Where’s the Accountability? End the Ump Show!

It’s an old adage among MLB fans that the more familiar one is with an umpire’s name, the more likely it is that said umpire is bad at their job. Fans also refer to diva-like behavior by umpires as the “ump show.” Fans were treated to one such show during the Chicago Cubs’ loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Saturday when Cubs bench coach Brandon Hyde was ejected from the game during an at-bat by Venezuelan Cubs C Willson Contreras. When asked about the incident after the game, Contreras said umpire Greg Gibson was upset Contreras failed to say “thank you” after receiving a timeout. Contreras related the following through an interpreter:

“It was really a difficult situation and I tried to handle it as best I could. The umpire said something to me that I didn’t really like, and it got to the point where I looked over to the bench to get a little backup just because I didn’t want to get thrown out and cost the team. It all happened because I had asked for time out, and apparently I didn’t thank him.”

“I never argued a single ball or strike. I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t arguing about anything else. That’s what it was. … He said something to me that I didn’t think he needed to say. I’m here because I’ve earned my spot here, and I just didn’t appreciate what he said.”

“I’m not going to repeat what he said because I’m trying to be professional. But he knows what he said to me.”

This is a disturbing incident as Contreras’ account implies that Gibson got angry about the lack of a “thank you”, made a racist comment to Contreras and then ejected Hyde after he backed up his player.

While this story made headlines in Chicago, it’s unlikely we will ever know if Gibson receives any discipline from MLB for behaving in an unprofessional manner. There is very little transparency when it comes to how MLB evaluates and polices its umpires. Disciplinary measures for umpires are not often publicized. One of the more recent publicized suspensions occurred when veteran official Joe West referred to Texas Rangers INF Adrian Beltré as MLB’s “biggest complainer” in an interview published on the occasion of West’s 5,000th game in 2017.

Although MLB assures fans that the playoff and World Series umpires are the best of the best and selected through a rigorous assessment process, MLB does not make its assessments available to the public. The only umpire rating information that I was able to find on the Internet is Bloomberg Businessweek’s Umpire Auditor, which compares pitch tracking data to the calls on the field to determine umpire accuracy. According to an episode of the HBO series “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel”, similar analysis of pitch data by Yale University math professor Toby Moskowitz yielded an accuracy rating of 88 percent. The Bloomberg Umpire Auditor ratings yield the same result for the most accurate umpires with the largest sample sizes from 2012-2018. The most accurate current umpire, Jeff Gosney, has a 92 percent rating but only a few hundred calls reviewed, whereas other top-rated umpires have had thousands of calls analyzed by Umpire Auditor. Notably, this analysis only pertains to ball and strike calls at home plate and not other calls such as check swings, foul balls, etc. that can also have an impact on  the outcome of a game. I also am not aware of any site that tracks the number of calls by a given umpire overturned by replay review.

Video replay and pitch tracking information have made it easier than ever for fans to make determinations about the quality of the officiating in the games they watch. In my opinion, fans are increasingly dissatisfied with umpires’ performance and there is already a critical mass of support for eliminating the so-called “human element” from ball and strike calls.

In light of these issues, here are my suggestions for improving accountability and transparency in MLB officiating:

  1. Apply replay review to all situations where there is video available to determine the accuracy of a call.
  2. Replace human ball and strike calls with “robot umps” and make all other home plate calls reviewable.
  3. Check swing calls must be made by first and third base umpires and cannot be made by the home plate umpire.
  4. Make all umpire discipline public.
  5. Make umpire performance assessments available to the public.
  6. Add a player/coach rating component to selection of umpires for the playoffs and World Series and make all information supporting these selections available to the public.
  7. Institute a minimum accuracy rating for umpires to remain employed and publicize it.

I think these measures will improve fans’ confidence in the quality of MLB officiating. If you have any further suggestions on this topic, please add your comment!