The eyes of the baseball world are focused on a pitching scandal that could implicate some of the best arms around the league and rightfully so. Graeme Wallace has a great take on that sticky situation if you’re interested. However, beneath the talk of sticky substances and Gerrit Cole‘s terrible interview answers lies another problem that’s been thrown on the backburner. MLB umpires are absolutely laughable this year.
This is nothing new. Anyone who’s ever seen Joe West or Angel Hernandez call a game knows how much of a mess they can make. Yet, there’s something about the extremely brutal calls early this season that stands out. Perhaps it’s just the eye test, but umpires made such blatantly wrong calls that even non-fans can identify without a second glance. For what it’s worth, this is not considering bad strike calls. Poorly called strike zones are nothing new and FanGraphs has a great piece detailing how what we’re seeing in 2021 is no worse than last year.
Rather, the worrying calls are those that a robo-ump can’t impact. Let’s take a brief trip down memory lane to recount a few of the most egregious mistakes made so far.
Running in the Base Paths Doesn’t Fly for MLB Umpires
Two players this year have been called out for running in straight lines to the base. The first, Andrew McCutchen, committed this unfathomable crime while running to second base in a game against the Mets. Francisco Lindor misses the tag, but McCutchen dared to move his body a little to avoid it. The umpires called him out.
Umpire calls Andrew McCutchen out for running out of the baseline when he clearly did not, and Bryce Harper gets ejected for arguing the call from the dugout pic.twitter.com/Lc93BVRx9b— Jomboy Media (@JomboyMedia) May 2, 2021
The other unfortunate soul to suffer this fate is Trea Turner. Turner is no stranger to interference calls and the same happened again this year against the Cubs. A bad throw from Willson Contreras after a dropped third strike led to Turner reaching first. Safe.
Unfortunately for Turner, he was the victim of a judgement call.
Judgement calls are so frustrating because they can’t be reviewed and there is no solid application of the rules. You can argue that this is less of a bad call and more of bad rule, but the throw from Contreras is clearly off-line so I’m inclined to say both. It’s poor judgement, but a play that also should be reviewable.
Stepping on Bases Is for Suckers
In another two incidents, players completely missed bases and received zero punishment from MLB umpires for it. The less egregious case, Kris Bryant missing first base on an infield single against the Mets, was still plainly visible to the naked eye without replay. The Mets didn’t have a challenge and Bryant got away with robbery. An awful call, yes, but one that at least could’ve been corrected had it been reviewed.
Kris Bryant was called safe on this 😅 pic.twitter.com/o60iPk5sxI— Baseball Authority (@BsblAuthority) April 21, 2021
The truly aggravating call, however, belongs to Alec Bohm of the Phillies. Bohm raced home on a bang-bang play and, while he beat the tag from Travis d’Arnaud, he obviously missed home plate. This call not only won the game, but stood upon review. It’s an understandable miss in the moment until the call wasn’t overturned. What’s the purpose of instant replay if an umpire’s missed calls are just glossed over?
More recently, we’ve seen the ineffectiveness of replay on display with the Orioles and Mets. After a lengthy review of a safe call at first base, umpires upheld their decision much to the chagrin of Gary Cohen. Again, this is something robot umps simply can’t solve. For as important and inevitable as the electronic strike zone is, it can’t save us from bad judgement or even worse review. It is not a cure-all. It’s one piece of a bigger problem.
MLB Umpires’ Worst Call of the Year
Of all the bad calls this year, the Michael Conforto walk-off hit-by-pitch marks everything wrong with umpires in 2021. For one, it’s a dreadful call. There’s no mistaking Conforto’s elbow as anywhere but in the strike zone. It also came in the worst possible spot, giving the Mets a walk-off win they really didn’t deserve. Finally, it’s not reviewable. It’s a perfect train wreck of everything frustrating about garbage calls. It should not have happened. Oh, and it involves poor knowledge of the strike zone. Great.
These aren’t the only bad calls made this year. Another worth reviewing is the questionable interference call on Zack Godley with the Brewers. As stated earlier, this also doesn’t include any missed ball or strike calls because those are nothing new and there are always too many egregious calls to count.
Rules and Replay Need Reform
If there’s anything to take away from reflecting on the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad calls of 2021 so far, it’s that there is a widespread issue with umpiring and with some of MLB’s rules. Video replay is a good thing. There’s no reason not to use it combat against unjust interference calls or a hit-by-pitch call like Conforto’s. Yeah, it means a slight increase to pace of play, but it seems like a fair tradeoff for getting these calls right.
At least it would if replay itself wasn’t flawed. MLB umpires have this penchant for sticking up for their guys, for better or worse. Whether it’s this or genuine incompetence that leads to lengthy reviews and blowing blatant calls like the Bohm incident or the safe call against the Mets, I can’t say. Neither reason reflects well on the league though. Bring on the electronic strike zone all you want. It still won’t save you from the blue’s wrath.