Judging the Judges: Assessing MLB Umpires

Baseball Umpires have been a key part of the game for 150 years, but is it time for change?

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Major League Baseball is the oldest professional sports league in the U.S., its first game having been played in 1876. It is rich in history and tradition, as the game has remained mostly unchanged. Umpires, the baseball equivalent of referees, have been one such constant, starting with Willie McLean, the first professional umpire. At the time, there was only one umpire per game, who would judge balls and strikes. Since then, umpires’ authority has grown; they are now a group of four responsible for calling balls and strikes, foul balls, outs on the bases and the field, and determining whether home runs have left the playing field while simultaneously controlling the pitch clock under the MLB’s new rules. 

Until recently, the umpires’ rule remained unchallenged, as no technology was available to question their calls. They became the kings of the field without any fear of repercussions. This allowed them to develop large egos and make many severe mistakes. Famous incidents of such mistakes include Jim Joyce’s obvious blown call during Armando Gallaragas’s perfect game in 2010 and Eric Gregg’s horrible strike zone in the 1997 NLCS. In recent times, umpires’ authority has been questioned due to horrible performances by umpires like Hunter Wendelstedt and Angel Hernandez. Luckily, over the past 15 years, the MLB has instituted better technology, including a video review system, which allows teams to challenge decisions by the umpires.

Nevertheless, poor, egotistical umps have remained in the game. Despite their clear mismanagement of the game, they have been protected by the MLB’s Umpires Association (MLBUA) and are allowed to continue umpiring. Besides missing out on the minor pay raises given to top-tier umpires, there are no repercussions for bad ones. This year, umpiring has been worse than ever. In 2024, managers have been winning manager challenges 53.5 percent of the time, and umpires have made a record 7.5 percent bad calls in the zone (a bad call is defined as a ball being called a strike or vice-versa). There have also been many umpire-related incidents, such as Wendelstedt ejecting Yankees manager Aaron Boone because he thought Boone was heckling him. When the manager vehemently denied the allegations, Wendelstedt replied, “I don’t care who said it, you’re gone!” Upon video review, it became clear that it was a fan who was yelling and that Boone hadn’t said anything. 

Another notoriously bad umpire is Hernandez. While his overall stats only put him in the bottom 50 percent of MLB umpires, he has built up an array of badly missed calls that have made his name synonymous with bad umpiring. In a 2022 game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers, Phillies outfielder Kyle Schwarber went on an epic rant about Hernandez’s horrible strike zone. Schwarber gestured that Hernandez had been missing calls all night long—high, low, inside, outside—for both teams. The calling was so atrocious that even the opposing pitcher supported Schwarber. Ironically enough, when Hernandez attempted to sue MLB for not assigning him to umpire World Series games due to alleged racial discrimination, it was revealed that he was simply rejected for being bad at his job.

Some players also agree that umpires need to be held accountable for their actions. “Let the electronic strike zone rank the umpires. We need to have a conversation about the bottom—let’s call it 10 percent—whatever you want to declare the bottom is, and talk about relegating those umpires to the minor leagues,” Texas Rangers pitcher Max Scherzer said. The main reason this kind of system has not been implemented for umpires is because of the power the umpire association holds. Typically, the association is responsible for punishing and protecting umpires to a certain extent. However, rather than holding their members accountable, they make it nearly impossible for MLB to fire or demote umpires who are part of the MLBUA, even if they display clear incompetence. If a player were to perform badly in the Major Leagues, they would likely be demoted or removed from the roster. This same standard is not extended to umpires, even if they consistently show bad results.

While bad umpires exist far and wide throughout MLB, some exceptional umpires consistently deliver quality games. In the 2022 World Series, Pat Hoberg called the umpire equivalent of a “perfect game,” calling every strike and ball accurately while under immense pressure. Umpire Scorecards, an online platform dedicated to reporting the stats of MLB umpires, also reports that he was their number-one ranked umpire in 2022 with an accuracy of 95.5 percent. While umpires with terrible track records get most of the attention, exceptional umpires bring the least attention to themselves and often get little recognition. 

Luckily, progress seems to be on the way. There is currently an automated ball-strike challenge system being tested in the Minor Leagues, which allows managers to challenge up to three calls per game, similar to basketball or football. Some fans are pushing even further, advocating for a fully automated system that would entirely replace umpires and avoid any mistakes. Others argue that eliminating human umpires would tarnish the history of the game. This widespread debate has prevented the immediate implementation of automatic umpires. However, even if these robo-umps cannot be implemented in MLB, there should be no justification for poor calls. A challenge system, like the one currently being tested in the Minor Leagues, would be a significant step toward reaching a solution. Furthermore, as Scherzer proposed, a ranking system for umpires based on accuracy and consistency can hold umpires accountable and make them more conscious of the decisions they make. In doing so, MLB can maintain both umpire quality and tradition.