Couture’s call: Umps integral part of game too

by Matt Couture / Beacon Staff • October 12, 2016

On my way down to the Beacon offices last Monday, I stopped mid-stride to examine the contents of a newly posted Close Call Sports article on my mobile device. It featured the umpiring assignments for Major League Baseball’s Wild Card games and Division Series.

Deputy news editor Bret Hauff greeted me on his way by and figured I must’ve stumbled upon something really interesting. Had Donald Trump issued another outrageous tweet? Was Hurricane Matthew headed directly for Boston?

None of the above, I informed him. To the baseball umpire fan, the announcement of postseason rosters is akin to the release of the iPhone 7. Many of these umpire fans—a niche group to be sure—discuss the safes and outs at closecallsports.com, home to the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League.

On Sunday, Oct. 2, the final day of baseball’s regular season, a few beat reporters picked up from the Los Angeles Angels’ team notes that umpire Bob Davidson was officiating his final career game. When ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted “So many emotional goodbyes today,” noting Vin Scully and David Ortiz by name, one user tweeted back (jokingly, one must assume) “Bob Davidson.”

But for umpire fans, Davidson’s retirement is big news. The veteran, known as “Balkin’ Bob” for his penchant for calling out hiccups in pitching deliveries, was frequently a lightning rod. He ejected ten on-field personnel in 2010, according to Retrosheet. Davidson’s name wasn’t on that list of postseason officials, meaning #61 won’t be making one last cameo a la David Ortiz.

The decisions of his colleagues, however, are under an even greater spotlight than usual. In the NL Wild Card game on Oct. 6, the Internet was ablaze over plate umpire Mike Winters’ strike zone, which drew the ire of Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. The introduction of ESPN’s K-Zone, displayed as an overlay above home plate on-screen during live action, has drawn even more scorn for umps.

Winters, who opted to go with a powder blue, short-sleeved polo over options including a black long-sleeved polo, a black umpires’ plate coat, or a rarely-used powder blue long-sleeved polo, finished the game with a 91.4 percent accuracy rating, according to Close Call Sports. Not perfect, but if Twitter users were in charge of umpire evaluations, Winters, a 27-year veteran, would be out of a job tomorrow.

One at-bat, in which Giants first baseman Brandon Belt walked, caused particular outrage among fans. The K-Zone showed that Winters called two pitches balls that were actually located in the strike zone.

In an age before the K-Zone, fans would’ve debated aloud the accuracy of the calls. But in 2016, technology rules. Fans were not only convinced that Winters had missed the pitches, they were certain of it. The select few who declare devotion to the men in blue saw it differently. Close Call Sports’ live blog of the game confirmed that real-time pitch data showed Winters got both pitches right, despite ESPN’s graphics insisting otherwise.

This is where we are in baseball. You have the WAR (wins above replacement, an advanced metric) to prove that Mike Trout is a better player than Mookie Betts. You can tell me definitively that John Farrell shouldn’t have bunted with one on and one out because statistical probabilities show that giving away an out is a bad antidote for run-scoring. And you have the ESPN K-Zone screenshot to prove that Mike Winters blew two pitches and robot umpires are long overdue.

The pro-robot crowd offers this olive branch: Umpires will stick around and call ‘other’ plays at the plate (most of which are already subject to replay review), and observe the process. In this way, robot proponents can maintain that they aren’t costing anyone their job.

At Emerson, journalists abound. If the same offer was made to beat reporters working in press boxes across the country—that robots could write their game stories (the technology exists, after all)—would they accept with open arms, provided they were retained in a supervisory role with the same salary?

Umpires, like journalists, have their own style. At The Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy writes with a delightful sarcasm, while Alex Speier takes a more analytical approach to the game of baseball. Veteran umpire Tom Hallion is known for his backbreaking third strike call, while the recently retired Gary Darling was fond of simple mechanics, using a simple fist to indicate third strikes.

So to you—the baseball prognosticator who is always right—from me, a baseball fan who has been wrong before (my White Sox World Series pick is sitting pretty) and will be wrong again: The umpires aren’t just a necessary evil for all fans. Some of us even stop dead in our tracks to learn who will serve as the crew chief for the next big game. And in October, imperfection is perfection.