Diary of a long suffering Pirates' fan: Stinky Umpire Syndrome. Yes, it's a thing. And it needs to end.

Luckily, the technology exists to end Stinky Umpire Syndrome for good. Will MLB adopt it?
Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals
Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals / Jess Rapfogel/GettyImages

Pete Rose once told a story about former Pittsburgh Pirates catcher, Manny Sanguillen.  “Sanguillen,” he said, “stunk.  Not as a player,” he clarified. “He was a terrific player,” he said.  “But in body odor.  He stunk. I swear, before he would play us, he must not have showered for days and must have eaten bean burritos for a pre-game meal.  He would be sitting behind the plate, ripping off farts and giving off this awful body odor that just got worse as the game went on. One time I went up to bat to lead off the game.  As customary, I said hello to the home plate umpire, “Hey, how you doing?”  And the home plate umpire looked at me and pointed at Sanguillen and said, “Pete, today everything is a strike.”  And then I looked at Sanguillen, and he’s sitting back there just smiling.”

While Sanguillen, in the above story, is said to be the one that stinks, in truth, it was the Homeplate umpire that stunk.  It was the Homeplate umpire that was going to let a catcher’s body odor influence his balls and strikes calling for that game.

When my daughter was playing softball, I relayed the story of Pete Rose and the stinky catcher.  I used it as an example of why, when you have two strikes on you, you have to swing at anything close.  Otherwise, an impatient umpire who wants to hurry the game along might call strike three on you on a pitch that is actually a ball.  Our inside joke was that this situation should be referred to as “stinky catcher syndrome.”  Of course, what it really should have been called is: “stinky umpire syndrome.”

I mention this story because in the midst of this 5-game losing streak of the Pirates, umpiring has played a part in some of the losses.  Bad umpiring that is.  Specifically, pitches thrown by Pirates pitchers that should have been called strikes were not. Perhaps the most egregious example occurred in the first inning of Saturday’s game against the RedSox. Mitch Keller ended up walking Triston Casas despite the stat cast strike zone square showing that 3 of the four pitches called balls were actually strikes, including the 3-2 pitch that was called ball four instead of strike three.

Unlike Aroldis Chapman, who blew a gasket over a similar situation in the first game of the losing streak against the Mets, Mitch Keller was able to keep it together and get through that first inning albeit with a 2-0 deficit. The walk awarded to Casas, instead of a strikeout, allowed the RedSox an extra out in the inning and moved the runner at first, Rob Refsnyder, into scoring position where he would later score in the inning on a ground out that was then only the second out of the inning instead of the third.

Later in the same game, manager Derek Shelton was ejected for arguing a strike three call on a pitch clock violation by Michael Taylor, who allegedly was not in the batter’s box at the appointed time.  The replay showed that he was in the box.

So, summing it up.  On the current five-game losing streak, we have had one manager ejection and one player ejection. The player, Aroldis Chapman, also received a two-game suspension for his outburst.  All of this is a result of incorrect umpire calls.

This leads to the question “why, when there is now technology to get the balls and strikes calls correct, are we still relying on the fallibility of umpires to make these calls?”

At the AAA level of the minor leagues, baseball is experimenting with different versions of the automated balls and strikes system. On games played Tuesday through Thursday, the calls are automated.  That is, there is a computer that makes the ball/strike call. There is still a Homeplate umpire.  But the umpire receives the correct call from the computer in a receiver and then the umpire relays that call to all.  It is instantaneous.  And does not slow down the game.

On Friday thru Sunday, the AAA games go to a challenge system.  In the challenge system, the Homeplate umpire calls the balls and strikes just like they have always done, but each team is given three challenges, which they can use at any time, to challenge the ball or strike call by the umpire.  For pitchers, they just have to tap the bill of their hat to indicate that they are challenging the call of the previous pitch. It is then sent upstairs for a review by the automated system, and the call is overturned if the umpire got it wrong. Batters can also challenge a called strike.  In both instances, if the challenge is successful, the team retains its challenge.  If the challenge is not correct, the team loses one of its three challenges.

Baseball purists and the umpire unions are not fans of the automated balls and strike system.  To purists, the art of “working the umpire” is part of the game.  Umpires, for their part, are concerned that they may be replaced by computers.  This is perhaps a legitimate concern. But, as AAA proves, a home plate umpire is still needed to call swinging strikes.  And of course, the umpire is still needed to call safe or out if there is a play at the plate.  And, for now, they are needed to relay the call to the computer. The system is in its second year of use, and no umpires have yet lost their job because of it.

The automated balls and strike system was in place last year at AAA.  The results, according to Stat Cast, is that the number of runs per game per team increased from 4.98 to 5.50.  The number of walks per game per team increased from 4.0 to 4.8.  The number of hits per game per team increased from 8.7 to 9.8.  And in what is somewhat counterintuitive, the number of strikeouts per game per team remained flat.

But let’s get back to this “working the umpire,” argument.  I am surprised when Pirates fans who are purists make this argument.  They make it sound like there is a competitive advantage to be had by the Pirates to keep things the same.  While I don’t have any empirical data to back this up, I would argue that the current system hurts the Pirates more than it helps.  When it comes to “working the umpires,” it is typically the established stars that get the favorable calls from the umpires. 

And since the Pirates typically have fewer established stars than their opponents, the number of calls that go against the Pirates seems above average.  Now, I’m sure every fan base feels the same way about their team not getting calls.  But, as a way of example, I would posit that a pitch thrown by Justin Verlander that just misses the corner of the plate has a much better chance of being called a strike than does a similar pitch thrown by say, Bailey Falter or Ryder Ryan.  Similarly, when Juan Soto does not swing at that pitch on the outside corner, it is more likely to be called a ball; whereas, if Alika Williams doesn’t swing at such a pitch, there is a greater chance that it will be called a strike.

And then finally there is this.  If this technology had been around in 1992, it would have been the Pirates and not the Braves that would have gone to the 1992 World Series. 

The Francisco Cabrera single would have never happened if umpire Randy Marsh had not allowed Damon Berryhill to walk earlier in the fateful 9th inning on pitches that instant replay—even before statcast—showed were clearly strikes.  It was the Berryhill walk that put the eventual winning run in scoring position and gave the Braves the extra out that allowed Cabrera to come to the plate.

But for me, it’s about accuracy.  According to Statcast, umpires are correctly calling 92.4% of pitches that are not swung at.  But the 7.6% that they are not getting correct, can and have impacted the outcome of games.  Interestingly, umpiring in the pitch-tracking era has been getting better.  When the technology was first introduced in 2008, it was found that umpires were getting the calls correct only 81.3 percent of the time.  That number has now increased to 92.4% is a testament to MLB and the umpire union's efforts to improve their skills in this very important part of the game.

But while umpiring has improved, so too has pitching.  And today’s pitchers live on the corners and at the lowest levels of the strike zones.  Anybody can correctly call a pitch a ball that sails a foot outside of the strike zone.  And just about anybody can call a pitch that goes right down the middle of the plate a strike.  But that’s not where the majority of pitches go these days.  They go to the corners of the plate.  And they are coming in at speeds and spin rates that most pitchers of yesteryear could only dream of throwing. The umpire has only a split second to make the ball or strike call.  Errors will be made.  Since the technology exists, why not use it to make sure it is correct?

And to make sure that Alika Williams gets the same call as Juan Soto and to make sure that Bailey Falter gets the same call as Justin Verlander. 

It’s time for MLB to go to either the full automated balls and strike system or to adopt the challenge system.  It is needed once and for all to put an end to “stinky umpire syndrome.”