At A Certain Point, Human Error Ends and Accountability Begins for MLB Umpires


There are a variety of factors to blame for the Rays being just 15-18 on the season. Their bullpen has been horrific and their rotation has been inconsistent, leading to an unbelievable amount of blown leads and negating what has been a strong start by the offense. But another factor has been blown calls against them. The terrible strike three call against Ben Zobrist to end the Rays’ loss to the Rangers on April 8th especially stands out as ball four would have put the tying run on 2nd with a red-hot Evan Longoria coming to the plate. And then there has been the last two days. Joe Maddon became the first manager in Rays history to get ejected in back-to-back games, getting arguing a disputed tag on Sean Rodriguez on Tuesday where J.P. Arencibia missed him but he was still called out and then a play on Wednesday where a would-have-been groundout to first base was called a foul ball on the premise that it hit the batter’s foot, which it did not at all. Maddon’s three ejections lead the major leagues, and if the play in Texas had been anything other than the last out of the game, he would have four. Rays fans have been complaining all year about calls going against them, and while every fan base does that, it seems like Rays fans truly have a point. But everything the Rays have gone through is nothing compared to what happened to the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday night.

You can watch the play here. Adam Rosales hit a flyball to left-center with the A’s down 3-2 to the Indians, and it ricocheted off the top of the wall or something over the wall. In any event, Rosales ended up at second base with a double. However, Oakland manager Bob Melvin asked crew chief Angel Hernandez to review the play. The play certainly was not clear from the naked eye, but replays from the A’s broadcast showed clearly that the ball had hit a pole over the wall before coming back onto the field, and it appeared that the game was about to be tied. Instead, Hernandez came back from the replay booth and declared the play a double, and Melvin and the entire Athletics team were furious. Oakland lost the game 3-2.

Bad calls are part of the game of baseball. Sometimes they go for you, sometimes against you. Every game, there will be close plays at first base, and often there’s a play where the runner beat the throw by half-a-step and is called out. More egregious calls are part of the game too–phantom strike calls, tag plays where the player actually missed the tag, and fair-or-foul calls where the ball is so obviously fair that the ball left a mark in fair territory all happen and when they do, you just have to move on. But when there is replay in place to get every call right and you still blow it, that just can’t happen. Hernandez said that the replay in the umpire’s booth “wasn’t 100% conclusive.” What does that mean? How can the TV broadcast have better angles than the people actually making the call through replay? And all four umpires had a chance to look at it! How could they have all blown the call?

An umpire’s worst nightmare when he goes to the booth for instant replay is what statisticians would call a Type Two error: turning what should have been a double into a home run. The only thing worse than a game-tying home run turning into a double is a team tying or winning a game on a flyball that had no business being ruled a home run. “Better safe than sorry” is the underlying thinking for umpires as they enter the booth. But this isn’t a guessing game. On the field, there’s a margin for error. Even the best umpires miss calls because they get one chance to make it and have to decide within moments of the play. In the replay booth, fans can complain about the game getting too long, but umpires can watch the replay as many times as they want to determine how the play should be ruled. There are some plays that are too close to call, and when that happens, maybe it’s better to be safe than sorry. Fans of the losing team will be upset, but they’ll understand that there was nothing the umpires could do. But when the play is clear, there are no excuses.

The point of replay is to get the call right and you have every resource available to make that happen if it’s humanly possible. When that doesn’t happen, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. Umpires, don’t go into the replay booth tentative. Look at the play again as many times as you need, consult with each other, and make the call you believe is right no matter what impact it would have on the game and how scary it would be on the minuscule chance that you watched in ten times and somehow saw it wrong every time. Getting that type of call incorrect isn’t umpiring but just an umpire overzealously playing it safe not wanting to be embarrassed. Look where that got Angel Hernandez.