First Pitch: See You at the Ump Show

MIAMI — Francisco Cervelli was ejected tonight in the third inning after arguing a called ball with umpire Alan Porter. I’ll admit that I had to take a second there to look up who exactly the home plate umpire was. And even then, I don’t know who Alan Porter is. The reason for this? I shouldn’t know who he is, and I shouldn’t have any reason to look up the home plate umpire.

Meanwhile, Cervelli has been one of the best catchers in baseball this year. He’s been a huge replacement for Russell Martin, and outside of some stolen base issues (which are mostly on the pitcher), has been strong defensively.

Cervelli wasn’t exactly innocent in this. He got up and argued with the umpire. But we also shouldn’t ever see situations where an umpire who should have no added impact on the game, outside of calling the game, tosses a key player from the game so quickly.

The graph below shows the call that Cervelli was thrown out on. It’s pitch number two on the bottom graph. For emphasis, look at the third pitch on the top graph. That was Cervelli’s at-bat in the top of the third inning, which happened right before the at-bat from Mathis. The pitch against Cervelli was called a strike, and the pitch against Mathis — which was actually a strike this time — was called a ball.

cervelli thrown out

After the game, Cervelli said that he wasn’t thinking about his at-bat, and didn’t say anything during his at-bat. He didn’t give much detail on the interaction when he got thrown out, except to say that he didn’t like the umpire’s tone, which led to him getting angry.

“I just didn’t like the way he talked to me, and then I turned around and that’s it, I got thrown out,” Cervelli said. He added that he shouldn’t have turned around, but didn’t like when people talked to him that way, noting that the umpire told him “just turn around I throw you out.”

Clint Hurdle didn’t comment on the situation in much detail.

“Alan I think shared his comments and took Cervelli in a wrong direction,” Hurdle said. “It was a quick hook again. That’s all I have to say.”

Once again, Cervelli wasn’t innocent, and he probably won’t react the same way next time.

“Next time I’m going to try to handle it a different way, because I’ve got to stay in the game,” Cervelli said.

But here’s the thing. Cervelli shouldn’t be in that situation anyway. He had a legitimate argument that the umpire made a bad call. And this all came after he called a strike the previous inning on a pitch that was even more outside the zone.

This all leads to a bigger issue, which is that umpires are no longer needed for balls and strikes. We have the technology now to call balls and strikes with accuracy, instantly. There’s no need to keep sending out different umpires each night, all with different interpretations of the strike zone, to get calls wrong every inning.

Not only would this entire situation have been avoided with robot umpires, but every strike zone call tonight would have been correct, with no added time to get this result.

Sure, “robot umpires” sounds like a joke. But it’s not nearly as big of a joke as saying that the league has a “strike zone”, then watching different umpires call that strike zone in different ways from each other, and even call it in different ways during the same game. That’s the big joke here. Players and managers get thrown out for getting upset over this joke, while there are seemingly no repercussions for umpires. It’s time for MLB to act in a big way, remove the “human element” from strike zone calls, and fix this glaring issue.

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**I hope you enjoyed my live coverage from Miami this week. I’m going home tomorrow, taking the weekend off to celebrate my birthday, covering some Marauders games next week, then getting back on the road next weekend to cover the Pirates/Cardinals series.

**Job Posting: Pirates MLB Analyst. We’re looking to expand our Pirates coverage in September with the minor league season wrapping up. Anyone interested should apply. Or if you know someone who might be interested, send them our way.

**Cole Dominates, Hurdle Makes Right Call on Alvarez in Pirates 2-1 Win. My game story from Miami tonight, focusing on Gerrit Cole turning things around the last two starts, and the recent success from Pedro Alvarez against lefties.

**Prospect Watch: Six Shutout Innings For Glasnow, Garcia Strikes Out Ten. Great night for Glasnow, and Yeudy Garcia continues his breakout season.

**Pirates Notes: Glasnow, Diaz, Kang, Alvarez, Rotation Shuffle, Steals, Dancing. The pre-game notes. If you’re expecting Glasnow up anytime soon, don’t. Hurdle mentioned that they’ll get him a few more starts, and then playoff experience. And I really don’t see him coming up at all this year after that.

**Pirates Had Scouts Watching Korean First Baseman Byung-ho Park. This makes sense, considering the success from Jung-ho Kang. It will be interesting to see how the market for Park goes this off-season.

**Breaking Down the September Call-Up Options From Indianapolis. Ryan Palencer looked at the options for September call-ups from Indianapolis.

**David Todd Podcast: Discussing the Pirates September Call-Ups. On my weekly radio segment with David Todd, we went into more detail on those potential call-ups.

  • Interestingly, while the Pirate pitchers have had the best differential of balls called strikes minus strikes called balls in all of baseball, the Pirate hitters have had the fifth worst differential of strikes called balls minus balls called strikes. Since there’s no such thing as “hitter framing,” the Pirates are simply batting against unfavorable zones. The Dodgers, on the other hand, have an absurdly good offensive differential.

    Pedro in particular seems to deal with a bizarre strike zone, and I wonder if umpires are biased by all his chases, and just call the pitches he often chases a strike even if he doesn’t actually offer at it. There is some evidence that pitcher and hitter reputations are a factor in strike zones (ridiculous in itself; it’s an unnecessary barrier for new players to clear to “earn the respect” of umpires before getting a fair zone), so this might be Pedro’s reputation zone.

    • Alvarez has the fourth *lowest* chase rate of all Pirates with more than 200 PA. Always surprises me how wrong folks are on this. I suppose it comes down to perception, though.

      If I had to guess, it probably has more to do with pitchers basically only pitching him in the zones that umpires naturally expand the most and therefor are easiest to “steal” strikes, low and away.

      • Yeah, I guess I wasn’t clear. Pedro had a bit of a chase problem on the low-and-away pitch early in his career, but he has definitely corrected that flaw since then as he’s grown as a hitter. Honestly, approach-wise, I don’t really see anything wrong with him. It’s just the limited contact skill that holds him back. But that perception of him being a guy who chases is probably not only limited to fans. I have to imagine umpires have the same view, and he’ll probably never shake it.

  • Reorganize the umpires. Plate umpire is the best at calling balls and strikes – his only job and does it 6 days a week. Crew chief at third – keeps lineup card, only ump that can remove a player/ coach from game, -all general responsibilities. second base ump is backup plate ump and works the plate once a week. Extra pay for plate ump and chief. Only first and third umps call strikes on swings – plate ump only calls non-swing pitches. If tech is used begin with the vertical calls (inside/outside), thus plate ump only has to determine the height of a pitch. Umpiring positioning makes inside outside calls difficult. Think of the NFL, NHL, etc. for specialized roles for game officials and ponder how one’s eyes work which makes the role of the plate umpire impossible with the extent of how that role is currently defined

  • I can handle bad umpiring because usually what comes around goes around. There’s been a few times that they’ve missed calls that benefits the Pirates. What I can’t mother f’n stand is the attitude from some umpires and the ones who think they’re the stars of the show. Take last night for example. Porter was out of line. You’re in the midst of a game, trying to get a call and this DB starts with you. As a grown man you should be able to at least answer back but you really can’t. That being said, and as much is it sucks, if Cervelli does this in a WC game and gets tossed I’m blaming him – not the ump. He should know better. As much as it sucks to be talked down to you have to swallow your pride in a win or go home game. Nothing against Stewart who is a very good back up. Last night could’ve been a valuable lesson for Cervelli.

    • Scott Kliesen
      August 28, 2015 1:36 pm

      Contrary to popular belief, things don’t “even out” over time. The only way to ensure calls even out is to use the technology available to get it right each and every time.

  • Since we know after the game what balls and strikes were, can’t you just grade the umps based on that info and then pick out the really bad ones that way?

    • They do that, apparently, but as far as I can tell, nothing actually comes of it.

  • 100% agree on eliminating umpires calling balls and strikes. The time has come.

  • While I’m in favor of using technology for balls/strikes, I can live with the occasional missed calls. To me, it’s the arrogant, stubborn mentality of umpires that needs to go first and foremost. It’s not their show. Yes you need some semblance of authority to police a professional sporting event and command respect from grown men, but these umps are out of control with their attitude and sense of entitlement.

  • or send bad umps to the minors, they say the umps get graded ,well send the bad grades to the minors.

  • As a former umpire, I fully realized early on that it was always the ump’s fault that a player got tossed. ALWAYS! 🙂

    • The Trib quoted Matheny a few weeks ago saying the close dugouts at PNC work against the Pirates. Those umps hear all the chirping and complaining…i don’t follow the Pens well but some fans and media speculated their constant whining about calls and no calls hurt them.

      Where I do think the umpiring bad, some days you need to shut your mouth and worry about getting a hit off the rookie AAA scrub.

      • See this is where i disagree. If im in the dugout bitching, there is nothing wrong with that. If the ump cant take that, he’s more interested in being “respected” than in just calling a good game. If the manager isnt in my face or constantly yelling at me full voice, who cares.

        At some point, umps have to ignore a manager in the dugout chirping and let the players play. Until a manager starts arguing balls and strikes at full volume repeatedly, meh.

        • But there’s umpires who have probably called dozens and dozens of games that Hurdle has managed over his career. Its like working with a person for years. Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t.

          One of the things the robo umps will do, will remove that “bias”. But I think with replay, there’s a lot of things unforeseen that technology will affect.

        • Heck, Joe West has been umpiring since Hurdle PLAYED. I don’t like the bias one way or the other, but that’s 30 some odd years of bad calls and bitching. Goes both ways.

          • But if an ump is allowing past history to impact how he calls that game, thats just not him doing his job. Sure, you know off history who chirps more and who doesnt. But you surely shouldnt use that to justify how you react in games.

            I dont think umps should get into the habit of reacting to managers unless its egregious. Dont distract from the actual game because you dont like a guy chirping.

            • Luke, I don’t like it either. But I think its been going on for a hundred years. The technology and billions of dollars is just finally shedding light on it.

          • I am not a fan of Country Joe.

        • You get respected by hustling and making as good of calls that you can. Nothing more and nothing less.

          A good ump walks away from a player or coach (if they can) after they’ve had their say. If they follow you, they’re usually tossed.

          Cervelli broke a Cardinal Catcher rule….you can gripe while in your crouch, but don’t turn around and get in my face!

          Note that Porter warned him twice. When Cervelli didn’t back down, it was bye bye time.

          I would’ve tossed him, also.

          • Porter didnt warn him, he started the issue and then said “stop”.

            Its not warning someone to go “hey shut your mouth” and then when they say something go “woah man, settle down”.

            Cervelli wouldnt have said a word if Porter didnt say a word. He would have held the glove there, paused, and thrown it back like he has done countless times this season. Porter feeling the need to tell him to throw it back quicker started it and isnt needed.

            Porter initiated the entire event because he didnt like Cervelli holding the ball a certain length of time.

      • The more you whine, the less chance you’ll get a call.

        It’s human nature. I also ref’d basketball. The urban myth that coaches can ‘work’ a ref is nonsense.

        We always liked the coaches who did their job,,,,coached their players. Guys/gals that moaned all the time usually didn’t get calls.

        We had one coach who came out for refereeing just because he knew he could do a better job. He made it half a season. When he went back to coaching, he became a quieter coach.

        Amazing how that worked.

        • I did it too man. Little League and Pony. Did the bases in Colt. Men’s Softball.

          It sucks. I’ve been disappointed with some stuff this year in MLB. But I’ve seen the other side of it. Its not easy. Couldn’t imagine calling games at that level with the same managers year after year. Probably have a quick hook myself after ten years.

    • Lee how many players did you toss in your day?

  • With all the talk about how little lower level MiLB players make, umps have it worse. One of the more entertaining and informative books I’ve read on baseball lately was “As They See ‘Em” by Bruce Weber, who spent a year shadowing umps at several levels of the minors. You have to be a bit crazy to want to go through what umps go through in order to make it to the Show.

    As far as robo-umps, I still have questions. I see different plotting of pitches on different sites, so I believe there is inconsistency even between pitch tracking systems used currently. I’m also skeptical about moving the zone up and down depending on batters height/stance. I think those things can be worked out, but I don’t think tech is ready for show time yet. I do look forward to pitches below the knees being called balls and the return of the strikes above the belt though.

  • I completely agree, the technology is there it’s time to get these calls right, and more importantly to make them consistent.
    I do wonder if “robot umps” would have a negative effect on the Pirates though, given their emphasis on catching defense and in particular pitch framing.

    • The technology would make pitch framing a non issue a strike will be a strike and a ball a ball. We don’t like it when the ump makes a bad call so why should we like it when a catcher try’s to make a ball look like a strike?

  • And as a follow-up, over the course of a season the ball/strike calls will tend to average out but definitely not in a single game. This is my biggest concern about the WC set-up. Get an ump that has his own zone or one that has a beef with your manager or catcher, and your chances can be greatly affected.

  • Thanks for the coverage. If I was the commissioner I’d send an ultimatum to the umpire union that you either self-police to do a better job with the strike zone or MLB will move to automated ball/strike calls. I believe they can do a better job but some (like Joe West) take pride in defining their own zone and others (like Porter last night) use their calls to put complaining managers and players in their place.

    • Porter had a very bad game and West always has a bad game behine the plate. When every game counts in a close race, why should a bad day by an umpire hurt the team and players?

  • I think I may have read somewhere that the current crop of umpires is the least experienced in many years. I know a lot of the umpires from even 10 years ago are gone. Not making any excuses, bad is bad. But I also think that officiating across all televised sports is more scrutinized than ever with technology, HiDef picture and what not.

    After seeing some of the issues and nuances of replay, they need to study electronic balls and strikes at a variety of levels and angles before its implemented. I think there is a lot being overlooked. Appeals, foultips, plays at the plate. Seems like you would still need an umpire there and his role and responsibilities would have to be clearly defined.

    • Cost is an issue. At what level do you first run into AI Ump?

      • Perhaps the best use of robo umps is to promote and demote umps. Start using it in A ball (MLB has plenty of money to fit minor league parks with the technology). Go with the umpire calls but only promote those who do the best job matching the robo calls. Likewise, send down umps even from MLB that do a poor job, especially when that poor job is balanced between the two teams playing. This would fit under my “self-policing” comment.

        • What about amateur leagues? I’m sure AZ St and LSU could afford it but there are some big college programs that do not fund their baseball programs well.

          The umpires are also unionized. That’s a massive can of worms there.

    • There is a way for the Ump to be able to see the exact thing the viewer sees immediately with special glasses so they would still be making the calls but based on much better information. There is absolutely no way Cervelli should have been throw out unless he swore at or touched the Ump which he didn’t do. If you noticed Cervelli is a very passionate personality but he is not disrespectful in any way.

      • For the record I don’t believe Cervelli should have been tossed. But who knows what was said from the dugouts, who knows what happened in May, in 2014 ect…These umpires and players have months, sometimes years to build animosity. Sometimes I think the fan gets caught up in the moment where some angst has built up over time.

        • And if angst built up over time is why Cervelli got tossed, that’s even more unacceptable. It’s not the umpire’s place to play favorites. If a guy gets tossed, it should be for what he did in the game today, not in a game four months ago.

          • Put yourself in the umpires shoes. A player constantly whines about a certain strike call. Yet when you receive your grade from MLB they tell you are calling it correctly.

            No win situation in my book.

  • I don’t know that I love the robo-ump idea, it would also eliminate pitch framing…but I do think there needs to be oversight and accountability with the umps. I don’t know, exactly, what that would look like…but Hurdle was right last night when he was telling Porter to let the players play. This umpire “untouchable…holier-than-thou” bologna needs to stop…it’s the players that fans come out to see.

    • Not so sure eliminating pitch framing would be a bad idea. I think the ever-expanding strikezone calls into question just how valuable the skill actually is, or at least how much of that value can be directly attributed to the catcher.

      What I’d like to see is a marginal framer catch the Pirates for a full season(hypothetically, of course). I’d bet any money he’d end up ranking highly due only to the natural creep of the lower half of the strike zone and the Pirate’s focus on pounding the ball there.

      • Its also not an area we should expect to continue to have an advantage much longer. More than a few big market teams already realize its value, and its only getting more and more attention. LAD and LAA both have catcher rated high in framing, with NYY also giving it attention.

        I think you are off on why they frame well though. I dont think you can point solely to the lower zone and say thats why.

        • Have the Pirates ever had an advantage in pitch framing?

          • Ha, I’d say the biggest advantage the Pirates have had in pitch framing was that valuing the skill lead to them acquiring three undervalued catchers that are/were generally good to begin with.

          • Advantage in the sense that for the last 3-4 years they have fielded catchers who are in the upper tier of framers. They have had an advantage over teams that didnt prioritize it for whatever reasons.

            I guess a better way id put it is that they have been better at that specific area due to valuing it more than other teams and bringing in guys able to do it well.

            • I’d agree with that, but I’d add a important element is they received some unexpected offensive contributions from these catchers.

        • Never said that was the sole reason, Luke. I said that’s the reason I question the absolute value of their framing.

          Martin, Cervelli, and Stewart are objectively good framers, and framing is objectively a good skill to have. What I question is whether or not the club is actually getting 3-4-5 additional wins due to that skill alone. I find that incredibly improbable.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    August 28, 2015 6:37 am

    I am against using any kind of technology to replace human umpires in the calling of balls and strikes, despite the fact that the umpires don’t always get it 100% right. I believe, overall, they do a pretty good job.

    The game is played by humans, not robots. I’d prefer it be umpired by humans as well.

    In this specific instance, it was a seemingly quick toss – but, we don’t really know what was said in the exchange. As with managers and players, the umpires are not perfect and do make occasional mistakes, but I think this kind of drama adds to the game, not detracts from it.

    • I think umpires are getting worse not better…this year has been a pretty poor year from them if you ask me. Regardless, I am, also, not a huge robo-ump fan…but I completely disagree that the umpires add to the drama and thus are good for the game. They are there to officiate and that’s it…the fans pay to see the players play, not the umps. I am happiest when I never hear from them at all, like it should be. They can have fun strike calls or whatever but they, otherwise, should be ghosts…fans come to see players…players get paid millions to perform…the money paid by fans…the huge tv deals…none of these things have anything at all to do with the umpires. They are there to officiate and go home…unfortunately we are getting umpires who want to make themselves a bigger part of the game than they are intended/need to be. It’s not good for the game.

    • Maybe a blended approach. Have three zones–automatic strike, automatic ball, and then the edge where umps make the call. This keeps the umps from making the worst calls but still gives them an opportunity to factor in skills like pitch framing and ability to hit the glove.

      • The edge calls are the ones that need the technology. Umps don’t miss the obvious ones, and players don’t argue them.

    • First off, it still will be umpired by humans, but they will be given a tool to make them 100% correct. Who wouldn’t want that for their job?

    • Actually, we do pretty much know what was said thanks to audio and that crowd being small enough you can hear a lot of whats going on on the field.

      Porter appeared to say “c’mon, throw the ball back” while Cervelli was holding the ball where he caught it. Thats what Cervelli is talking about when he says “i didnt like the way he was talking to me”.

      Cervelli clearly said “you dont have to talk to me like that” when he turned around and was thrown out after saying that. Now, i dont like that Cervelli turned around but if the ump initiates the issue with a player, thats his fault and not his job. Porter had 0 right to say anything to Cervelli to start it.

    • Scott Kliesen
      August 28, 2015 1:32 pm

      I disagree for a couple of reasons. First, SI did a study and wrote an article a few years back demonstrating umpires and referees across all sports make way more calls favouring home teams. Robo Umps will eradicate this problem.

      Second, Umps make calls favouring better Pitchers. As they also are less inclined to call strikes on a Pitcher who has been wild. Again, Robo Umps will also remove this bias.

      Robo Umps don’t care who throws ball and if it’s at home park. It just makes correct call.

  • Taking the “human element” out of ball/strike calls should be priority #1 for MLB Commissioner. The only human element to effect the game should be the players.

    Tennis has done it on line calls for seemingly a decade now. And when’s the last time you saw a tennis player screaming at an ump?

    The one’s who should be pushing for this the hardest are the umpires themselves. You can’t tell me they don’t feel like crap if they realize after the game their missed call changed an outcome of the game.

    • I honestly feel they don’t care. I believe most have an attitude with a lot of resentment towards the replays being used.

      • Scott Kliesen
        August 28, 2015 1:20 pm

        Change always has its challenges. Those Umps will either adapt or be replaced.

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