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MLB Umpires Association Emerges From Cave To Correct The Record

An angry umpire.
Norm Hall/Getty Images

The Major League Baseball Umpires Association released a statement Wednesday night pushing back on some of the recent criticism officials have faced over enforcement of baseball’s home-plate collision rule. Jesse Rogers of ESPN, who obtained and first reported the statement, says the replay review process has already overturned eight plays at the plate this season, the most in a year since 2014, when the current rule was first made subject to challenge. A solid majority of the rulings this season have drawn impassioned objections, including Rocco Baldelli’s cranial eruption on August 7 and Austin Hedges’s scolding monologue Tuesday night. Umpires have apparently had their fill of abuse, and used their statement Wednesday to remind players how exactly it is that rules like the one everyone is complaining about make their way onto the books in the first place.

First, about that rule: Rule 6.01(i) governs collisions at the plate, and is designed expressly to protect players from the painful and gruesome and sometimes career-altering injuries that can be caused by a runner barreling full-speed into a catcher who is standing between him and the plate. As you would therefore expect, its first concern is with the behavior of the runner: 6.01(i)(1) prohibits a runner from initiating an avoidable collision, and defines “avoidable” broadly enough that pretty much anything other than a slide for the plate is off-limits. But you can’t tell a runner that colliding with a catcher is prohibited without also telling a catcher that he has to make room for a runner to do anything else. Rule 6.01(i)(2) says that a tag is a valid barrier for a runner hoping to score a run, but that the mass of an armored-up catcher is not. In the same way that a first-baseman cannot physically block a runner from returning to the bag while receiving a pickoff throw, a catcher cannot physically block a runner from accessing the plate while receiving a throw home.

Whatever you think of this rule—and it seems clear that Austin Hedges, at least, hates it a lot—there are three inarguable things that can be said for it. First, and perhaps least compelling, is that it treats home plate the same way that the rules and spirit of the game treat the three other bases, for better or worse. Home plate is different, of course, because it’s the one that awards a run, which explains why, as Austin Hedges pointed out, for more than a century baseball has allowed close plays at the plate to be settled via violent collisions. But it cannot be said that 6.01(i)(2) warps baseball by creating a special rule for home plate, because it in fact does the opposite: It formalizes that home plate should be treated the same way as all the other bases. Second, to the extent that the game is played according to the rules, Rule 6.01(i)(2) should succeed at protecting players from injury, where allowing them to smash into each other would not. You are not allowed to argue this point, for it is simply a fact that avoiding collisions is better for your health than initiating them.

Third—and the part that is most central to the defense mounted by fed-up umpires Wednesday night—Rule 6.01(i)(2) is only on the books at all because players and owners negotiated it and adopted it back in 2014, and indeed announced it as the joint work of MLB and the Players Association. “This rule change was adopted after Buster Posey was involved in a home plate collision and suffered a severe leg injury,” explains the MLBUA statement, per ESPN. “The Players Association and the owners decided to protect their key assets (players) and adopted the home plate collision rule that players are now complaining about.” Maybe the rule sucks; maybe it has made baseball worse; maybe each time it is enforced it puts a stain on the national pastime. If that is the consensus, MLB’s umpires have proposed a solution: “It’s simple: don’t block home plate without possession of the baseball, or change the rule.”

The statement goes on to address the central point made by Hedges Tuesday night, that umpires do not face the same accountability that players and managers face for their mistakes:

“It is also inaccurate to say that Major League Baseball umpires are not held accountable. It is often said of our profession that ‘umpires are expected to be perfect from the start and to get better from there.’

“Like players, our mistakes are subject to intense public scrutiny and we are also held accountable by our employer in performance evaluations. Although we don’t always know in real time if our calls are correct, we review them closely following the game and try to learn from any mistakes.”

ESPN

The league’s process for managing the performance of umpires has always been annoyingly opaque, and has only gotten more frustrating as technological advances make it easier for a layperson to track and assess this stuff from the comfort of their laptop. Every brutal Angel Hernandez performance reinforces the reasonable impression that making more of the game subject to the interpretations of officials is a bad idea, if for no other reason than the officials in place are a bunch of clowns.

This is baseball’s human element, which for plenty of baseball fans is a feature and not a bug. But it’s also entirely possible that umpire performance is getting worse over time: Baseball is faster and spinnier and more optimized than ever, and the same human limitations that make it harder for a modern hitter to command the strike zone against triple-digit sinkers would naturally make it harder for a middle-aged non-athlete to enforce a coherent one. As the game is played further out on the extremes, and as the expectations for the results those extremes are intended to produce become more and more precision-tuned, the fallibility of the slow-footed mortals in chest protectors assigned to keep it all in order becomes harder to bear. You can be the best in the world at officiating a professional baseball game—and MLB’s umpires, as a group, almost certainly are, whether you like it or not—and still leave your fingerprints in all kinds of regrettable places. That it is insanely hard for the human eye to make sense of balls thrown with physical properties at the limit of what should be humanly possible does not make it any easier for a viewer or player to accept shit like this:

In light of all this, and since we’re on the topic of public scrutiny, it’s a little bit funny to me how the MLBUA for the most part maintains a condition of near total silence, except for those very rare occasions every few years when some new controversy yanks them out of their cave. ESPN appears to be the only publication to have reported the MLBUA statement, indicating it likely came via old-fashioned reporting, rather than the MLBUA getting together and issuing a formal press release. Their own platforms are all functionally dead: The Umpires Association’s Twitter account hasn’t tweeted since June 2021; they haven’t used their Facebook page since 2019; the URL for their website leads nowhere. Their phone number, taken from IRS records and the MLB media guide, leads to a spooky automated voicemail that provides no identifying information. The address provided in the media guide is for a P.O. Box in Neenah, Wisconsin, which matches the last filing the MLBUA made as a 501(c)(3) organization, back in 2019. Also their listed email is a Gmail address. What’s going on over there? Right now it’s not even super clear the MLBUA exists in any meaningful sense, except as a letterhead for angry missives fired off to a shrinking pool of baseball reporters.

Notwithstanding the possibility that the MLBUA exists in name only, and principally so that the umpires can give their occasional rebuke the veneer of collective action, the statement Wednesday is a helpful reminder that however much umpires might drive you crazy, they don’t make the rules. And that the rules they’re tasked with enforcing will not always produce satisfying outcomes. And that umpires will only take so much criticism before reminding baseball’s principles who exactly made the bed they are now sleeping in.

Know anything about the Major League Baseball Umpires Association? Or perhaps you are the head of the Major League Baseball Umpires Association, or otherwise have access to the MLBUA voicemail and/or email? If so, please check your voicemail and also your email, and reach out to chris.thompson@defector.com or tips@defector.com.

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