Umpire Dan Bellino got off to an inauspicious start Friday. After Rockies pitcher Germán Márquez retired the first two batters of the first inning, he had Anothony Rizzo in a 2-2 count. Then, he threw this pitch.
That was a 98 mph fastball right down the middle of the plate. Anthony Rizzo thought it was strike three—his steps back to the dugout reveal that he accepted defeat. Marquez’s inning should have been over right there with 13 pitches thrown and two strikeouts. Instead, the at bat and inning continued. Rizzo drew a walk on the next pitch, and then things got really weird.
Marquez seemed intent on not letting the blown call affect the game and struck out Ben Zobrist looking on three pitches. Except, he didn’t. That’s because Bellino called two more obvious strikes balls and gave Zobrist a hitter-friendly 2-1 count that Zobrist turned into a single.
Jason Heyward made the Rockies pay with an RBI single that turned into two runs scored after Charlie Blackmon made an error. Marquez finally escaped the nightmare, retiring the next batter, but the damage was done.
While it would be easy to use Friday’s game to make the case for an automated strike zone with some sort of notification in the umpires ear to let him know what the correct call is, I want to instead draw the focus to baseball’s biggest officiating issue: the lack of public accountability.
Sometime after Friday’s game, Bellino received a report documenting how poorly he performed at his job. The report is generated by his supervisor and documents his percentages of correct and incorrect calls. We assume that that happens and that the data in it is similar to what all of the independent observers who put out third-party reports (like BrooksBaseball.net) do. However, we don’t know because MLB refuses to make anything public when it comes to officiating and it’s supervision.
I understand that umpires don’t want to be publicly criticized—no one does. However, they work a very well-paid, public position, and their counterparts in the NBA and NFL are publicly corrected when they make the wrong calls. By refusing to ever publicly acknowledge when an umpire has a bad day and affects the game as negatively as Bellino did, it gives a public perception that MLB doesn’t care about the performance or is willing to do anything to improve it.
And Bellino did leave a mark on Friday’s game. It’s easy to grasp the consequences of a missed strike one call. In 2016, batters hit .302/.473/.525 while ahead in the count and .203/.211/.310 while behind. But it’s tougher to know exactly how a mis-called ball or strike can affect the rest of the sequence of the pitches, and thus the game. In the series of pitches from Friday’s game, the consequences were more black and white. Márquez should have been out of the inning with 13 pitches thrown and no base runners allowed. Even if we give Bellino one missed call, the very next batter should have ended it as well, with Márquez throwing 16 pitches and allowing no runs. Instead, Márquez gave up two runs. and he also threw 30 pitches in the inning.
For a pitcher who had his start pushed back a day because of a sore thumb, throwing that many pitches in a single inning appeared to have affected the rest of his outing. After the lengthy first inning, Marquez’s command appeared to be gone. Combined with Bellino’s mystery strike zone, he threw 80 pitches over three innings and had to depart.
To give a brief idea of how bad Bellino’s strike zone was, check out these two graphics from BrooksBaseball.net that tracks called strikes and balls.
If you combine the right and left-handed charts and look at pitches in the strike zone Colorado Rockies pitchers threw, there are 30 pitches. I’m not counting the more difficult to call pitch right on the black line—only those that are clearly in the zone. Just 20 of those 30 pitches were called strikes. Interestingly enough, those pitches on the black were more consistently called strikes than the ones not.
It wasn’t Bellino not calling one part of the zone consistently, either. Those missed calls were inside, outside, high and low, and most of them were surrounded by pitches that were further away from the center of the strike zone and still being called strikes. The zone charts also reveal an abnormal number of balls outside of the zone being called strikes, and while the Cubs pitchers were victim to Bellino’s bad calls as well, it was not nearly to the extent that Rockies pitchers had to endure.
MLB seems to think that ignoring the fans upset about a bad game is the best way for it to go away, and that may have worked in a past where fans didn’t have solid evidence of how bad a game was. Now fans do, and from their point of view, MLB appears indifferent about these types of games. Instead, Rockies fans get to see Bellino back on the field for the rest of the series, as if day before never happened.
The best thing that baseball can do is acknowledge these issues and then work towards having some form of public accountability when situations like this arise. I understand there’s possible barriers with the umpire’s union, but MLB has taken a very hard stance towards the player’s union about improving the quality of the game from a pace standpoint, and the players are far more valuable to the game then the umps. Maintaining trust in umpiring is every bit as significant as addressing pace of play. Rob Manfred should make it a priority.