Balls and Strikes

“It’s my job to call balls and strikes, and not to pitch or bat” said John Roberts in the opening statement at his confirmation hearing, likening himself to a baseball umpire. Of course, this analogy falls apart under inspection, but it fits a broad pattern of government’s fascination with the sport. Congress plays a yearly baseball game between the parties. George H.W. Bush was captain of his team at Yale. His son, George W. Bush, owned the Texas Rangers. His other son, Jeb, almost bought the Marlins. Congressional panels have weighed in on performance-enhancing drug suspensions. A former Senate Majority leader had a major investigation into steroid abuse. The first baseball commissioner was a former federal judge. One Supreme Court opinion contains a 600 word rhapsody to the glory of baseball. The list goes on and on. This relationship will be revisited over the next year, as a new lawsuit has a small, but non-zero, possibility of going to the Supreme Court, and could change the sport for years to come. At the very least, it should be a fun sideshow for those who like baseball.

Angel Hernandez, an umpire, is suing Major League Baseball (MLB) and one of its officers for racial discrimination. Angel has had the job since 1993, and is Cuban-born. He has appeared in two World Series and numerous other postseason events, but has never been promoted to crew chief. Joe Torre, a defendant in the suit, has spent his whole life in baseball. He played until he was 37, proceeded to manage over 4000 games (most famously with the New York Yankees), and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2014. Since 2011 he has been working for the Office of the Commissioner of baseball, overseeing umpiring among other duties. According to the complaint, “On May 4, 2001, after what Torre perceived to be an incorrect call by Hernandez, Torre took to the media to insult him and call into question his skill as a Major League umpire.” Hernandez portrays this incident as the starting point of Torre’s ongoing obsession with Hernandez. Torre’s position within baseball, Hernandez claims, allowed him to directly and negatively influence Hernandez’s career.

Hernandez’s facts of the case make a decent argument. Since I can’t find a copy of the MLB-Umpire contract to verify, I’ll have to take him at his word for how performance is evaluated. He (well, his lawyer) states that he was a highly evaluated umpire:

As part of its supervision of umpires, Major League Baseball regularly conducts evaluations of its umpires’ performances. Major League Baseball generally issues these evaluations both in the middle of the season and at the season’s end. These evaluations are based on standards set by Major League Baseball for its umpires in various areas, including focus, hustle, demeanor, style and form of calls, reactions to developments of plays, situation management, official baseball rules and interpretations, and four umpire mechanics. Though the format of these performance evaluations has changed over Hernandez’s 24 years as an MLB umpire, the evaluations generally grade an umpire’s performance with one of the following ratings: “exceeds standard,” “meets standard” or “does not meet standard.” … From 2002 to 2010, Mr. Hernandez received multiple “exceeds standard” ratings in areas including hustle, fraternization, four-umpire mechanics, demeanor, style and form of calls, reactions to developments of plays, situation management, official baseball rules and interpretations, and focus.

Few are those who can claim high marks in the art of “fraternization” in a court of law. Hernandez likewise got high written praise from the Office of the Commissioner over that time period, with phrases like “another outstanding year” and “excellent example for the junior umpires” peppered throughout the decade.

Since 2011, the year Torre joined the Office of the Commissioner, Hernandez asserts that his evaluations have been much lower, and the written assessments he’s gotten from Torre often referred to player and fan “perceptions” of Angel as trying to put himself in the spotlight. Hernandez likewise stopped getting assigned to World Series games (his two experiences were in the pre-Torre era), and hasn’t been promoted to crew chief. Presumably both of these mean he misses out on increased pay and bonuses, though it’s not stated how much. From here, he makes the jump for a racially motivated case. He asserts that a minority umpire has only been in the World Series once since 2011 (out of 36 possible opportunities — 6 umpires per series over 6 years), and no minorities have been promoted to crew chief given 10 opportunities in that time.

Now, to any serious baseball fan there is an obvious reason why Angel Hernandez would be denied World Series appearances or a promotion to crew chief: he sucks. Angel has been involved in numerous blown calls over the course of his career, ranging from missed pitches, to bad calls in important innings, to calls that decide the outcomes of games. It’s possible that over Angel’s lengthy career, a few bad calls will inevitably happen and these form the basis of our anecdotes. Everyone makes mistakes. Maybe he’s statistically a normal umpire, or even a good one. But there’s a strong argument that any umpire that can be recalled by name by baseball fans is likely a bad one. As such, he routinely shows up in “top five worst umpires” lists generated by fans, or at the bottom of player-generated rankings. The problem, as far as fans are concerned, is not that Hernandez has been getting poor ratings since 2011; it’s that he got good ones prior to that.

Angel Hernandez’s employment with MLB is subject to his union contract. The umpire union is generally overshadowed by the player’s union, and it likewise seems much less effective. But it has succeeded in job stability. While it’s possible for a card-carrying baseball player to be benched, assigned to the minors, or not get re-signed after a contract is up, umpires seem to be impossible to fire outside of failed drug tests. To the baseball fan, an umpire’s safe job status risks poor performance, and is frequently the butt of jokes and online outrage. Without reading the contract explicitly it’s hard to know for sure, but my suspicion is that statistics as a metric for performance is a big sticking point between the umpire union and MLB. Most baseball fans see the umpires as a distinctly conservative bunch, stuck in their ways and unwilling to use stats to justify hirings and firings, embracing the “human element” instead. Baseball would probably like to lean more heavily on stats. It’s a public game, and over the past decade or so has become increasingly digitized. Every pitch in every game can be analyzed by computer to see whether balls and strikes are indeed called correctly, and this can illuminate which umpires are consistently good and which aren’t. Hernandez refers to some “accuracy percentage” figures in his ratings (and sites high figures), but doesn’t provide how they’re calculated. Every hardcore baseball nerd will be watching this case to see if specific umpire evaluation metrics are discussed in court.

For Joe Torre, this is an ugly case. No one likes to have their judgments questioned, especially publicly, and the accusation of racial animus is especially bad. The use of Joe Torre himself in Hernandez’s argument would seem a strange one. It’s not immediately clear why his lawyers would mix an alleged Joe Torre grudge with general racial discrimination; it arguably gives MLB an out by allowing Torre to be the fall guy in this case. But it’s important to Hernandez’s case because he has been an umpire in the World Series on two previous occasions, both of which were prior to Torre’s promotion. Therefore, the lack of World Series opportunities since Joe’s new role must be due to Joe himself.

Joe Torre’s, and MLB’s, best argument is that Torre has been one of the actors pushing baseball towards better umpiring, and that this focus explains the shift in Angel’s experience. MLB has a vested interest in improving the quality of its umpiring, as a fairer game is more popular with the public and the players. Torre, as a former manager and player, presumably has unique insights on what makes umpires good or bad that previous officials might have missed. Baseball has been the slowest of the four major sports to adopt a form of instant replay, a popular way to improve officiating in the public’s eye. And baseball has been extremely conservative in how it has rolled it out. When introduced in 2008 (prior to Joe Torre’s tenure), only crew chiefs could initiate it, only on home run calls, and only they made the final call. Today, they can be initiated by managers of either team over numerous types of calls, and many times a game. It’s rare for any baseball game to be played today without any replay review. While it’s not clear publicly how much influence Torre had with replay, it’s possible he was more in favor of it than other officials.

Torre might also argue that he’s injected more professionalism into performance reviews, World Series assignments, and crew chief promotions, and that his focus on reforming the system explains Hernandez’s suddenly mediocre (and consistently mediocre) ratings. One of the claims about Torre is that “… Major League Baseball, for no valid reason, decided to break up Hernandez and his long-time crew chief Joe West.” But I think this just bolsters the argument I’m attempting to put in Torre’s mouth: Joe West and Angel Hernandez are generally considered by baseball fans to be in the worst three umpires in baseball (along with C.B. Bucknor). Breaking them up seems like a sensible call by Joe Torre, as no manager, player, or fan would want two awful umpires overseeing the same game or series of games. Torre’s cleanup argument could be further supported by the aftermath of one of the blown calls I highlighted earlier, in which a prominent baseball writer speculated Hernandez purposely blew the call as a form of protest of the review system.

The racism charge that Hernandez makes has the potential to be powerful, but his argument is not as strong as it could be. He doesn’t offer direct proof that Torre is racist. Torre has probably played with or managed hundreds of minority baseball players in his years in baseball, so it would be surprising for him to be suddenly found to be a racist now. But it’s possible Hernandez has a case with MLB. He leaves out numbers that would be interesting to his case, such as how many umpires there are, and how many are minorities (92 and 10 respectively, by my count) but it’s likely they’ll be discussed at some point. There are no Asian umpires in baseball that I’m aware of, and there are certainly no women, even though the skill of calling balls and strikes should transcend race and gender. Any ruling for Hernandez based on protected status could open the door to much wider employment opportunities for many future applicants, but it will be tough to prove such a serious charge.

In addition to the declared charges, there is an additional facet to be considered anytime baseball is involved in a lawsuit: scrutiny of its antitrust exemption. Since the growth of baseball into a major business, it has several times been examined within the scope of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Congress never made MLB’s monopoly over professional baseball official, but the Supreme Court has issued a few questionable rulings sanctioning it. Even more strangely, it has done this uniquely with baseball. No other sport has this. Boxing is not exempt. The NFL is not exempt. Only baseball gets, what the Supreme Court considers, this “anomaly” of antitrust exemption. As a result, you’ll never see a baseball equivalent of the XFL, and this has particular issues for employees of the league (such as players or umpires). Congress, in 1998, brought MLB players into antitrust protection, but the law purposely left out other aspects of baseball commerce, including relations between the league and its umpires. This continued limbo, plus a few cases where the judges have chipped away at portions of the exemption but were settled out of court, means the exemption is possibly vulnerable. It has held up in other recent cases, though, so the odds of the Supreme Court taking a look at this case could depend on whether the charges of racial discrimination are substantial enough for higher courts to demand to take a look.

I suspect this case will end in a settlement, as baseball will probably not want to go through a lengthy, bitter court fight. Angel Hernandez has some facts on his side, but there is probably wide discretion that Joe Torre can use in evaluations of umpires. Grudges between bosses and employees aren’t particularly interesting, but if they are racially motivated courts might be more sympathetic. I don’t think he has a very strong case, but it could change if further evidence of racially motivated dealings are uncovered. Given the seriousness of the charges, and that this dispute involves employee-employer relationships instead of business-to-business dealings, it’s possible that it could move higher up the court system and bring some aspects of baseball’s antitrust exemption into question. Here’s hoping for a clean, well-umpired contest.