Players, coaches, and fans yelling at baseball umpires is as old as the game. Whether a particular call is correct or incorrect, the umps often get a bad rap and suggestions of needing new glasses. Major League Baseball instituted the current system of instant-replay reviews, also known as call reviews, in 2014. While that has cut down on the number of umpire errors on the field, it doesn’t affect calls at the plate. And so, players, coaches, and fans continue to argue with the MLB umpires (especially Angel Hernandez).
Ron Kulpa’s bad day and Angel Hernandez’ bad career
TheHouston Astros lost to the Texas Rangers on April 4, 2019, but did they really? Behind the plate, Ron Kulpa was accused of making incorrect calls. As early as the second inning, Astros manager A.J. Hinch and coach Alex Cintron took issue with the calls. They were ejected from the game by Kulpa, with the umpire yelling, “I can do anything I want!” which some claim to be the larger part of the controversy.
Kulpa, age 50, is far from alone. On May 21, Angel Hernandez, 57, had his own bad night, although he’s had them before. In a Diamondbacks-Brewers game in Milwaukee, Hernandez was accused of miscalling many pitches. That led Sporting News writer Tom Gatto to claim Hernandez is a “bad major league umpire.”
In June, fans at a Yankees-Blue Jays game in Toronto were not happy with Angel Hernandez either, and a USA Today reporter wrote, “…he very clearly missed what looked like a number of easy strike calls.”
When Jim Joyce blew up Galarraga’s perfect game
On June 2, 2010, Armando Galarraga took the mound at home in Detroit to make history in a game against Cleveland. Unfortunately, instead of a perfect game, Galarraga had to settle for a 3-0 one-hit shutout, thanks to umpire Jim Joyce’s controversial call in the ninth. His ruling was that Indian’s hitter, Jason Donald, was safe at first on a ground ball. Replays clearly showed he was out. It remains one of the worst umpire gaffes in baseball history.
With tears in his eyes, Joyce was apologetic to Galarraga after the game. Galarraga was forgiving. He told reporters that anyone can make a mistake. Many months later, ESPN shared the call was continuing to haunt Joyce, who was always known as a good umpire. “I think about it still, almost every day,” Joyce told reporter Amy K. Nelson. At the age of 61,
Joyce retired before the 2017 season.
Yet another controversial call leads to ump’s suspension
In 2013, umpire Fieldin Culbreth received a two-game suspension for a bad call. This time it had nothing to do with his needing glasses. More to the point, Culbreth allowed an illegal pitching change for the Astros against the Angels. Angel’s manager Mike Scioscia called it into question, citing Baseball Rule 3.05(b), “a pitcher who has yet to face a batter can only be removed because of illness or injury.” Culbreth overruled Scioscia. Following the game, the MLB ruled the pitching change a violation, which led to Culbreth’s suspension. The Angels went on the win the game, 6-5.
The effect of instant replay review
MLB was the last of U.S. major league sports to use some form of instant replay review to effect a game, although television camera images had been contradicting calls for years.
While umpires can use instant replay review to check any play on the field, team managers are limited to calling for one challenge per game. Many managers will hold off on a challenge early in the game unless it is so blatantly wrong and potentially game-changing, they feel they must use it. Some managers, once they have used their one challenge, may ask the umpire crew to discuss another potential review amongst themselves. All reviews happen at an MLB command center in New York City.
During an all-important AL Division Series game between the Yankees and the Red Sox in 2018, four of five decisions by Angel Hernandez were overturned upon video review.
Other possible fixes
While it is true that call review has its merits and has aided in reducing the number of incorrect calls, umps still make mistakes behind the plate, as well as on the field. It’s part of the game.
Plate umpires make the wrong ball and strike calls an alarming 20% of the time, according to BU Today. Author Mark T. Williams enlisted the aid of his grad students for analysis on every MLB game pitch for 11 years, from 2008 – 2018. They found the home plate umps miss a healthy amount of calls. Their analysis of 2018 alone, was that 34,294 pitches were called incorrectly, averaging 14 miscalls per game.
While Williams does not recommend getting rid of umpires and replacing them with robots, he suggests, that, “Umpires could easily be fitted with earpieces connecting them to a control center that conveys real-time ball and strike information.”
No matter how many devices are added to analyze calls, human umpires should remain a valued part of the game well into the future. As long as the players are human with good days and bad, so should the umpire remain, although he may need to have his eyes checked more often.