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Angel Hernandez, Robots, & How to Solve the MLB Umpiring Problem

Angel Hernandez got 354 ball-strike calls wrong in his 31 games in 2021, more than 11 per game. Something has to give with regards to umpiring — and Boardroom has a plan to fix it.

Whenever refereeing, umpiring, replay reviews, and VAR are dragged back up to the service of our broader sports discussions, the inevitable focus turns to “getting the calls right.”

And when it comes to umpiring in Major League Baseball, simply getting the calls right is clearly not the biggest priority. If it was, we’d be watching a very different game.

So, how did we get here? Point blank, MLB umpires face relatively little accountability and the consequences for the worst offenders are generally limited to, say, being denied a plum assignment in a postseason series.

Let’s take Angel Hernandez as just one example of the broken system baseball has permitted to take hold.

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The 60-year-old Angel Hernandez has been working MLB games since 1991 and has been widely ridiculed as one of baseball’s worst arbiters for nearly as long. He hasn’t called a World Series since 2005, which is basically the only punishment baseball can dole out — the Major League Baseball Umpires Association makes firing umps next to impossible, giving duly tenured members nearly Supreme Court Justice-level job security.

Hernandez unsuccessfully sued MLB in 2017, alleging racial discrimination was keeping him from calling World Series games despite significant evidence pointing to the fact that he’s just not particularly good at his job.

His performance behind the plate in Sunday night’s nationally televised Philadelphia Phillies-Milwaukee Brewers game highlighted baseball’s umpire problem, missing 16 of the 129 called pitches. Ump Scorecards rated it the sixth-worst called game by any ump in 2022:

It all built up to a questionable called third strike against Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber, whose “colorful” reaction and ejection went viral.

To be fair, that decisive strike wasn’t actually a 100% indefensible call on its own, but few were ready to give Hernandez any benefit of the doubt following the several blunders that led up to that explosive moment.

Per Ump Scorecards, among the 15 umpires who called the most pitches behind the plate in 2021, Hernandez’s 92.7% accuracy on 4,833 pitches was the third-worst ahead of Ted Barrett’s 92.6 and Joe West’s 92.2 (and West retired after the season). So, Hernandez missed 354 pitches in his 31 games last season, more than 11 per game.

And as baseball’s system is currently constructed, there’s not much of anything we can really do about it.

Let’s propose a couple of quick and easy solutions to solve this mess once and for all.

Solution No. 1: Finally start holding umpires accountable

This should be far more simple than it is, but the Umpire Union will fight tooth and nail to protect its employees, as it should. But there are Major Leagues and Minor Leagues for players, there ought to be some system by which umpires could be brought up and sent down based on performance — and regardless of seniority.

More simply, who cannot maintain a certain threshold of accuracy shouldn’t be umpires anymore.

Just like any other job.

Should umpires be forced to retire when they reach a certain age? That’s a discriminatory workplace practice, so it’s effectively dead on arrival. But should umpires who consistently finish toward the bottom of the league in terms of call accuracy continue to work behind the plate as normal? No, they shouldn’t. And to believe otherwise is to believe that players and fans don’t deserve better.

That brings us to another question: For purists who embrace this human element of the game despite its imperfections, how many mistakes should be tolerated as simply the cost of doing business or an immutable, historic aspect of the game?

Separately, there’s another solution out there that could one day end the scourge of missed calls once and for all.

Solution No. 2: Unleash the robot umpires

It may only be a matter of time before we let robots call an automatic, consistent MLB strike zone that doesn’t vary from umpire to umpire and gets calls right 100% of the time.

The independent Atlantic League, a partner for MLB as a testing ground for new rules and innovations of sorts, used a digital Automatic Ball-Strike (ABS) system from the second half of the 2019 season through 2021. Robot umps were used in eight of the nine Low-A Southeast League ballparks last season, have been used in some Florida Spring Training parks, and are now in place in 11 Triple-A ballparks for 2022.

The system isn’t quite perfect, with complaints about bad calls on breaking balls lodged at the 2019 Arizona Fall League and the Atlantic League returning to human umpires for the 2022 season. But as the technology evolves, having a computerized system for calling balls and strikes should be the norm in Major League Baseball if it truly wants to evolve as a sport and prioritize getting calls correct.

Right now, MLB is choosing to continue to live in the past. And Schwarber’s outburst against Angel Hernandez was just one more reminder of that unfortunate fact.