Josh Harrison headed toward first base after a 3-1 pitch was well high and out of the strike zone. Yet, home plate umpire Tripp Gibson called the curveball a strike. Harrison stopped his movement to first, reset in the box and singled on the next pitch.
Two days prior, umpire Ted Barrett called a pitch more than six inches outside -- it crossed in the other batter’s box -- a strike. Earlier in August, Lance Barrett called a pitch six inches below the strike zone a strike, prompting the announcers to exclaim, “Whoa, ho! Thank you very much.”
Max Kepler was called out on strikes this season despite a pitch not being thrown in the strike zone during his five-pitch at-bat and him not swinging. The reverse has also happened. Umpire Jeremy Rehak called a pitch right down the middle a ball, stunning the hitter, catcher, pitcher and announcers.
Lack of umpiring perfection has long been an issue in Major League Baseball. Instant replay has cured the problem on the bases. But, balls and strikes remain problematic. And, this year seems to be delivering large blunders at a higher rate.
There’s little data to help understand if umpires are worse this year than prior years. Lack of transparency in training, reprimanding, and assessment makes tracking the improvement or problems all the more difficult from the outside. Players and managers just have to live with it. Which is what some want to continue to do.
When asked, Davey Martinez, Kurt Suzuki and Harrison all said they want human umpires to remain as opposed to an electronic system installed.
“I truly believe that they’re out there doing the best they can,” Martinez said. “I’ll never criticize an umpire. Ever. They’re a huge part of this game. If you ask me right now, I’d rather see an umpire behind the plate than some kind of electronic system. I haven’t gotten thrown out yet, which is good.
“I tell the players, they’re going to miss them every now and then, but don’t let them take your at-bat away. Try to work through it and try to work a good at-bat. They have their good days, and they have their bad days, just like everybody else.”
The allure of an electronic strike zone is its supposed infallibility. Though different tracking systems produce different pitch locations. They also continue to go through testing and adaptation. In theory, the system will adjust to the size of the batter, producing the letters-to-knees strike zone no matter size or stance.
The Major League Baseball Umpires Association has agreed to work with the league in testing and development, according to the Associated Press. Part of the equation is umpires physically remaining behind home plate to make calls after being told in an earpiece whether the system deemed a pitch a ball or strike. Commissioner Rob Manfred expected to test the system in low-level minor-league parks during the 2020 season, but the minor-league season was stopped by coronavrius.
All of this is in motion. Yet, Martinez, Suzuki and Harrison don’t want it.
“From what I’ve seen from this electronic thing, I think it’s going to be an unbelievable adjustment for hitters,” Martinez said. “I really do. The strike zone from what I’ve seen previously, it’s large. The top of the zone is the top of the zone and the bottom is past your -- almost to your ankles. I’d rather see the umpires up there [calling] the game the way they deem [they should] call it. We get so much information on them, too -- where their hot spots are, where their cold spots are -- we can relay before the game, this is this umpire, this is what he likes to call, what he doesn’t call. It helps our pitchers out.”
Suzuki has been crouched in front of an umpire for 14 years. He tries to manipulate calls when catching. He expects correct calls when he is hitting. The whole process appeals to him, despite his understanding it is flawed.
“I like the human element of the game,” Suzuki said. “Obviously, we have replay and all that kind of stuff right now. Nobody’s perfect, nobody’s going to be perfect. I think that’s what makes the game exciting. As a hitter, as a player, we’re not going to make the plays every single time that we should or hit the ball every time that we should. Umpires, they’re watching pitches at 100 mph, plus nasty breaking balls. They’re not going to make the right call every single time.
“I think that we just go to keep playing the game. I think that, yeah, it could be a big spot and I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. It is what it is. Like I said, it makes the game exciting at the moment. It is frustrating if you’re on the wrong side of it. When you’re on the good side of it, it’s great.”
Harrison laughed when asked about the 3-1 call against him. He said the immediate reaction is to block out irritation with the mistake. Harrison thought Gibson knew it was a ball, after the fact, as did everyone involved. He moved to a full count intent on not panicking, then singled on the next pitch. Like Suzuki and Martinez, he wants the umpires to remain the dictators of balls and strikes, even if MLB is starting to lean toward electronics.
“I would like to see them stay,” Harrison said. “That’s part of the game. Human element. Human error. That’s what makes the game special. It’s what they got replay and stuff for -- granted we can’t replay strikes and balls -- but at the same time, I think it would be weird if we didn’t have any umpires. Might as well play a video game.”