In the sport of baseball, there’s often no more controversial figure than the umpire. For fans of the losing team, umpires may seem like the most biased, partisan group of people in the stadium. When they get a call wrong that goes against the home team, they’re sure to get rained on by boos.
Despite some fans’ adversarial attitude toward the boys in blue, MLB umpires might actually be better at their jobs than most people think. Let’s take a closer look at the world of MLB umpiring, answering the question: how many umpires are there in an MLB crew?
The history of MLB umpires
The history of umpires extends back nearly as far as the history of the sport itself. The first umpire was William McLean, a Philadelphia man. McLean became the first professional umpire on April 22, 1876. He umpired the first National League game ever played, a contest between Boston and Philadelphia.
In 1910, baseball installed an organizational chart for umpires, with MLB naming the home plate umpire the umpire-in-chief with the others serving as field umpires. One of the most famous early umpires was Bill Klem. Klem was one of the umpires at the first All-Star game in 1933 in Chicago.
He served as an umpire for 37 seasons before retiring at 68 to become the NL’s first umpire chief. Until 1950, umpires were allowed to issue fines for rule violations on the field. After that, the league offices exclusively handled these issues.
In the current MLB landscape, instant replay is a part of the game. This is where managers can challenge a call and umpires can review select plays via video to determine whether the call on the field was right or wrong.
At the minor league baseball level, leagues have experimented with the use of robot umpires. It’s still up in the air whether this technology will make its way to the MLB level, but it wouldn’t be shocking if the league implemented it sometime within the next 5-10 years.
Why MLB umpires are actually better than you think
In baseball, no one catches more grief than umpires. They’re castigated for any call that’s either missed or going against the home team. But instances of actual errors by major league umpires are rare. A 2011 report found that MLB umpires get 99.5% of calls correct.
In recent years, however, there’s been some question over the accuracy of one particular type of call: balls and strikes. This is probably the area where umpires hear it the most from fans. While historically speaking, MLB has been hesitant to offer criticism of its umpires, they are is striving to improve the calls behind the plate.
One extensive study found that MLB umpires missed 34,294 ball-strike calls in 2018. It also showed they showed a clear bias towards pitchers on two-strike pitches that batters don’t swing at.
How many umpires are there in a crew?
Each MLB umpiring crew has four umpires. The first use of the four-man crew began in the 1910 World Series, while MLB didn’t install widespread use of the four-man crew into every regular-season game until 1952. In the playoffs, the MLB has used a six-man crew since 1947.
The home plate umpire is the head of the crew, while another field umpire is assigned to each base. During the postseason, the two additional umpires work in right and left-field foul territory.
Going forward, it’s unclear how much robots and A.I. will change the way MLB handles its umpires. But whether there are umpires relaying the calls of a machine or conversing about replays, there will always be some kind of human element involved.