The New Strikezone?   (04/18/01)

As I watch the "pitcher's duel" between Tom Glavine and Ryan Dempster I can't help but feel I'm watching a replay of something.  Namely, a replay of last year's strikezone.  Glavine is somewhat consistently getting pitches in the other batter's box called for strikes.  But not consistently enough that anyone could say, "that's just his [home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom's] strikezone."  Nothing thrown above the belt has been a strike.  Did Cederstrom not get the memo?  Was he out on sick leave when Major League Baseball held camps to show everyone what a rulebook strike looks like?  Apparently so, because his strikezone is as mysterious as Area 51.

The question I have to ask is what will major league baseball do to enforce their new edict?  I've read that the umps will undergo a video review of their work, but apparently Cederstrom and others, like Eric Cooper, taped an episode of "In Search of..." over theirs because what they call a strikezone is mystery that resides somewhere between the two batter's boxes.

So what incentive do the umps have to get it right?  So far, it just looks like they'll call just about anything a strike and if questioned, they'll just reply apathetically, "they [the Commissioner's Office] told me to."  Bobby Jones was getting curve balls called for strikes that split the opposite batter's box in his April 11 start against the Giants and the home plate ump just shrugged when batters looked befuddled.  Is it too much to ask that they take pride in their work and at least try to do a good job?

I don't want to suggest that these guys get fired for not calling the rulebook zone, but clearly they need a kick in the pants.  Fines might be a way to persuade them to evaluate their work more carefully.  Then again, negative reinforcement probably isn't the best way to coerce guys who are used to people yelling bad things about them everyday.

How about offering a nice weekend vacation for calling the strikezone at least 75% correctly.  Hmm, maybe that standard is a bit too high for these guys.   Perhaps giving the assignments for the All-Star game and playoffs based on how accurately they called the zone.  Maybe giving them a nice certificate of accomplishment.  How about performance bonuses for especially well-called games?  How about a page in Total Baseball, listing their "perfect games"?  They happen almost as rarely as the real ones.

Major League Baseball may already have an incentive plan in place.  They might also be planning to take corrective action against umps who either refuse or are incapable of calling the rules as they are written.  But to this point, those measures are not evident and stronger incentives need to be implemented if the Commissioner's office ever hopes to be taken seriously as a guiding force in baseball.

But more importantly, as long as the umpires feel comfortable in distorting the rules to their own whim, they will have as significant a part in determining the outcomes of the games as the players and managers.  The "impartial arbiters" of the game will, in effect, be it's jury.