It’s no secret that Angel Hernandez is not a great home plate umpire. I have an umpires folder on my desktop and Hernandez is one of a handful of umpires with his own subfolder, because the man trends like clockwork for blowing balls and strikes calls consistently when he’s assigned a game behind the plate. However, even with that backdrop it was still stunning to see that incompetence not just on display, but as a possible deciding factor in the Brewers vs. Phillies match-up on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball this past Sunday.
According to the Umpire Auditor Twitter account:
Umpire Angel Hernandez was the lowest rated umpire on the day, missing 19 calls for a correct percentage of 85.3%.— Umpire Auditor (@UmpireAuditor) April 25, 2022
He rang up 6 batters on pitches that were outside the zone and called a strike to Jean Segura that missed inside by a season high 6.47 inches.#Brewers #Phillies pic.twitter.com/pmmt1ELJJ6
Hernandez missed 16 calls, six of which were called strike threes that were incorrect. That means that of the 54 outs in Sunday’s game, 11 percent were outs that Hernandez called incorrectly. As you can see above at the end of the video, that Jean Segura “strike” is nowhere near the zone. It was just an atrociously bad outing for an umpire:
Before we get to the Kyle Schwarber part of this, a +0.77 impact towards the Brewers in a game that was ultimately decided 1-0 is, well, the game. I saw a lot of people on Twitter bemoaning the fact that we were all talking about Angel Hernandez instead of the awesome pitchers’ duel that was unfolding on Sunday night. I’m not even sure we know if it would have been a pitchers’ duel with a different umpire behind the plate. Hernandez ended innings, changed at bats, his missed call on Schwarber in the ninth (I have to specify, because Schwarber “struck out” twice courtesy of Hernandez) took what should have been a one-on, one-out situation away from the Phillies and replaced it with a nobody-on, two-out situation. According to Greg Stoll’s expected runs in an inning calculator the difference in scoring at least the run the Phillies needed to tie the game went from 16 percent to 7 percent with that single missed call, which begs the question of how much the other 15 missed calls impacted scoring throughout the game.
All of that goes a long way toward explaining why Schwarber reacted like this:
In a 1-run game in the 9th, Kyle Schwarber struck out on a 3-2 pitch looking, and proceeded to share his thoughts with Ángel Hernández and his strike zone.— FOX Sports: MLB (@MLBONFOX) April 25, 2022
(via @PitchingNinja) pic.twitter.com/y9pzbeYnuC
I know the old adage that complaining about balls and strikes is futile since both teams have the same umpire. I also know that players are supposed to adapt. But as Phillies manager Joe Girardi noted after the game, swinging at unhittable pitches can’t be the answer either:
“That’s way inside,” Girardi said of the first pitch to Segura. “It makes it really hard. Because then guys are going to swing at pitches they normally wouldn’t because they’ve had them called strikes. But it makes it really difficult.
“And it’s on both sides. Twenty-six strikeouts, 54 outs. You know. It’s tough.”
Schwarber, to his credit, goes out of his way to acknowledge that Hernandez has been blowing calls for both teams all night. He is correct about that. As a fan, I had no real rooting interest in this game. I mean, yes, it’d be nice for the Cubs to pick up a game on the Brewers, but really, on a Sunday night in April I just want to settle in, pour a glass of wine and watch good baseball.
The Angel Hernandez show is decidedly, and predictably, not good baseball. The Jomboy breakdown of this at bat literally begins with “previously, on Angel Hernandez” because the man is so bad at calling balls and strikes it is a knowable thing that he will negatively impact the game (note, there is game thread language in this breakdown):
Kyle Schwarber loses his mind on Ángel Hernández, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/Ko2NqteohL— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) April 25, 2022
Jomboy makes a point that perhaps there should be designated plate umpires and Hernandez should (obviously) not be one of them. It’s a suggestion that a Boston University study of 11 years of ball and strike data made over two years ago, and one I agreed with the last time I wrote about balls and strikes (which ironically, was inspired by a Phillies series). From that study:
Taking into account standard peaking, MLB should consider moving away from the traditional four-person crew rotation, which gives every umpire time behind the plate, no matter how young or old, experienced or not, or how strong or weak a performer they are. A better system would assign the top performers to the most physically and mentally demanding field positions. At some point, prime is reached, and surpassed, and the body and statistics do not lie.
But designated plate umpires hasn’t come to pass. Instead, we live in a ridiculous reality where every umpire has their turn behind the plate.
The atrocious zone was a topic of conversation late in the game between the Sunday Night Baseball crew. It was the lead on ESPN’s SportsCenter. It was in the first 10 minutes of MLB Central on Monday morning. This piece is merely one of dozens of articles on how unacceptably bad of a job Hernandez did on Sunday night. I’ve yet to see one of those articles with a comment from MLB on any follow up actions they’ll be taking as a result of this game. We never see that, the terms of MLB’s agreement with the MLB Umpire Association (MLBUA) means if there are any consequences they are decidedly opaque, with poor umpires returning to call games behind the plate on schedule regardless of how poor their past performance was as Demetrius Bell noted for Battery Power in 2021:
Unless Major League Baseball umpires are actually held accountable for their performance and some common sense changes are made to MLB’s replay system, this is going to continue to remain the same. Twitter accounts like Umpire Auditor and Umpire Scorecards are fun supplements to the baseball-watching experience, but they shouldn’t have to exist because these umpires shouldn’t be quasi-celebrities when it comes to their abilities on the field — or lack thereof. Fans running Twitter accounts shouldn’t be the most public-facing examples of umpire evaluation that we see in this sport. MLB has to get serious about dealing with the lack of quality in their umpiring corps, otherwise it’s going to damage the integrity of the game going forward.
The Washington Post published a particularly scathing review of Sunday Night Baseball that noted this was the fifth-worst called game of the year and the eighth-worst called game since 2021. The Post included this heat map from baseball of Hernandez’ accuracy on calls:
Importantly, this problem extends far beyond Angel Hernandez. Scrolling through the Umpire Auditor and Ump Scorecards accounts, one doesn’t have to go very far to find even worse games, like this performance from Nestor Ceja when he was behind the plate for the Marlins vs. Braves game on April 23;
Umpire Nestor Ceja missed 23 calls on the day for a correct call percentage of only 82.3%.— Umpire Auditor (@UmpireAuditor) April 23, 2022
His worst was this strikeout to @ozzie that missed outside by 3.59 inches.#Braves #Marlins pic.twitter.com/2BeDRSZiMs
If it feels like the Cubs have been the victims of more than a handful of these poorly called games in the nascent 2022 season, well, you are correct. As of Saturday they were one of only five teams who had yet to participate in a road game with more than 95 percent of balls and strikes called accurately, according to the very helpful Ump Scorecard Analysis Twitter account:
With electronic strike zones being tested in the minor leagues, it’s only a matter of time before this particular element of the game is a historic relic. I’m sure some people will grumble about that and there will be a lot of think pieces that wax nostalgic about the human element and the lost art of catcher framing. I will not be writing one of those columns. I will be relieved that finally one of the most important parts of the game, a part of the game we can literally track and see in real-time, has been standardized to ensure baseball’s biggest moments are in the hands of the players rather than the capriciousness or competence of individual umpires.
In the meantime, MLB and the MLB Umpire Association should consider renegotiating who has the responsibility of calling games behind the plate. Umpires should never impact a game as much as Angel Hernandez did on Sunday night, and when they do, there should be consequences.