The photo at the top of this post is from the Cubs/Brewers tiebreaker game last Monday. Though Game 163 was not a postseason game, Major League Baseball decided it was of enough importance to assign a six-man umpiring crew, as they do for postseason games.
The six-man postseason umpiring crew has been used in MLB for more than 70 years, since 1947. It’s always been a bit of a puzzle to me as to why this is done. You are taking men who do one job (officiating at home plate or on the bases) for an entire season and asking them to do something they never do (make calls along the foul line or boundary calls).
And if you think that’s just me saying this, here’s what a few umpires said about these assignments back in 2008:
“I remember standing out there feeling like a fish out of water,” the veteran umpire Ted Barrett said of his first postseason assignment, the right-field line, in 2000. “You’re nervous as it is, being your first time in the playoffs, and you’re out of your element.”
“It is a bit different, to be sure,” said the veteran umpire Mike Winters, who will work this year’s National League Championship Series.
It is nothing new. Six-umpire crews have been part of the postseason since the 1947 World Series, the belief being that extra umpires mean a better officiated game. (A secondary reason: A broader rotation to home plate, seen as important in a long series.)
“Wow,” was the impression Winters had when he got his first outfield assignment in 1997. “I feel like I’m looking at a different game out here.”
And here’s the same thought, from a writer who covers baseball for the New York Daily News:
I am just going to put this out there, as I do every year. Why play all season with four umpires and go to seven in the playoffs? You are asked them to do something they haven't done all year.— Kristie Ackert (@Ackert_Kristie) October 1, 2018
Yes. I know. Just like they won't curtail September call-ups, but it changes the game and it's not useful. https://t.co/woTdyose8o— Kristie Ackert (@Ackert_Kristie) October 1, 2018
The problem is that once a year they don't get it right and it's simply because they are in a position they never were during the season. It's dumb. https://t.co/4OIh1hZe0K— Kristie Ackert (@Ackert_Kristie) October 1, 2018
The “broader rotation to home plate” in a long series has some validity as a reason to do this, but MLB could do this now with rotating umpires through the replay-review room. And that’s yet another reason to get rid of the extra two umpires. We now have dozens of hi-res cameras (an ESPN cameraman at the wild-card game told me the network was using 30 (!) cameras for the game) trained on all parts of the field, and a review crew ready to look at plays like this one that was blown by Phil Cuzzi in a division series game between the Yankees and Twins in 2009. Apologies for the poor quality of the video, but even with that, you can see how badly this call was blown:
Really, that should have been the play that instituted video review immediately. Cuzzi was standing maybe 40 feet from the play, right in front of him, and blew it. He was there for the specific reason of presumably being able to better make a call like that than the third-base umpire could, and he blew it.
Obviously, a call like that in 2018 would be reviewed and overturned. It is not too much to say that this blown call changed the fortunes of that game, that series and maybe two franchises. It’s the 11th inning of the second game of that Twins/Yankees division series. The Yankees had won Game 1. Game 2 is tied and that hit should have been a double (the ball wound up in the seats). Joe Mauer eventually singled in that at-bat and the next two Twins got hits, but no one scored. If Mauer is on second, the Twins take the lead, maybe they win the game, maybe they win that series after winning a game in Yankee Stadium.
And I don’t think I’m exaggerating about the fortunes of the franchises. The Yankees went on to win the 2009 World Series. The Twins got swept by the Yankees in that division series, got swept by them again in a division series the following year, lost the wild-card game to them in 2017 and have had only three winning seasons since 2009.
Point is, if the extra umpires feel “out of their element” doing a job they don’t do all season, and we now have replay review that can do what extra umpires can, why have them? If the issue is postseason pay for more umpires, then assign the extra guys to rotate through the replay center and still give the crew on the field for a postseason series a break.
70 years’ worth of extra umpires in postseason series is enough. Time, and the way baseball is officiated in 2018, has passed this type of assignment by.