevin McCaffrey and Ken Schultz occasionally take breaks from their real job of convincing the world that Kyle Hendricks is an ace to tell jokes to hipsters who still think it’s funny to say “sportsball.”