In battle to gain an edge, teams scout an old foe: the umpires
The Toronto Blue Jays include personal information in their scouting reports
Several teams use the reports, which focus on an umpire's pitch-calling tendencies
Zone Evaluation technology grades umps and affects their decision-making
Before starting his third major league game last month, Blue Jays rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia already knew not just the name of the umpire who would be behind home plate that day, but also the strike zone he normally called and even where he went to college.
As it happened, the umpire, Greg Gibson, had attended Kentucky and Arencibia had attended Tennessee, so during the game the young player initiated a conversation.
"We talked a little bit about SEC football," Arencibia said. "I'm a rookie, so I try to be as quiet as possible, but if I have the opportunity and have something in common, I might strike up a little dialogue with him. It's easier to approach them if you know something about them."
Increasingly, major league teams are including data on umpires' tendencies in defining the strike zone to help their players prepare for each game. After all, for as much research as goes into getting ready for the opponent, why not spend time preparing for the third-party that also has an impact on play?
What sets the Blue Jays apart, however, is that they are the rare club to also use personal information on each umpire -- a quick summary of who they are as people underneath the black uniform.
It's not meant to curry favor or influence calls but rather to humanize the umpires. In fact, veteran Toronto catcher John Buck, who says he had already gotten to know most of them during his six seasons with the Royals, says he makes a conscious effort to be personable but professional with the umpires.
"The way I feel -- and I feel like they respect me for it -- is that even though I know them a little bit, I really sincerely let them try to do their job without trying to make buddy-buddy," Buck said.
Former Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi said the club started disseminating these reports a few years ago just to give the players as much information as possible. The personal notes are taken from MLB's annual umpire media guide.
"We live in an information age," Ricciardi said.
Of course, what's most pertinent is the research on each umpire's tendencies. One such report included a head shot, a short bio with age, education and hometown, and the strike-zone traits for each umpire working a particular series.
For Andy Fletcher, for instance, his report says he "will reward pitchers for making their pitch. Can be heavily influenced by way a catcher receives the ball. . . . shows some inconsistencies in correctly calling breaking balls." It also notes that his hobbies include watching Ole Miss football and basketball.
Mike Everitt, meanwhile, is "favorable to pitchers . . . gives multiple inches on outside corner, esp w/LHH's [left-handed hitters]." And it also says he is an "avid Republican who enjoys watching political viewpoint programs" and that he was a two-time All-State Musician as a trumpet player in 1981-82.
Tim McClelland calls the "zone more tall than wide . . . will occasionally expand on corners esp. early in count. Zone will tighten later in count." The report notes the high pitchers' ERA when he was behind the plate in 2009 and so far in '10. It also says he "became interested in umpiring by officiating intramural competition at Michigan State."
Not all players, of course, utilize the information. Toronto catcher Jose Molina, for instance, said he doesn't read the reports nor does he care what's in them. Starter Marc Rzepczynski said he reads them -- but doesn't always remember them.
"You just look at it to see where his zone is and see how much experience he has," Rzepczynski said, "but when you're out there -- at least for me -- I kind of just forget about it. I try to throw a pitch and, if it's close, I hope I get it. If I don't get it, I don't get it."
The personal info is really only relevant to catchers who spend extended time next to an umpire or maybe a first or third baseman who are looking for someone to chat with during pitching changes.
"Everyone has their own style, whether it's an umpire or a pitcher or a position player," Arencibia said. "Everyone's a creature of habit for the most part, so some guys have different tendencies than others."
No player indicated that he'd change the way he played because of the umpire reports, but several appreciated the explanatory background.
"I read everything that we've got coming," Buck said. "But they are all just guidelines to pad the report that you do, which are more about the player and the pitcher. If we keep trying to do something [but the umpire isn't calling it a strike], we can look at the report and know, 'It's not that this guy doesn't like me, it's that these are what his tendencies are.'"
There is a wide variance across baseball as to how much attention is spent focusing on umpires. One Mariners source said it's not uncommon for a coach to be walking through the clubhouse two hours before the first pitch asking, "Who we got tonight?"
Phillies catcher Brian Schneider, who has previously played for the Nationals and Mets, said his teams have all paid attention to umpires' basic tendencies and what's as important are the in-game adjustments to the zone.
"If I see him giving off a little bit," Schneider said, "I'll come into the dugout and make sure my hitters know, 'Hey, he's giving a little off. Don't be surprised to see an expanded strike zone.'"
Rockies manager Jim Tracy said his club prepares reports on each umpire's strike-zone tendencies. All he asks of umpires is that they "establish a strike zone and stick with it. I don't think there's any major league player who cannot adjust to the zone."
The reports are helpful, Tracy said, "because you know what type of zone you'll have to deal with before the game starts. Instead of spending nine innings fighting with the guy all day -- which is a mental disruption as far as I'm concerned -- [the report says] 'here's who's umpiring and more than likely what the strike zone is going to look like, and we can deal with it."
But, he added, "I don't spend a lot of time talking to them about their hobbies, I can tell you that."
Because the umpires are human, there will never be full uniformity of the strike zone unless robots or lasers replace the men behind the plate. Most catchers, though, have seen some amount of standardization in the last few years. Braves catcher Brian McCann, for instance, says generally the corners are being tightened but that more pitches are being called strikes high and low. Added Tigers catcher Gerald Laird, "I've been told, 'I want to make sure I get it right because they're really being strict in evaluating us.'"
One component of how Major League Baseball assesses umpires for All-Star and playoff assignments is how they grade out against the league's Zone Evaluation system, a pitch-tracking program implemented in 2009 in which cameras triangulate a ball's position in flight at least 20 times before it reaches the plate. (Formerly MLB used a system called QuesTec from 2001 to '08, but that system was only installed in 11 ballparks while Z.E. is operational in all 30.)
"If you were a guy that said, 'I'm a pitchers' umpire' -- and you knew who they were -- you could throw it in this room and it would be a strike," Braves starter Derek Lowe said. "Now, because of how good they do [according to Z.E.], it rewards them if they call the most percentage pitches in this box. They get to do playoff games, they get to do World Series games. There's a benefit to calling in this little cubicle.
"I've asked catchers after the inning, 'Where was that pitch? Did you ask him?' McCann or [Dodgers catcher] Russell Martin will be told flat out [by the umpire], 'I had that as a strike, but I can't call that.'"
Z.E. is not an excuse that flies with most players, especially Schneider, who said he's been told numerous times that an umpire couldn't call a pitch because of the automated system.
"I hate that QuesTec," Schneider said. "I just don't like it. A lot of times you ask an umpire about it, and he'll say, 'Well, if I go to the system, the system will probably tell me it's a strike.' I don't want to know what the system says. I don't want a machine to tell me a pitch was a half-inch too low.
"But I know where they're coming from -- they're getting graded on that system."
Though the MLB-utilized Z.E. is the grading system that matters to the umpires' future, they are graded in the court of public opinion by fans every game. Television networks routinely superimpose a strike zone on the screen, which can be a disservice to the umpires who aren't afforded the luxury of time or laser-precision in making their calls.
"Television sends it up to the booth, grids it out, then has the ball go across in slow motion and zooming in, and they expect the umpire to have it right," Buck said. "Or they ask they hitter, 'Why did you take that? It's right on the corner.' Well, look at where it started -- it was about two feet out. But you've got the big fat guy eating potato chips on the couch and is like, 'S---, what is the umpire looking at?'
"[A missed call] is when they start showing that and overanalyzing it. But they didn't do it the 80 pitches before when the guy got it perfectly right."
There is, of course, no way to prepare for a bad call, but the majority of balls and strikes are called consistently by umpires -- if not altogether correctly -- and teams are discovering that a little knowledge can go a long way.
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