The eye test seemed to indicate all season that, apparently on a whim, the umpires have decided to give Dexter Fowler a bigger strike zone than most other players in the league. It’s not like Fowler hasn’t developed a reputation for one of the keenest eyes in the game. It’s not like he’s not a highly intelligent player who has a thorough understanding of the game and it’s rules. And it’s not like he’s some prima donna who rubs people the wrong way and gives umps a (flimsy) excuse — he’s honestly one of the nicest, most respectful players in the game.
So why? Why do the umps feel like they suddenly have to rewrite the rule book when Fowler and certain other MLB hitters step to the plate? What is exactly is the reasoning?
I can’t answer that because I have no idea what goes on in an umpire’s head, but Fowler has become an unwitting example of how an ump’s performance can vary from player to player.
And the data now backs it up, as we can see in this article by Jeff Sullivan on the Dexter Fowler strike zone.
As I’ve mentioned, I don’t think we can just blame the umps for Fowler’s struggles, but he is certainly a player that depends on his strike zone judgment as a significant component of his offensive approach. He is not a good enough hitter to hit with an expanded zone and he depends on the walks to pad his OBP, which has been his strength as an offensive player. The Cubs offense, in part, was built around that ability to get on base and without that top of the order catalyst, the offense has predictably struggled.
I’ve long been for the so-called robo-umps, simply because we have the technology to make the game more objective and thereby improve the quality of the game itself. A game that has the same rules for everyone should be a given, but baseball stubbornly insists that bending the rules is okay when it comes to the most fundamental aspect of the game. They spin it as the “human element”, that is just “part of the game”, But that is nonsense. Nobody is concerned with the humanity or individual quirks of the umpire once the game starts. Not to sound cold, but they are only valued for their ability to make sure the game is played on a level field. The humans we care about as spectators are the players on the field. Teams and players that control the strike zone are the ones that tend to have the most success, so why isn’t that left up to them rather than an arbitrary interpretation of the rules that varies from player to player?
Umpiring is a tough job. Nobody should ever claim otherwise. It takes a strong personality to succeed in that field. That type of personality is necessary because you don’t want the strike zone dictated to them based on the personality and persuasiveness of the hitter, pitcher, or manager in the dugout. That would set up an even more inconsistent interpretation than we currently have. But that alpha personality has it’s downside — a sort of territorial mindset pervades their interpretation of the strike zone. They want to make it their own, sometimes combined with a pathological need for a public display of authority and for some, a compulsion to be the center of attention (we know well who those guys are) even when their very success is defined by their invisibility. The performance of an ump is inversely related to the amount of attention he gets in the game simply because nobody notices when the umpire follows the rule book correctly. That is what we expect them to do. We expect them to be fair and consistent, even when they make mistakes, those mistakes should be consistent across the board. An umpire that fails to do that is not doing his job and should be held accountable. Without accountability, there is no incentive for umpires to correct mistakes or control their all too human whims and impulses.
Players, however, are that human element that we pay to watch, even with all their imperfections. Their flaws and inconsistencies are something we can readily accept as “part of the game” — well, at least to some degree. When it no longer is acceptable and becomes detrimental to success, they are replaced by a different and probably less costly human element.
Recently we witnessed one of the least enjoyable games I can remember this season, the Cubs first game vs. the White Sox– and it had nothing to do with the result. It was unenjoyable because it felt like the outcome was in large part taken out of the players’ hands. Even as the game was 0-0, I commented how I was only enduring this game. I also noted that if I had to market a game to promote baseball, that first game would not be it. Not by a longshot. No matter which team you are rooting for, who wants to see an outcome so heavily influenced by non-participants?
In many sports, that kind of influence is inevitable. You cannot have machines call fouls or penalties. We have no choice but to live with an arbiter’s interpretation and enforcement of the rules. Baseball, when it comes to the strike zone at least, is different. There is already technology in place that can objectively measure the most fundamental aspect of the game.
Why not use it?
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