Are the umpires really getting worse?

If there’s one thing we know about professional baseball players, it’s that as long as there are umpires, the players will complain about them. Sometimes with good cause, but often with little real evidence on their side. Or at least when they start generalizing about the umpiring.

Here’s a terrific case in point, from Buster Olney last weekend:

The private griping from hitters about the strike zone this year probably approaches what I remember hearing in the 1990s from batters about the zone called for Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. The feeling now, as it was then, is that pitchers are getting too much of an east-west zone called, inside and outside. Beyond the issue of whether the pitches are actually strikes, what bothers hitters is that they feel they are effectively defenseless against some of the pitches called strikes, because they cannot reach them.

Matt Carpenter got thrown out in the fifth inning for arguing balls and strikes, and you can see it here. Carpenter has reason to be frustrated: 14.1 percent of the pitches he has taken out of the strike zone have been called strikes, the highest rate in the majors.

Overall this season, he has had 129 pitches out of the zone called for a strike, also most in the majors (including that 0-2 pitch in the fifth).

Why would Carpenter of all players have the highest percentage of pitches outside the strike zone called strikes? It’s hard to figure, and I won’t trouble you with my half-assed theories. Although I’d love to hear yours.

It’s not hard to understand Carpenter’s frustration, though, considering his season-long issues and his 0-for-16 skid before that strikeout. Which he pretty obviously didn’t deserve.

Here’s Carpenter after the game, from Rick Hummel’s game story:

Carpenter said he didn’€™t say anything remotely offensive but he did make his point. "€œI let him know how unhappy I was with the call and I stand by it. It was nowhere near the strike zone,"€ he said.

"€œIt was an 0-2 pitch at a crucial point in the game and neither the pitcher nor the catcher wanted it anywhere near the plate. It was to set up the next pitch. And he called it a strike.

"€œIt probably was the worst strike I’™ve ever had called against me. I’€™m sure he wasn€’t happy with me screaming at him and pointing at him. But, in that crucial point, you just can€’t have it.

"€œI’€™m not going to go into detail about his strike zone but that particular pitch was what cost me the right to play the rest of the game."

Technically, what cost Carpenter the right to play the rest of the game was Carpenter’s petulance. However well-earned it was. And yeah, umpire Chris Segal almost certainly missed that one. But Segal’s strike zone in general? If you look at BrooksBaseball’s strike-zone map of the entire game, Segal missed 10 pitches — two balls that should have been (low) strikes, eight strikes that should have been balls — but almost all of them were exceptionally close, especially if you consider the de facto strike zone, i.e. the typical strike zone that Carpenter should be well used to by now. In fact, maybe Carpenter suffers so many bad calls because he refuses to swing at pitches that everybody else knows will, often as not, be called as strikes.*

* Hey, I told you it was half-assed.

Anyway, my point is that Segar didn’t have a particularly bad game, but did miss some close ones. He might have been a little unlucky, just in having so many close ones to call. And that pitch to Carpenter might have been the least close. But in every single game, even the best umpires miss a few close ones. It’s just the nature of the thing.

Where everyone’s wrong, though? They’re wrong about the umpires expanding the strike zone lately, easterly and westerly. For one thing, we know that the umpires today are probably better than they’ve ever been. For another, we know that while the strike zone has been expanding, it’s been expanding downward … and closer to the rulebook strike zone than before.

For the hitters, then, the problem is twofold: 1) the umpires are actually calling the low pitches, as low as the infamous "hollow of the knee," and 2) the umpires aren’t perfect.

Between the technology that actually tracks every pitch and the technology of the video-review system, the players and the managers now expect perfection, or something close to it. Which is why the neighborhood play, while it’s actually survived longer than I expected, can’t live much longer. And which is why the strike zone will eventually be automated. It’s not if, but rather when.