Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Latin Ejection Lesson - Stay with the Pitch

A Serie Latinoamericana ejection that preceded Los Caimanes de Barranquilla (Colombia)'s comeback victory over Argentina's Falcones de Cordoba reminds us all to stick with the pitch and batter's strike zone as well. With one out and none on in the bottom of the 8th inning, Colombia batter Robinson Cabrera took a 1-2 pitch from Argentina pitcher Carlos Parra for a called third strike, Cabrera tagged out by catcher Omar Prieto after the uncaught third strike while arguing the call, having been ejected for spiking his helmet in protest. Shortly thereafter, Cabrera was joined by his manager and two base coaches in arguing with the home plate umpire. At the time of the ejection, Argentina was leading, 4-3. Colombia ultimately won the contest, 5-4.

With replays indicating Cabrera greatly reduced his stance height as the pitch crossed the plate (the pitch was above the hollow of the knee as it traversed the strike zone [see accompanying image with superimposed pitch trajectory]), let this Latin America ejection be a simple reminder to all: a batter dropping down to meet a perceivably low pitch increases the risk that the baseball will wind up at or above the knees, while an umpire must remain vigilant throughout the entire pitch in order to judge its location relative to the batter.

In the major leagues, HP Umpire Tim Timmons' 2013 ejection of Red Sox DH David Ortiz illustrates a similar principle (and another problem with the computerized zone on the vertical axis, but I digress). As Orioles pitcher Jairo Asencio delivered a 3-0 pitch to Ortiz, Big Papi gave up on the pitch, stood upright, and backed away from home plate as the baseball passed through. By maneuvering in this manner, Ortiz effectively increased the height of his strike zone, such that Asencio's pitch, which may have otherwise been too high had Ortiz remained in his stance, crossed home plate at the height of the standing Ortiz's belt (indicated by the graphic's red line). Timmons thus ruled the pitch a strike, Ortiz argued, ultimately struck out, and destroyed a Camden Yards dugout phone in anger, culminating in a most predictable ejection from MLB's then-biggest hothead player.
Related PostMLB Ejection 105: Tim Timmons (5; David Ortiz) (7/28/13).
Related PostDetermining The League's Biggest Hothead (It's Big Papi) (6/11/15).

We recall that the vertical strike zone falls between "a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap."

It is determined from "the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball."

There is debate as to what this actually means, as in when exactly *the moment* occurs when the stance height shall be taken—or if it remains variable throughout the entire pitch sequence up until the pitch's arrival at home plate.

As far as the spirit and history of the rule is concerned, consider that in 1963, the strike zone's time-of-capture was changed from the preceding, "when [the batter] assumes his natural stance" to "The umpire shall determine the Strike Zone according to the batter's usual stance when he swings at a pitch." In 1988, we arrived at the modern "prepared to swing at a pitched ball" phrasing (1988 also changed the upper boundary of the zone, or as NL umpire supervisor Ed Vargo once said, "the nipple line, but they didn't want to put 'nipple line' in the rule book"). In 1996, the zone's lower limit moved from the top of the knees to the bottom (hollow) of the knees.

The effective natural-stance to prepared-to-swing change is rather rudimentary.

Natural Stance (Obsolete/Old Rule): A batter's "natural stance" is generally a consistent crouch regardless of the pitch and requires the umpire to calculate where this "natural stance" exists for each pitch, regardless of where the batter physically stands when the baseball gets to home plate. For example, a batter squaring to bunt rarely is in "his natural stance," which could theoretically make pitch-calling complicated (and somewhat nonsensical). The "natural stance" principle is used in most modern computerized pitch tracking applications (which is another reason why the computers are deficient). Finally, 1969's "as he swings"—which serves as the basis for capture (implicitly, this means the umpire should judge the zone as the pitch is actually crossing home plate)—has one glaring error: the batter can't possibly swing at any callable pitches, for by swinging, the pitches are no longer callable (e.g., a swing takes away the ball vs. called strike judgment call).

Prepared to Swing (Modern Rule): By removing the "natural stance" and "as he swings" terminology, the umpire is now free to call the strike zone relative to the batter's actual physical position as the pitch arrives, with no implication of an actual swing (though, again, this complicates bunt attempts and situations, like Ortiz's, when the batter gives up on the pitch). Both "natural stance" and "prepared to swing" are designed to prevent batters from doing things like deliberately ducking to the ground in order to minimize their strike zone height, but only "prepared to swing" allows the umpire to make modifications on the fly that may deviate from the static image conjured up by a "natural stance."

Conclusion: Umpires should bear in mind that a strike zone's lower and upper limits are never truly finalized until the pitch arrives at home plate. Common sense and fair play principles should dictate how to adjudicate the strike zone when the batter is on the move, with greater consideration reserved for ensuring the batter isn't trying to "game" the system by deliberately ducking or jumping away from a pitch that would otherwise be ruled a strike.

Wrap: Argentina vs. Colombia (Serie Latinoamericana), 1/28/19 | Video as follows:

Monday, January 28, 2019

Triple-A Call-Up and Fill-In Results - 2018-19 Offseason

As we prepare for the upcoming 2019 season, we take a look at the Triple-A call-up and fill-in outlook following 2018 and the Arizona Fall League. As this is a contract year for the MLB Umpires Association (MLBUA), we don't expect much in the way of staff umpire retirements or changes, but MiLB might still do some minor shuffling. The following is a look at the 2018 call-ups heading into 2019.

Note that 2018 call-up numbers were elevated due to greater MLBU games lost due to staff injury/DL (most notably, Mike Everitt and Dana DeMuth). In 2018, MiLB call-ups handled 1,471 out of 9,720 (15.1%) MLB assignments, compared to 1,062 out of 9,720 (10.9%) in 2017, an increase of 409 assignments.

*New: The Fill-In Outlook for 2019 follows our midseason review from June 2018 and is part of our Umpire Scouting series for the upcoming draft. Stay tuned for instructions regarding league registration and to sign up for the 2019 Umpire Ejection Fantasy League season.
Related PostTriple-A Call-Up Progress - June 2018 (6/21/18).

Tier 1 - Most Likely to be Hired (upon MLBU vacancy)
Chris Segal, Nic Lentz, Ryan Blakney, Chad Whitson - Segal, especially, is running toward a Drake/Guccione situation in surpassing the 500-games threshold with no MLB job available due to a lack of vacancies. If he stays the course in 2019, expect a promotion to staff in 2020. Lentz is 2016's Blakney with a spike in game assignments; it'll surely decrease in 2019 and likely follow Blakney's pattern of consistent-yet-manageable work, having proven his workhorse capability. Whitson's prospects look solid for a potential mass-hire situation following the impending ratification of a new CBA, assuming MLBU retirements follow.

Tier 2 - Good Progress So Far
Ben May, Sean Barber, Nick Mahrley - May has slowly but steadily increased his MLB exposure while Barber had a resurgence of sorts in 2018. Mahrley in his sophomore season doubled his workload, not bad for an umpire who didn't appear in the bigs until the second half of 2017.

Tier 2.5 - The Rookies
Jansen Visconti, Jeremie Rehak - Visconti and Rehak, both 2018 AFL invitees, impressed in their debut seasons. The newest umpires ordinarily are relegated to Tier 3, but these two kept succeeding in the spotlight at an elevated rate.
Related Post2018 Arizona Fall League Umpire Roster (10/1/18).

Tier 3 - Watch and Wait
Tom Woodring, Ramon De Jesus, Ryan Additon, Roberto Ortiz, John Libka, Shane Livensparger - Woodring is the veteran and leader of this tier, but how long will he wait? De Jesus is in a middle-pack predicament while Additon has received interesting treatment from the league, having officiated his first game of 2018 in June and vaulting to 74 assignments to close out the year. Ortiz and Libka are in wait-and-see territory while Livensparger for whatever reason is the only umpire with less than 50 games in each of his first two call-up years since Whitson in 2014-15.

Click the column headers to sort by that metric.

Rk (2018)Rk (Total)Umpire20182017201620152014Total Gms
16Lentz, Nic149109105363
21Segal, Chris14112421116111513
27Whitson, Chad1411245287332
42Blakney, Ryan12611914288
53May, Ben113104698830404
64Barber, Sean10967675892393
711Visconti, Jansen108

813Rehak, Jeremie98

98DeJesus, Ramon829781

105Woodring, Tom811073654102380
1111Mahrley, Nick7731
1210Additon, Ryan7455129
139Ortiz, Roberto68668142
1415Libka, John581977
1514Livensparger, Shane464086

**1471 of the 9720 (15.1%) umpire assignments in MLB games in 2018 (2430 regular season games) were handled by AAA call-ups.
**In 2017, 1062 of the 9720 umpire assignments (10.9%) were handled by Minor Leaguers.

Legend: Rk (2018) and Rk (Total) refer to the umpire's rank of MLB games assigned in 2018 and all-time, respectively.