Spring Training Is Over For The Umps

One of the great characters of the game, Leo Durocher, set the standard in umpire description when he said, “I never questioned the integrity of an umpire. Their eyesight, yes.”

We move at a faster pace now that it is May. The spectacular plays of April will become more commonplace in May. So hopefully will the calls by the umpires. Safe or out will always be contested calls by the men in blue or now in black. Endless finger-pointing and screaming ‘Get the bum outta there’ will run its course throughout the season. The question that burns most of us is the pitch calling behind the plate. And that is a matter of concern.

Red Barber said, “Whenever you have a tight situation and there’s a close pitch, the umpire gets a squawk no matter how he calls it.” That is not what we are talking about in this column. What we want to understand is the lack of consistency in the calling of balls and strikes.

Mike Winters was behind the plate during Tuesday night’s game in San Diego as the Padres met the Brewers. Petco Park has never been a friendly hitters park and at the end of the game, there were only 8 hits, 5 by San Diego and 3 by Milwaukee. The game was tight with a former Brewer, Mark Kotsay banging a double off of star relief pitcher, Francisco Rodriguez (K-Rod) and driving in the winning runs. With heavy air and a bite of chill on it at 65 degrees, San Diego is a different place to hit at night. Low total run games are part of the fabric of playing in San Diego.

Yet what caught nearly no attention was the inconsistent strike zone Winters set throughout the game. To be a really good umpire, consistency is the key. If a ball seems to be a bit inside in the first inning and it is called a strike, a good umpire calls that same pitch a strike in all of the other innings. Pitchers respect the consistency in setting the zone. Hitters appreciate the consistency in the zone being established. So when a pitch is called for a strike on a fastball that was a bit inside, both the hitter and the pitcher understand the limit the umpire is establishing for the game. The inside of the zone has been established.

Thus, when the ump calls a pitch a strike on the black over the outside of the plate, the far reaches of the zone is established. Now only the top and the bottom of the strike zone needs to have limits set.

The consistency that an umpire establishes are the unwritten rules of the game for that day or night as long as he is behind the plate.

Padre pitchers threw 130 pitches during the game in question, 82 of which were strikes. Brewer hurlers threw 120 pitches, 76 were strikes. This was on the surface, a well pitched game. In fact the starting pitcher for the Padres, Edinson Volquez had the same percentage of strikes (63 strikes out of 99 pitches) that Jered Weaver had in throwing a no-hitter for the Angels last night in Anaheim against the Toronto Blue Jays, 63.6%. Weaver threw 77 strikes out of 121 pitches in 63 degree weather in Southern California.

This is where the game becomes very interesting. It isn’t about the percentage of strikes. Weaver was incredibly right on Wednesday evening. But on Tuesday evening, Volquez was getting called strikes all over the place. As the game progressed, balls that were thrown outside of the ‘established’ strike zone were being called strikes. Balls above the letters were being called strikes. Balls further inside the ‘established’ strike zone earlier in the game were being called strikes. Then all of a sudden, a ball in the same place would be called a ball. Go figure.

The problem most fans have in looking at a game on television is the problem with the centerfield camera not being exactly behind the pitcher to get a 100% perfect view of the strike zone. It is off-center to give a clear view of the plate and to be out of the batter’s eye. Understood. That is why the establishing of a strike zone is so important.

On Tuesday evening, although the stats say no, the eye said differently. The umpires have to be consistent. Then the game is fair.

Jaun Marichal, the great Giant pitcher of the past said, “You had to pitch in and out. The zone didn’t belong to the hitters; it belonged to the pitchers. Today, if you pitch too far inside, the umpire would stop you right there. I don’t think it’s fair.” Problem is, what would Jaun think about the zone moving all over the place throughout the game?

Play ball.