It’s been a bad week for Major League Baseball. The World Series is supposed to be the star of the show for a week or so in late October, but not this year. First there were the PR controversies from Brandon Taubman’s truly bizarre ALCS celebration of Roberto Osuna that ultimately ended in the Astros’ Assistant GM losing his job (but not before the Astros botched the apology a couple more times for good measure). Then there was an even more bizarre tweet from long term umpire Rob Drake.
Honestly, this Sports Illustrated story covered it better than I possibly could. In approximately seven minutes before Game 2 of the World Series Rob Manfred had to deal with the above two stories plus Tyler Skaggs’ untimely death from an opioid overdose that appears to have been linked to a front office staff member from the Angels Communications team, the controversy over the ever changing baseball, and the plan to cut as many as 42 minor league teams from the farm system.
To say this is not what MLB wants to be talking about this week is an understatement. They clearly want their product to shine on it’s own merits. They want the game to be the star. They want home runs from the likes of Juan Soto, Yordan Alvarez and Carlos Correa to be the star of the show.
But last night in Washington, D.C. even those moments couldn’t be the star because the star of Game 5 wasn’t the dingers. It wasn’t even beer guy catching a home run off his chest and not dropping the beer (although seriously, props to him and he’d fit right in at Wrigley). No, none of those things can be the star of Game 5 because the mercurial strikezone of Lance Barksdale took center stage instead.
Look, don’t get me wrong, Gerrit Cole had a great night. There were key moments and big hits and the Astros probably would have won Game 5 without the zone, but the thing is, we’ll never know because at no fewer than three key moments during Sunday night’s game Barksdale blew key calls and made the World Series about him.
Carlos Correa’s home run
It was 2-0 Astros. Carlos Correa was up in the fourth inning. Joe Ross was up 0-2 on Correa with two outs. Ross threw a slider on the outside edge of the strike zone that most of the country and all of the Nationals thought was strike three. Correa took the pitch, which was called a ball.
Hey great pitch (3) Joe Ross way to get Correa out and keep things going. No? Homerun a couple pitches later. Cole getting the same treatment? Nope, all strikes for him with runners 1st and 3rd. pic.twitter.com/kTfyYb7ZPS— TRG (@TGerbracht) October 28, 2019
Now, admittedly, that is right on the line, but as you can see from the above tweet, the problem is that Cole got calls that were way more questionable all night. This pitch stood out to me early, it apparently stood out to Joe Ross too, because in the rash of stories about the strike zone today this was the only strike a Nationals player called out specifically after the game:
The closest any National came to criticizing Barksdale was starter Joe Ross’ admission he believed an 0-2 slider to Astros shortstop Carlos Correa in the fourth inning was strike three. Barksdale ruled it a ball, Correa fought off the next three pitches and drilled the seventh pitch of the at-bat over the left-field wall to make it 4-0.
”I feel like as far as baseball goes, something small happens, then seems like later that at-bat always something big follows up,” Ross said. ”Unfortunately, that’s how it went.”
Victor Robles strikes out
The Nationals had Ryan Zimmerman on first base in the seventh. The game was still well within reach at 4-1. Gerrit Cole finally looked mortal and with the count full, Victor Robles took a pitch high and outside. Look at it for yourself:
The pitch was called a strike. Instead of two men on with two out and a chance to tie the game, the seventh inning ended. Not with a bang, but with a blown strike call. You can see the pitch via Gameday below:
A hot mic
Honestly, the above happens every game. It’s infuriating. I wind up with screenshots of two or three blown calls per game I watch, but we all live with it. Something, something human element, or whatever. The reason there are dozens of articles about the zone today isn’t because the calls were worse than normal (they weren’t) it’s because Lance Barksdale put himself in the story. Here’s the video from Jomboy:
Ump doesn't call strike three. Tells Gomes he was taking off on him. Gomes replies 'Oh it's my fault?"— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) October 28, 2019
Then Martinez kindly asks the up to wake up because its the World Series. pic.twitter.com/iRUr349bQh
It’s the World Series. The series is tied at two games apiece. There are two strikes and two outs and Lance Barksdale refuses to call a strike a strike because he thought Yan Gomes stood up too fast.
It’s embarrassing, obviously punitive and a classic example of the #UmpShow. Fans of the game deserve better than to have a championship decided by men whose egos get in the way of doing their job.
Bring on our robot overlords
The biggest problem with Game 5 is that this isn’t an outlier. Earlier this season I wrote a very similar piece about umpiring during the Cubs series against the Phillies. And I could have written that piece other times this year. This happens to every team multiple times a week during the regular season and the effects cascade in ways that change individual at bats, the pitches that get thrown, metrics like framing, and sometimes the outcomes of games.
Baseball has the ability to do a better job here. The technology exists to review key calls or to move to an electronic zone all together, but something has to be done differently. It is a problem for the credibility of the sport that balls and strikes have a seven to 12 percent error rate.
Dave Martinez spoke for all fans of baseball in the hot mic video. It’s the World Series. Wake up. Get the strike zone right.