Umpires in the Broadcast Booth

Baseball fans today have more ways than ever to follow, discuss and analyze the game we love so much. New mediums such as podcasts, websites and online databases did not exist a generation ago. More games are televised, and are more broadly accessible than ever before; and it is easier to watch highlights or review game video than it was even a few years ago. Nonetheless, some of the oldest media still are very powerful and beloved, particularly among older fans. I still find myself reading the game stories and the box scores in my local paper every morning, even though I have often seen most of them the previous night. Similarly, I still enjoy listening to ballgames on the radio, albeit frequently through MLB’s iPad app. While the technology has changed, in other ways the experience of listening to game on the radio, or listening to the audio of a televised ballgame has not changed much. There is still one or two professional broadcasters joined by one or two former ballplayers. The quality of the broadcasts vary quite a bit from team to team, but the basic feel is the same as it was 30-40 years ago. Occasionally a team, or network, will change this format by bringing a former manager, rather than former player into the broadcast booth. This brings a slightly different perspective.

Baseball, like most things, is best understood when it is explained and discussed from different perspectives; this is the idea behind bringing former players and managers into the broadcast booth. Fans learn a lot from good announcers because they point out the little things that only players, managers or coaches notice, but after years of hearing this, there are very few little things left to point out. The one major perspective from which fans rarely learn about the game is that of the umpire. We generally only pay attention to umpires, or read about them in the media, after a controversial play or blown call, but they bring a tremendous knowledge of the game, years of experience and a fresh perspective. Many umpires have careers that span decades so by the time they retire have spent more time in the big leagues than most players. Umpires, out of necessity, see the game very differently than players, managers, scouts or journalists. In addition to having to call balls and strikes, foul and fair or safe and out, umpires also spend games focusing on the little things that many others take for granted. Making sure that players touch the bases, watching the pitcher to see if he commits a balk, checking to see if a runner left too early when tagging up are just some of the things on which umpires focus when the rest of us are watching the trajectory of the ball or the defense reacting to the ball in play.

Additionally, umpires have insight into questions about which many fans, or at least this one, are curious. These include: what do managers and players say or expect to gain from arguing with umpires; how often are infielders given credit for being in the general area when making a double play; or do veterans or players with reputations with good batting eyes or good pitching control get a slight edge from umpires?

Umpires also are in the unusual situation of being on the field with the players and being deeply involved in the game, but outside of the ballpark not having the wealth and celebrity of most players. This would make their off-field experiences more accessible for fans and provide different insight into the big leagues. For example, the constant travel, strange hours and stress of big league baseball is processed a lot differently by somebody making an umpire’s salary rather than that of a player or manager.

Much of the evolution of baseball analysis in recent years has occurred because people have begun to use different approaches to answer the same questions. Sophisticated quantitative measures have begun to supplant older indicators such as wins or RBIs. The ability to chart pitches, review seemingly endless amounts of data has made scouting and preparation much more complex than it was twenty years ago. Umpires, however, are seeking to answer different questions. They are not interested in putting together the building blocks for winning teams, but in the pitch by pitch minutia which makes baseball possible. For fans, this too is a fun and valuable way to look at the game. Giving umpires a chance to share this insight would make listening to the game considerably more enjoyable than simply listening to another recently retired ballplayer talk about his former teammates.