March of the Robo Umps

Instant replay, it seems to me, should be a wonderful and easy thing. With replay technology as advanced as it is, we should be able — within seconds — to fix big mistakes that are made by umpires (or referees in sports other than baseball). Like they said in the intro to Six Million Dollar Man: We have the technology. And really, what could be better for baseball than fixing obvious mistakes?

So why does it seem like this sort of thing still happens a lot?

Umpire C.B. Bucknor did not have a great game, to say the least. In the fourth inning, Jayson Werth struck out in this six-pitch at-bat — Werth did not swing a single time:

Whew: That sixth pitch.

And then there was the ending, or the false ending, when the Braves’ Chase d’Arnaud swung and missed with the bases loaded for what should have been the game-ending strikeout. Bucknor, for some reason, thought d’Arnaud foul-tipped the pitch. To be as gracious as we can, there WAS something quirky-looking about the play — Shawn Kelley’s pitch broke way outside and Nationals catcher Matt Wieters couldn’t hold on to it. It sort-of, kind-of, if you squinted, maybe looked like a foul tip at full speed.

It took one replay to see that d’Arnaud didn’t come within a half-foot of hitting the ball.

This is exactly the sort of play that replay should fix instantly. Instantly. A person in a booth somewhere, anywhere — press box, New York, the French Riviera — watches one replay, and sees that that d’Arnaud clearly missed. He or she buzzes Bucknor with one of them newfangled devices called “cell phones.” He or she says, “He missed it.” Bucknor waves his arms and says, “Hey, my bad, game over.” And that’s that.

But it didn’t happen because we don’t really know what we want from replay. That particular play was not reviewable. Why? Technically it’s because balls and strikes are not reviewable.

But the truth is it’s because we don’t use common sense when it comes to replay. It should be there to overturn obvious misses. It should not be there to break down every play into frame-by-frame Zapbruder film explorations. It should be used stealthily so that people hardly know that it’s there. It should not be used to interrupt the game for minutes at a time while umpires wear giant headphones first worn by Sarah, the telephone switchboard operator on The Andy Griffith Show.

There are so many ways to apply common sense to replay. It seems to me the easiest is to have a fifth umpire at every game, a replay umpire. He would not be some automaton called upon only when a challenge has been issued. He would, instead, be a full-blooded umpire who independely looks at each play on replay and determines, in real time, whether a mistake was made. I would give that umpire full authority to overturn any call as long as he could do it in real time — that is to say, he would not have the time to look at 20 different replays and decide that the umpire was wrong by some preposterously tiny measure or that the player’s foot bounced off the bag by a millimeter.

No, his job would be to fix obvious mistakes. Period. Nothing else.

Of course, this would mean that impossibly close plays that require a minute’s worth of study would not be overturned. It would mean managers would no longer get to challenge plays. It would mean people complaining because we’re not using all the technology available to us. Well, you know that line: “We think we’re using technology but in the end it is using us?” I think that’s what is going on here. We should use technology to make the game better, not use it because we happen to have it.

As for the Jayson Werth at-bat, well, yes, the march of the robo-umps goes on. That’s a column for another day.


The Shutout

On Tuesday night, two more starters were taken out of games while pitching shutouts. One was Washington’s Max Scherzer, who had a shutout going through seven inning but also had thrown 116 pitches. In the days of Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, he would have kept on pitching but we are in a different time and any manager who would allow a pitcher to throw 140 pitches in 2017 would be treated only slightly better than an axe-murderer.

We know how that game ended.

The other, though, was Miami’s Wei-Yin Chen, who not only had a shutout going through seven innings but had a no-hitter too. He was at 100 pitches. Miami manager Don Mattingly pulled Chen.

“It really wasn’t that hard of a decision,” Mattingly said. “I’d love to see him throw a no-no. If he’s at 70 (pitches) going into the eighth, or he’s at a range that’s closer, I’m going to give him a shot at it. But not when he’s there.”

“If given the choice, of course, any pitcher would like to go out there and keep pitching,” Chen said through an interpreter. “But Don also gave me his reasoning — that he wanted to keep me healthy. … I tried not to think about it too much. It’s his decision to make.”

Brad Ziegler pitched a hitless eighth inning and then he got pulled too; Kyle Barraclough got one out in the ninth and then gave up a double to Mitch Haniger. But the Marlins still got the shutout.

To be honest, Mattingly’s move was not all that surprising. This is how baseball is going. A few years ago, pulling a pitcher after seven-innings of no-hit ball would have been talk-radio fodder for days. Now: People hardly notice.

Some years ago, I was at the Japan Series and I saw a manager named Hiromitsu Ochiai — a legendary Japanese player, by the way — pull his starter Daisuke Yamai after eight perfect innings. Closer Hitoki Iwase came in and completely the perfecto. It seemed nuts. He had pulled a pitcher with a perfect game in what would turn out to be the clincher in the Japan Series. This was like pulling Don Larsen after eight innings.

But that’s not how they saw it in Japan for the most part. The team is what matters in Japan, not any individual, and when Hiromitsu explained that he thought pulling the starter was the move that best helped the team, well, that was widely accepted. That was 10 years ago, and it seemed shocking from an American point of view.

It would not seem shocking at all now. There have now been 22 team shutouts this year … two of them by single pitchers. The day will come, and soon, where the individual shutout will be all but extinct.


The old Royals bullpen

The Kansas City Royals won pennants in 2014 and 2015, in large part because of their insanely awesome bullpen, particularly their 1–2–3 punch of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. You look around baseball and see — that bullpen is still insanely awesome. It just so happens that two-thirds of it is gone from Kansas City.

Herrera is now closing out games in Kansas City.

Greg Holland is with Colorado, he has a 2.15 ERA and leads the league with eight saves.

Wade Davis is with the Cubs, he has yet to give up a run in seven appearances.


Statcast™ thought of the day

Houston’s Chris Devenski has been absolutely ridiculous so far this year. He has pitched 11 innings, allowed one run (on a solo homer to Brandon Moss), walked one and struck out 21.

How the heck is he doing it? Devenski was never much of a prospect. He was drafted in the 25th round out of Cal State Fullerton by the White Sox, was a player to be named later in a minor trade to Houston and never broke through into the Astros’ top 30 prospects. His career minor league ERA was 4.37 and he gave up more than a hit per inning.

So what gives now? It’s hard to tell, but one theory is that when Devenski moved to the bullpen he was able to widen the velocity gap between his fastball and change-up. He now has one of the biggest velocity gaps in baseball — about 12 mph difference.

Eleven pitchers so far in 2017 have a gap of 10 mph or more between fastball and changeup (min. 10 innings). Here they are in a handy-dandy chart:

The gap between fastball and changeup for Jharrel Cotton is an insane 15.3 mph. And, nobody can hit him — his problem this year has been getting the ball over the plate. Then comes Devenski.

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