MLB And Umpires: Inside the MLBUA

MLB And Umpires: Inside the MLBUA

If the de-juiced balls and no-nos are the main story of 2021, MLB umpires and their garbage ways feels like the subplot that everyone loves to hate this season.  They’re worse than ever.  They have massive egos, they never admit to being wrong.  They should all be fired. 

There’s a pervasive notion that umpires don’t face any consequences, that they are allowed to be as terrible as they want, that umpires only keep their jobs because of an all-powerful union that keeps the worst on the field at the cost of the game.

That union would be the Major League Baseball Umpires Association

So what, exactly, is the MLBUA?  Who is in charge of union decisions?  How do they operate?  And most of all, are umpires ever actually held accountable to the mistakes they make on the field?

Why a Union At All?

The first MLB umpire union, called the Major League Umpire Association, formed in 1970 after a one day strike during playoffs, thought their biggest action came in 1979.  At the time, MLB umpires were making around $200 per game.  Their NBA counterparts made $550. In protest, umpires refused to sign their contracts and report to Spring Training.  MLB tried to fill the gap with retired and amateur umpires – with disastrous results.  MLB eventually gave in and umpires got the better pay and better working conditions they asked for.

The MLUA adopted a similar tactic in 1999 by offering mass resignations since their collective bargaining agreement actually prevented a formal strike.  MLB called their bluff and hired other umps. There was a lot of back and forth between the union, umpires, and MLB, but ultimately the MLUA ceased to represent active umpires.  Instead, umpires organized under a new union called the World Umpires Association.  This was also the same year that minor league umpires organized under the Association of Minor League Umpires. 

Minor league players are still waiting for that opportunity.

Modern MLBUA

In 2018, the union rebranded itself as the Major League Baseball Umpires Association, or MLBUA. Contrary to the Wikipedia page and popular belief, Joe West is not the president of the union and hasn’t been for a while.  That job currently belongs to Bill Miller.  Vice president is Ted Barrett and the Secretary of the Treasury is Will Little.  There’s also an executive board of six members, all active umpires.

This group of nine makes most of the decisions for the union in regards to the inner workings of the union itself.  Larger items are voted on by the entire membership.  Things like by-law revisions and dues and health insurance.  

The union does not have any control over what is or isn’t a baseball rule – that comes from Major League Baseball alone.  The union does not levy fines or mete out punishments against players or managers.  Again, that’s handled by MLB.  They don’t even really handle their own collective bargaining duties.  CBA negotiations are conducted almost entirely through lawyers. 

At no point are these board members ever responsible for the performance for other members.  They have no say in job evaluations or the hiring and firing of umpires.  That resides with Major League Baseball alone.

So what kind of feedback do umpires get? The short answer is: all of it, constantly, and from every angle.

Path to the Show

To understand how MLB views their umpires, we first need to take a look at how a person becomes a Major League umpire.  Their journey usually starts at the local ballpark, calling games for city leagues or perhaps middle or high school games.  Applicants don’t have to have any experience to go to umpire school, but most people have at least a few games under their belt.  And while there’s no official scouting like there is for players, many umpires are recruited or encouraged by former or working umpires.

Before the pandemic, there were MLB Umpire Camps – single day training events that also served as unofficial recruiting grounds for umpire schools.  It’s unclear if those will occur again in the future, but very likely.

MLB UMPIRES Umpire Camp
MLB Umpire Camp participants. Some attend for fun, some attend to jumpstart their career. Photo Credit: MLB.

There are two main umpire schools that train professional umpires. Wendelstedt Umpire School and MiLB Umpire Training Academy. Only a handful of the top students earn positions with Minor League Baseball.  Some students go through multiple times before they earn a spot.  The vast majority of students don’t make the cut, but some do go on to have successful careers in independent leagues, college sports, or overseas.

Umpires work their way through the minors similar to the way a player does with one exception: it takes a LOT longer for the average umpire to make it through the minors than the average player.  And much like a player, they can be called up and and sent down again and again.  But while most players who eventually become full-time MLB might spend a year or two between leagues, umpires can spend as much as six years hopping between the majors and the minors based on job performance and availability of open positions.

For the beginning of the 2020 season, five new full-time umpires were brought onto the staff.  They had already called 2,336 Major League games between them.  That number represents multiple seasons between the Majors and the Minors, sometimes for as little as a game or two between leagues.

Performance Evaluators

At every level, professional umpires are watched, evaluated, and measured against perfection by multiple supervisors and evaluators.  In umpiring, 80 grade metrics only gets your foot in the door.  By the time someone steps on a field as a full-time major league umpire, they usually have at least ten to fifteen years of intense training and scrutiny. And it doesn’t stop after reaching the majors.

Every single MLB umpire crew is watched by an evaluator.  Every play, every pitch, every call.  If an umpire has an incorrect call overturned by Replay, they’re gonna get a phone call from a supervisor, maybe even a few.  They will get advice on how to prevent it, how to position themselves better, what to look out for next time.  There’s even discussions about off-the-field issues that might be affecting performance.  

The evaluators who help them do that are former MLB umpires themselves.  These evaluators are no longer union members but work directly for Major League Baseball.  This year, they report back to Michael Hill, the former Marlins executive who took the job over from Chris Young. Young only spent one year in the role formerly held for close to a decade by Joe Torre.  

MLB umpires Michael Hill Miami
Former Marlins executive Michael Hill, now Sr. VP of On-Field Operations. Photo Credit: Miami Herald.

Mike Hill’s contact with the Marlins expired in 2020 when he and new ownership, lead by Derek Jeter, could not come to terms on a new contract.  A few months later, MLB tapped him to become a Senior VP of On-Field Operations.  It’s difficult to predict how Hill will do in this role.  The Marlins struggled during his time as an executive, though they did manage a winning 2020 record.  In a season where most of their big league players were sidelined by COVID exposure, they relied heavily and successfully on a very young roster, many of whom were drafted or acquired under Hill’s guidance.  While he certainly helped turn the farm system around, it’s not quite clear what his ultimate Marlins legacy will be, nor how that will translate to his current role.

General Observers  

In addition to official MLB supervisors, there’s also a separate group of observers for what might be called the intangibles of umpiring – how they dress, how they conduct themselves in conflict, even how they stand in between innings.  These observers usually cover a region of stadiums, appearing in person to take notes and provide even more feedback.  These observers are not usually former umpires, but still have extensive baseball knowledge.  The Southern California area observer, for instance, is former Dodgers player and manager Bill Russell, who has been in the job for several years now.

Reports Upon Reports

On top of all of those conversations, umpires receive high definition video footage of every single missed call from several camera angles, helping them to relive the moment and figure out how not to make the same mistake again. Each video is paired with a description of how to do it better in the future in regards to positioning, angle, and timing.  All of this is waiting for them in their email inbox every morning after a game.

In addition, umpire receive a in-depth formal report two times a year, at the All Star break and after the postseason.  Here, they get detailed feedback about their job performance metrics.  The report breaks down info in a few different ways.  Percentages of incorrect calls, yes, but also when those calls are most likely to come.  Perhaps an umpire has more missed calls during the middle innings.  Maybe they get sharp after the All Star break but lag in April games.  Maybe their day games have a wider zone than night games.  All of this is noted in the report with advice on how to sustain good performances and improve upon what can be improved.

There is also an online data base accessible to every umpire with this information available to them at all times.

Accountability Overload

The idea that an umpire is not held accountable for an incorrect call is almost laughable.  Today’s umpires face more scrutiny and pressure to perform than at any other time in baseball’s long history.  In fact, there’s so much feedback and footage sent to umpires that it can be overwhelming.  One umpire I spoke to opened up about the sheer volume, speed, and frequency it comes at them.

“Clearly, I want to get better.  And I’m trying to get better every day, but there is so much information given to me, so much accountability and evaluation and information sent to me on a daily basis that if I looked at it all, I would go insane.”

Much like a player trying to figure out how to improve their swing, sometimes too much information can be overwhelming.  Watch too much bad performance tape and it can get into your head. 

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think there should be less information.  I think the information we receive is good.  The feedback is great.  But you have to filter it.  That’s our job to do to stay [mentally] healthy.  The way I stand, the way I run, from the moment you walk on the field, you’re being looked at.  It’s to help you.  We’d rather have too much feedback than not enough.”

All of this happens every single game day before an umpire even steps onto the field. 

How To Fire an Umpire

The MLBUA is there to protect their membership’s working environment, negotiate for better salary and benefits, and make sure that working conditions are acceptable and fair.  Unions protect worker’s rights, NOT their jobs.  If an umpire is underperforming, they absolutely can be fired for cause.  MLB has the ability to fire umpires.  So why don’t they?

When performance dips in accuracy, a few different things can happen.  If they are not a full-time Major League umpire, they will be sent back down to the minors, much like a player.  Once they are hired as full time umpires, they then go into a three year probationary period during which MLB decides if they will be sticking around.  If their job performance is lacking, there’s no going back to the minors, they are let go. After they are past their initial probation, then Major League Baseball has a plan in place to help the umpire get back on track.  

If the on-the-spot daily evaluations don’t help, MLB pulls them aside for an in-depth discussion about what’s going on in the field.  This conversation is typically with a supervisor and the VP of On-Field Operations, who as mentioned is currently Mike Hill.  Together, they work on a plan to get the umpire back on track.  More than a few umpires have gone through this process, especially early in their career.  And it’s largely successful.

If an umpire’s performance continues to drop, then there’s a second, more intense version of this process.  Once an umpire enters this stage, it’s the absolute last stop before losing their job.  Only a handful of umpires have gone through this kind of do-or-die evaluation since it was put into place several years ago.  Since then, all of them have managed to pull their numbers back into a Major League performance.

Robo Umps On The Way?

To think about the implementation of an automated strike zone, it might help to look at the other significant technical changes for umpires in baseball – Replay.

Since the introduction of Replay use in 2008, the technology involved has grown in leaps and bounds.  When it first started, the tech was clunky.  Cleats were occasionally little more than blurry blobs on a base and baseballs were white streaks through the air.  Now, the cameras are so good, Replay umpires can see a single spike hitting the bag before the rest of the cleat.  The seams of a baseball graze a uniform.  And yes, when a hand pops up off the bag for even a split second. 

Once a play goes to Replay, those are the new standards for making the call.

MLB umpires replay
A look at the Replay Center in New York. Photo Credit: MLB Photos.

A few fans I’ve spoken to mentioned that umpires must hate Replay.  And while not every single umpire is going to share the same opinion, from my understanding, most of them sleep better at night because of it.

Sure, it’s a little embarrassing when a call is over turned and the crowd either boos or cheers.  Imagine if every time you made a mistake at work, thousands of people cursed and screamed at you about it.  But there is a big positive to Replay: peace of mind. There are no more Jim Joyce moments, no more ruined perfect games based on an incorrect call. No more nightmares that haunt them for weeks and weeks.  Because despite what fans might think, no one gives up decades of their life to a job unless they absolutely love and care about it bone-deep.  Umpires are fully aware of what can ride on a single call.  They want to get it right.

How Good Are MLB Umpires Really?

So.  How are MLB umpires actually performing this year?  According to Ethan Singer at @UmpScorecards, umpires are sitting at a 94% accuracy rate and a 96% consistency rate for the season so far.  Singer’s data is compiled according to his own calculations from numbers published by Major League Baseball.  And yes, his method takes into account the fact that the current Hawkeye system can still incorrectly report a ball’s location by as much as .25 inches in a given direction.  

That’s right.  Even if robo umps took over right now, the system still would’t be able to make instantaneous calls with 100% accuracy.  To get truly accurate reports, the raw data has to go through an algorithm making sure that the final reported location of the ball is where the ball actually went.  

At this point, Singer has become a sort of unintentional champion for umpires with his daily reports because the posts that go the furthest with baseball fans?  The ones with the best scores.  His most-liked tweet is the near-perfect plate job called by John Libka for the May 7th, 2021 Cardinals-Rockies game.  He says the response to his posts are almost overwhelmingly positive.

libka scorecard
One of Ethan Singer’s most popular posts with currently 6k+ likes. From @UmpScorecards.

“The thing that I think is different from my account and other umpire accounts…like you know, Umpire Auditor, they are another big account. They exclusively tweet out the worst calls of the day.  I get it.  It’s fun to roast umpires as much as you can.  But it’s just not an accurate picture. Everybody’s like ‘Oh my god, Ángel Hernández missed a call like three inches off the plate!  Fire him!’  But he was ninety-six percent accurate and it was like one of four missed calls.”

Umpires crouch down roughly 200-300 plus times over the course of about two to three hours to watch something going anywhere from 80-100 mph come almost straight at them.  They then try to decide if it passes through an invisible box that changes slightly from batter to batter.  Pitching speed and movement is at an all time high level of difficulty.  Just ask hitters.  Umpires are watching the same pitches, yet their numbers are not dropping significantly like batting averages are.

“At a job that is incredibly difficult, I think that they do a fine job.”  But Singer also knows that it’s just not possible for umpires to be perfect.  “We could improve performance with an electronic strike zone.  I don’t mean to say that they are doing well, but they are doing as well as someone could possibly do, given the task that they have.”

Let’s put it this way.  The only thing better at consistently calling balls and strikes in this country than a professionally trained Major League umpire is a computer.  And even that isn’t quite perfect yet.

How Will An Electronic Strike Zone Change Baseball?

Like with Replay, the tech issues will eventually be solved.  An in-game electronic strike zone is all but inevitable. Now baseball fans – and baseball players – need to decide if the tradeoff is worth it.  And also like with Replay, there will be unforeseen changes to the game and not just when it comes to balls and strikes.  It will be interesting to see what happens when a convenient scapegoat/villain is removed from the story.

The catching landscape will likely change drastically.  The skill of pitch framing will disappear completely at a professional level.  No more stolen strikes.  Catchers like Martín Maldonado and Jose Trevino will fall by the wayside for sluggers like Will Smith. Perhaps a minor point to some fans, but in a baseball world where baseball skills are constantly augmented or even eliminated with technology, at least some consideration should go to what the complete loss of a finely honed skill does to the game.

Still, stifling advancement just because of sentiment should always be suspect.  But there are other motives at play here other than tradition or even the desire for 100% accuracy behind the plate.  In fact, there’s one huge, glaring elephant in the room that only a few people seem to be shouting about.

Up until recently, the most accurate public information about umpire metrics was found on gambling websites.  Because in all of the data science and analytics done by a bookmaker, the umpire is the most vexing variable for a sports betting institution.  Remove the umpire from the equation and the math gets much more predictable.  And the profit margins grow more predictable as well.

Major League Baseball’s 2018 partnership with MGM caused consternation with some fans, especially given the sport’s complicated history with betting.  The influence of MGM and and other sports betting sites should absolutely be called into question here.

After all, Manfred was extremely proud of the cutting-edge technology developed for Replay – not because of what it did for the game but because he was able to sell the tech to Disney for a hefty profit.  He’s so proud of that fact, it’s the third accomplishment listed in his official MLB biography.

This is not something that would (or even should) sideline the electronic strike zone completely, but considering that angle might give new motivations to a commissioner already known for putting profits over the integrity of the game.

MLB and the MLBUA

It’s hard to get a read on the relationship between Major League Baseball and its umpires right now.  As the rule enforcers, I think most fans believe the union to be in lockstep with MLB, but I’m not so sure if that’s completely true.

Certainly MLB’s relationship with women in umpire positions has been fraught with legal battles.  Ángel Hernández, love him or much more likely hate him, has filed racial discrimination suits that have helped push the profession into a more diverse era even if they didn’t exactly go in his favor.  It was only this past 2020 season that MLB finally promoted a Black and Latino umpire to the crew chief position.

Once one of the highest-paying jobs on the field, now even the best-paid umpire makes less than rookie minimum with most of them making a fraction of that rate.  Efforts to increase salary for younger, better performing umpires have been denied by MLB multiple times.  The only way for an umpire to make even somewhat close to league minimum?  Thirty plus years behind the plate.

Where We Go From Here

One day, we will see the last MLB baseball game played without an electronic strike zone.  Maybe we will know that robo umps are coming, maybe we won’t.  But I hope the work that Singer is doing will help fans see a new side to Major League umpiring before it changes forever.

No umpire is perfect. They have hard days just like everyone else.  They screw up and try to get past it, sometimes with success, sometimes without.  There are bad calls and tough outings and times when the hatred and abuse get to them and their ego.  But even on their worst day, they still get the job done.  

For a game where getting it right at the plate only 35% of the time gets you fast-tracked into the Hall of Fame, it’s almost fascinating how little grace is extended to the person behind it doing a near-impossible task at 94% accuracy.  It’s almost insane that insults, derision, and even death threats – including threats to their family – are just part of the job.

There’s an old saying that the best umpires are the ones you don’t notice.  Maybe that’s true during play, but not recognizing excellent umpiring and only deriding the less excellent has done a disservice to the profession of umpiring.  Public hatred for umpires and other officials has even caused a nation-wide crisis when it comes to high school and Little League games.  Perhaps electronic strike zone systems solve this issue, but the expensive tech will set yet another barrier between the haves and the have-nots in an already increasingly disparate sporting world for children of different socioeconomic backgrounds.  

Again, I don’t know if any of the issues mentioned here are reasons enough to stop the implementation of an electronic strike zone.  The game will always be evolving.  There will always be someone out there looking for one extra iota of speed or distance or spin.  Changes are as inevitable as gravity.  

I suppose what I’m getting at is this: You don’t have to like umpires.  You don’t have to suddenly root for them or start learning all of their names. But while we are in the twilight days of humans calling balls and strikes, take a little time to appreciate a life-long cultivated skill before it disappears forever.

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