By Brandon Cohen, Senior Analyst, and the UmpScores Staff
From the moment a player sets foot in the locker room, they are told to be responsible for their actions. Coaches are there to tell players what they don’t want to hear and help players learn to see their mistakes and correct them in the future. Accountability is preached by leaders in every sport, from big team sports such as baseball or soccer to individual sports such as tennis. You can’t grow as a competitor if you don’t adapt, and everyone in a sports organization – players, coaches, and front office executives – take that mantra to heart.
In baseball, players that don’t perform are asked after a game why things didn’t go the way they hoped. You often see vague responses such as “I didn’t have my stuff today” or “I didn’t locate my pitches well” or “Give credit to the other pitcher, I wasn’t expecting him to locate his breaking balls so well.” Though managers are hesitant to go too far in criticizing their players’ performance – especially young players whose confidence may take a hit when faced with pressure from the media – they still expect them to take accountability for their actions and will offer vague comments of a similar nature when asked about their players. Still, players and coaches make it clear that self-assessment and accountability are key and are vocal in communicating with each other how to improve their performance.
Players know that their jobs depend on consistent, high-level performance. Even when they take accountability for underwhelming play, they can still be benched, sent to the minor leagues, or cut from the team. Baseball is a tough business for players, whose careers are remarkably short. As soon as performance slips, players find themselves seeking opportunities elsewhere or are forced to retire.
The same goes for coaches who lose too many games or executives who make poor trades or sign bad contracts. General Managers such as Brian Cashman, who has been the head of baseball operations for the Yankees since 1998, are a rarity. In Cashman’s case, the Yankees have not had a losing season since he was an Assistant GM in 1992. But even the Red Sox, who have the most World Series wins this century (4), have had five different heads of operations since 2000. When the team hit difficult stretches, ownership was quick to move in a different direction.
Which brings us to the case of Kyle Schwarber and Angel Hernandez in last night’s game between the Phillies and the Brewers. Behind the plate, Hernandez had an absolutely horrific game, missing 18 calls overall with a BCR of 13.95%. His mistakes came at critical times as well, with 6 of them resulting in strikeouts. When he rung up Schwarber in the 9thinning, Schwarber reached his breaking point, tossing his bat and his helmet. Hernandez promptly ejected Schwarber, who had some choice words for the umpire as he left the field.
Hernandez is no stranger to us in our analytic world. He was ranked the 56th umpire in 2021 on account of his BCR of 8.15%. This year, those numbers are 69th. and 9.62%. He has been decidedly below average compared to the rest of umpires around the league and his performance is only getting worse. It is not surprising to us to see his name plastered all over Twitter when nights like last night happen. But what has us stumped is how little we hear about umpire accountability when bad performances like Hernandez’ steal the spotlight.
Schwarber unloaded on Hernandez right after the missed call, but he was silent in post-game interviews. Jim Finks, the former GM of the New Orleans Saints, once said “I’m not allowed to comment on lousy officiating.” He’s right, of course – any time someone in any sports organization criticizes the sports’ officials, the league fines the individual who commented, even when the individual is simply asking for officials to take responsibility for their actions. But accountability is a two-way street. If players, coaches, and executives’ jobs in baseball are tied to their performance and are expected to take responsibility when things go bad, the same should apply to MLB front offices and umpires. And they should be willing to hear about it from the people most affected by it and take action to correct it.
The median MLB umpire has served for 15.5 years. Meanwhile, Kyle Seager had a “long” career when he retired after 11 years as a player this offseason. Players that last 15 years in the league are rare, and turnover around the league high. Last year, MLB lost five umpires, all to retirement. No umpires were replaced for performance issues – MLB’s only new full-time umpires replaced the retirees. Yet the World Series champion Braves made changes to their roster, most notably declining to re-sign star 1B Freddie Freeman and instead trading for Matt Olson from the Athletics to replace him. Even after the best season you could hope for, the Braves are returning a different team to the field this year.
Why does MLB insist on this asymmetry? Why do they refuse to make changes to the umpire staff when there are clearly umpires who can make as many bad calls as Hernandez did last night? And why is there always silence around the discussion of umpire performance from the league? Players and coaches are forced to dance around the topic every time bad umpire performance gets brought up in post-game interviews out of fear of reprisal from the front office for daring to criticize the umpires. It is time for players to be able to speak their minds about umpire performance. Accountability starts with listening – and right now, Schwarber and the players are being ignored.