The First Pitch Is a Ball
The flare-up over the use of pitch-count averages by the commissioner's office in rating plate umpires' performances was extinguished last week when Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson said those counts would not be used to evaluate umps, and the umpires' union dropped its labor grievance over it. The upshot was clear: Baseball needs a fair system to rate its umpires. Before this season the commissioner's office gave the umps detailed instruction on calling the strike zone according to the rule book and on disciplining headhunting pitchers. However, there was less explanation of how the arbiters would be monitored.
Alderson insists the pitch-count initiative was intended as a teaching tool rather than a rating system, and he says efforts by the commissioner's office to improve the quality and consistency of umpiring will continue. The next step will be the publication of an umpiring manual that a committee of three umps and three representatives from the commissioner's office is putting together. The first three sections of the manual—one outlining umpires' conduct and responsibilities, one offering detailed interpretation and analysis of the rule book, and one explaining on-field mechanics of a four-man crew—are complete. The committee is preparing to hash out the fourth section, which will detail a system under which arbiters will be evaluated and ranked.
"What we're trying to do with the committee is get some form of evaluation that's equitable for everybody," says umpire Joe Brinkman, a 28-year major league veteran and vice president of the umpires' union. "We planned to dig in right after the season and figure it out, but there's a little more pressure now."
"This is something baseball has never had," says MLB vice president of umpiring Ralph Nelson. "It used to be that umpires learned their jobs from their crew chiefs as they went along. If you were a Doug Harvey guy, you might umpire differently than a Bruce Froemming guy. This manual will lay out consistent methods for everyone."
Figuring out how umpires will be fairly evaluated is particularly important, because most of them aren't sold on the reliability of the gadgetry the commissioner's office is now using to monitor ball-and-strike calls. Fenway Park and Shea Stadium are already equipped with QuesTec, Inc.'s Umpire Information System, a refinement of the company's pitch-tracking graphics seen on Fox television broadcasts. (The system will be installed in four more ballparks sometime this season.) Using two cameras mounted in the stands and two at ground level off the first and third base lines, QuesTec's measurement technology creates computer models of pitches as they cross the plate. Within 30 minutes after the game has ended, plate umps are given CDs with cataloged computer and video images of every ball and strike they called.
"It tells umpires if their call agreed with what the computer measured," says Nelson. "It's a way to find areas an umpire might need to work on."
When an evaluation system is eventually adopted, it will more likely include videotape and in-person observation by umpiring supervisors. Earlier this month the commissioner's office began giving umps edited videotapes from television broadcasts of games they worked behind the plate, 10-minute highlights of their ball-and-strike calls. Umpires will review the tapes with supervisors individually, searching for patterns of calls that might need to be addressed. "There have been no criteria [for rating umps]," says Brinkman. "It's been just word of mouth and popularity. Now we're going to agree on something fair."
Pursuing Pedro Astacio
Only 6-12, but a Hot Commodity
Whenever the Rockies' Pedro Astacio has pitched in recent weeks, the seats behind home plate have been filled with more radar guns than an interstate on Labor Day. With Colorado determined to cut payroll and stock up on major-league-ready young players as the July 31 trade deadline approaches, virtually every team in playoff contention—including the Astros, Cardinals, Dodgers, Red Sox and Twins—views the 31-year-old righthander as the best available pitcher. Why the fuss over a righthander who was 6-12 with a 5.53 ERA through Sunday, one with a career ERA of 453 and a $6.85 million salary this year plus a $9 million option for next?