Friday, May 24, 2019

MLB Fight with Hernandez Evokes 20-Year-Old Feud

In seeking umpire Angel Hernandez's e-mails with MLBUA's Phil Janssen, MLB reopened the wounds of Janssen's early-2000s firing, which led to then-WUA President John Hirschbeck's 10-game suspension for threatening a labor lawyer in the Commissioner's Office.

That lawyer's name? Rob Manfred. What a story.

MLB is seeking e-mail disclosure.
The 2002 Tale - Who is Phil Janssen?
Who knew Angel Hernandez's current lawsuit alleging systemic discrimination would lead us all the way back to the infamous 1999 collective bargaining dispute and MLB's attempt to control its umpires through a merging of the American and National League staffs?

According to Bruce Weber's As They See 'Em: A Fan's Travels in the Land of Umpires, former Major League Commissioner Fay Vincent "had been astonished by the disdainful attitude that the men who hired him, the major league club owners, expressed toward the umpires. He thought it was inexplicable and mean-spirit, not to mention wrongheaded, bad business."

Vincent resigned in 1992 after the owners voted him out and incoming Commissioner, then-Brewers owner Bud Selig, made it his mission to protect "the best interests of baseball," which, in Weber's view, "set the stage for the confrontation between umpires and baseball in 1999."

Vice called Vincent's ouster an " the coward American baseball owners," noting that Vincent's interpretation of baseball's "best interests" was different than Selig's: "The idea of an objective and neutral commissioner acting solely 'in the best interests of baseball'—something championed by Vincent and overly imaginative sportswriters—has vanished."

Fay Vincent felt umpires were treated poorly.
Politics aside, central to the discussion is Phil Janssen, a former professional baseball umpire, who earned a job with the American League in 1992 as its Coordinator of Umpire Operations and then stayed on when the AL and NL merged into a united MLB office.

Jim Joyce wrote about his time in the minor leagues with "new guy" Phil Janssen in Nobody's Perfect, co-authored by Joyce and Armando Galarraga: "Phil was cut like me, hanging on to his baseball dreams, still thinking he could play, and when we got together we kind of stoked those last few embers."

With his minor league umpiring days behind him, Janssen saw a simulator developed by former US Air Force veteran Dr. Grant E. Secrist and research partner Berl Hartman called the Situation Awareness Training System (SATS) and thought it could be modified for baseball and used to train umpires on ball/strike matters; even Commissioner Vincent before his ouster expressed interest in adapting Secrist's situational awareness program for umpire training purposes.

Wrote Webber, "If an umpire was having trouble, say, fixing the upper limit of the zone, he could watch five hundred pitches in a row just above or below the letters. If he was struggling with hard breaking balls from a left-hander, he could dial up a diet of Randy Johnson sliders. If he was going to face a knuckleballer the next day, he could insert the knuckleball CD-ROM and watch knuckleballs until he went cross-eyed."

Dr. Secrist thought his system could be to umpires what batting practice is to players: "With simulators available in every umpire locker room, umpires could see the equivalent of [a season's worth of pitches] every week." Imagine cage work without physical limitation.

Bud Selig wanted to rein in the umpires.
Based on the Vincent observation of league-wide umpire treatment, and through on-the-job knowhow, both leagues largely curtailed the use of manager evaluations of umpires in the mid-1990s, claiming in a 1998 Washington Post article they were largely worthless: "We had a hard time getting information back from managers," Janssen said. "They wouldn't send it back because they were afraid that if they wrote negatively about an umpire that their team or an individual would be punished." NL President Len Coleman called the manager evaluation system "foolhardy," divulging one such report: "It said: All the umpires did a good job this season."

In 1995, the first group of Major League umpire evaluators were chosen by league presidents (separate from a field supervisor program). The American League chose John Roseboro (former player), Billy Sample (former player and then-broadcaster), Janssen (coordinator of AL umpire supervision), and the National League chose former umpires Doug Harvey and Steve Palermo.

The aforementioned Washington Post article pointed to comments from an unhappy Joe Torre, whose Yankees had lost to Cleveland in Game 2 of the 1998 ALCS: "A blatant...terrible call," said Torre of HP Umpire Ted Hendry's interference call against New York. Torre also said Hendry's ball/strike calls "stunk." Stick a pin in the ball/strike issue for now, but comments like Torre's in a post-Vincent league would set the stage for what was to follow.

Selig's Reign Moves to Rein In Umpires
QuesTec's Pitch Trax visualization feature.
In transitioning from the AL to MLB, Janssen survived a 1999 purge put on by the Selig-led league as a campaign to "rein in umps," when MLB terminated National League Executive Director of Umpires Paul Runge, NL evaluators Jim Quick and Harry Wendelstedt, and the AL's Don Denkinger. Active umpire Jerry Crawford had called the event "another sad day for baseball."

Nonetheless, former big league umpire Marty Springstead and NL umpire supervisor Tom Lepperd survived the purge alongside Janssen, and moved into the new MLB umpiring department.

In publicizing a plan to eliminate the AL and NL offices, Selig's office complained that having former umpires evaluate current umpires "hasn't worked," meaning that in the minds of league brass over a 10-year period, both the manager-centric and the former umpire-centric evaluation systems hadn't worked. Something new would have to be developed.

Perhaps key to his AL-to-MLB survival, Janssen had a magic rabbit based on the Secrist simulator: Springstead came on board and similarly championed the idea, though the Secrist simulator itself gained little traction with executives.
We're not even talking about tech failure.

Secrist noted: "The NL and AL presidents have shown little interest in the field test findings...MLB continues to use haphazardly developed umpire performance evaluation tools."

Enter QuesTec. Unlike the Secrist program, QuesTec wasn't a simulator one could step into—in that sense, it was a less "hands on" trainer and more of a SATS-lite application: an iPhone app for piloting the space shuttle.

It wasn't cheaper per se—Weber wrote that Secrist was willing to give baseball his system, which he branded SilverStrike, for free as part of the implementation of his training and evaluation program.

Secrist stated his disdain for how QuesTec was developed without umpire participation in a July 2002 analysis he sent to the WUA entitled, "Mismanagement of Professional Umpires."

MLB didn't appear all that interested in a comprehensive training program for umpires, which Janssen confirmed with ESPN in mid-2012 about the QuesTec saga, recalling that MLB executives Sandy Alderson and Ralph Nelson—both of whom Commisioner Selig brought into the league to oversee umpiring in response to the Selig Commissioner's Office's complaint that umpires shouldn't oversee umpires—were more interested in using technology not to train, but, primarily, to rate ball/strike calls and rank umpires.

Missed Opportunity - MLB Chooses Rating and Broadcast Visualization over Training
QuesTec effectively replaced the unadapted Secrist simulator in more ways than one: In name alone, MLB chose QuesTec, obviously, but in purpose and practice, allowing umpires to train by simulating the experience of calling virtual pitches fell by the wayside and, in its place, a stats-based "you scored X percent" results-driven program was born.

K-Zone was not designed to be a RoboUmp.
Forget the idea of watching 100 sliders at the upper-outside corner in pre-game warmups—it was all about the 10 such pitches that occurred in the game the umpire just finished officiating...and how many of those 10 were correctly called.

For fans, it was even less organized: As QuesTec began to fail as a company—QSTI stock had fallen to a near-zero value by 2003—and MLB contracted with SportVision and its Pitch f/x system, which eventually gave rise to the in-house StatCast/TrackMan program and PitchCast application for broadcast, the league became even more secretive about its operation, all while sharing visualization data with networks such as ESPN (K-Zone) and Fox Sports (FoxTrax), without providing much context for how to interpret the PitchCast visuals.

Visual: FiveThirtyEight estimated error.
For instance, whereas SportVision estimated its error rate at approximately one inch, MLB hasn't actively distributed a public-facing disclaimer since taking the program in-house. For reference, Sports Illusrated in 2017 wrote that TrackMan's margin-of-error was approximately 1.7-inches in all directions.

As Dylan Yep of UmpireAuditor said, "The current pitch-tracking technology was not actually designed to be a robot umpire, it was designed for broadcast."

Curt Schilling in a roundabout way summed up the problem with using the scaffolding ball/strike computer and QuesTec Umpire Evaluation System to rank umpires, rather than a training-first approach: "It's about consistency and this device has made umps incredibly inconsistent." By preventing umpires from getting a consistent look at a certain type of pitch (say, a Schilling breaking ball), the umpires didn't have the tools to gain experience at a pace they would have gained had baseball adopted and adapted the Secrist SATS simulator for its umpires.

Back in 2002, when faced with the Secrist simulator vs. QuesTec issue, and Janssen's lament that the tool should be used for trailing, not rating, MLB terminated Janssen's employment.

Hirschbeck drew a suspension in 2003.
Janssen would later comment about QuesTec in a technology conference held by National Labor Relations Board—billed as a discussion on shredded documents, a whistle-blower, and potential federal investigation—"They’ve got physical numbers on a piece of paper. It’s about control, manipulation, and coercion."

Then-WUA President John Hirschbeck took issue with MLB's decision to fire Janssen, and wound up with a 10-day suspension in 2003 for allegedly threatening labor lawyer Rob Manfred (and MLB wonders why the umpires started a white wristband protest in response to MLB's decision to dole out a zero-game suspension for a player's on-field and post-game umpire abuse...).
Related PostToken Gesture - Kinsler Fined $10k, .09% of $11m Salary (8/21/17).

Back to the Present - MLB Seeks E-mails
In a May 23, 2019 filing, Major League Baseball petitioned the court to force Angel Hernandez to produce e-mails with the union Hernandez has asserted are confidential and privileged, including a transcript of the videotaped deposition of Angel Hernandez from April as an attachment to its request, providing the portion of the deposition MLB believes is relevant and justifies its request.

The Omni Hotel sits just outside the ballpark.
The Deposition - MLB's Union Questions
The Office of the Commissioner of Baseball and Major League Baseball Blue (the defendants in plaintiff Hernandez's lawsuit) took a videotaped deposition of Hernandez on April 26, 2019 at The Omni Hotel at The Battery Atlanta.

As part of this deposition, the defense asked if Hernandez had ever spoken to the union "in the official capacity as your collective bargaining representative" about the failure to be chosen as a crew chief. Hernandez stated he spoke with MLBUA Secretary Phil Janssen, the same Phil Janssen whose dismissal from MLB led to Hirschbeck's 2003 suspension for making purportedly threatening comments to Manfred.

Hernandez's attorney chimed in that the content of his conversation with the union is not discoverable, is privileged, and objected to a series of related questions on the matter of Hernandez's communications with MLBUA regarding the crew chief and World Series complaints, to which the defense responded with an intention to "seek direction on that" at a later time.

The Communications/E-mails at Issue
MLB submitted a list of communications from 2006 through 2018, asking Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein to order Hernandez's team to submit the documents. Hernandez's counsel previously declined to produce the communications, citing a "union relations privilege" that MLB says does not factually and/or legally exist.

MLB cited the following e-mails, writing that Hernandez claimed solely Union-Relations Privilege:
> A September 12, 2016 e-mail from Hernandez to Janssen regarding his disagreement with and response to a preceding SURE (Supervisor Umpire Review and Evaluation) report.
> A May 19, 2017 from Hernandez to Janssen, cc: Joe West, regarding an umpire position issue in steal situations.
The white wristband protest is one e-mail

SIDEBAR: If you watch MLB games from the past decade, you'll notice a gradual shift in second base umpire positioning with a runner on first base. Whereas a nearly-universal position placed the 2B Umpire inside for the stolen base attempt in earlier years, a handful of umpires have recently adopted a position outside for these plays.

The attachment also indicates an assertion of Union-Relations, in addition to Attorney-Client, Privilege in the following situations; the letter from MLB's counsel to the court seeks to invalidate the Union-Relations Privilege, but does not actively seek to challenge the Attorney-Client element:
> A March 31, 2017 e-mail from Hernandez to his attorney Murphy re: Union/WBC issues.
> An August 29, 2017 e-mail from Hernandez to Murphy re: the white wristband protest.*
> A June 16, 2018 e-mail from lawyer Purtell to WUA/Hernandez re: FOX broadcast of audio from an umpire's microphone.^

*Umpires engaged in a white wristband protest on August 19, 2017, with the World Umpires Association releasing a statement after MLB refused to seriously discipline Ian Kinsler for post-game comments following an ejection by Angel Hernandez; our Related Post announcing the wristband protest contains a detailed chronology of umpire abuse and related issues in baseball. The umpire suspended their protest one day later, and eventually rebranded as the MLB Umpires Association (MLBUA) in August 2018.
Related PostWUA-MLB Relations Deteriorate with New Umpire Protest (8/19/17).
Related PostWUA Secures Commissioner Meeting, Suspends Protest (8/20/17).
Related PostWUA Rebrands as MLB Umpires Launch MLBUA (8/13/18).

^The infamous Tom Hallion "ass in the jackpot" leaked video found its way onto the internet in October 2017, and finally went viral in June 2018, prior to Purtell's e-mail to WUA.
Related PostRevisiting the Situation - Tom Hallion & Terry Collins (6/13/18).

The US District Court will decide the matter in an upcoming hearing.


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