In battle to gain an edge, teams scout an old foe: the umpires
Before starting his third major league game last month, Blue Jays rookie catcher
As it happened, the umpire,
"We talked a little bit about SEC football," Arencibia said. "I'm a rookie, so I try to be as quiet as possible, but if I have the opportunity and have something in common, I might strike up a little dialogue with him. It's easier to approach them if you know something about them."
Increasingly, major league teams are including data on umpires' tendencies in defining the strike zone to help their players prepare for each game. After all, for as much research as goes into getting ready for the opponent, why not spend time preparing for the third-party that also has an impact on play?
What sets the Blue Jays apart, however, is that they are the rare club to also use personal information on each umpire -- a quick summary of who they are as people underneath the black uniform.
It's not meant to curry favor or influence calls but rather to humanize the umpires. In fact, veteran Toronto catcher
"The way I feel -- and I feel like they respect me for it -- is that even though I know them a little bit, I really sincerely let them try to do their job without trying to make buddy-buddy," Buck said.
Former Blue Jays general manager
"We live in an information age," Ricciardi said.
Of course, what's most pertinent is the research on each umpire's tendencies. One such report included a head shot, a short bio with age, education and hometown, and the strike-zone traits for each umpire working a particular series.
Not all players, of course, utilize the information. Toronto catcher
"You just look at it to see where his zone is and see how much experience he has," Rzepczynski said, "but when you're out there -- at least for me -- I kind of just forget about it. I try to throw a pitch and, if it's close, I hope I get it. If I don't get it, I don't get it."
The personal info is really only relevant to catchers who spend extended time next to an umpire or maybe a first or third baseman who are looking for someone to chat with during pitching changes.
"Everyone has their own style, whether it's an umpire or a pitcher or a position player," Arencibia said. "Everyone's a creature of habit for the most part, so some guys have different tendencies than others."
No player indicated that he'd change the way he played because of the umpire reports, but several appreciated the explanatory background.
"I read everything that we've got coming," Buck said. "But they are all just guidelines to pad the report that you do, which are more about the player and the pitcher. If we keep trying to do something [but the umpire isn't calling it a strike], we can look at the report and know, 'It's not that this guy doesn't like me, it's that these are what his tendencies are.'"
There is a wide variance across baseball as to how much attention is spent focusing on umpires. One Mariners source said it's not uncommon for a coach to be walking through the clubhouse two hours before the first pitch asking, "Who we got tonight?"
"If I see him giving off a little bit," Schneider said, "I'll come into the dugout and make sure my hitters know, 'Hey, he's giving a little off. Don't be surprised to see an expanded strike zone.'"
The reports are helpful, Tracy said, "because you know what type of zone you'll have to deal with before the game starts. Instead of spending nine innings fighting with the guy all day -- which is a mental disruption as far as I'm concerned -- [the report says] 'here's who's umpiring and more than likely what the strike zone is going to look like, and we can deal with it."
But, he added, "I don't spend a lot of time talking to them about their hobbies, I can tell you that."
Because the umpires are human, there will never be full uniformity of the strike zone unless robots or lasers replace the men behind the plate. Most catchers, though, have seen some amount of standardization in the last few years. Braves catcher
One component of how Major League Baseball assesses umpires for All-Star and playoff assignments is how they grade out against the league's Zone Evaluation system, a pitch-tracking program implemented in 2009 in which cameras triangulate a ball's position in flight at least 20 times before it reaches the plate. (Formerly MLB used a system called QuesTec from 2001 to '08, but that system was only installed in 11 ballparks while Z.E. is operational in all 30.)
"If you were a guy that said, 'I'm a pitchers' umpire' -- and you knew who they were -- you could throw it in this room and it would be a strike," Braves starter
"I've asked catchers after the inning, 'Where was that pitch? Did you ask him?' McCann or [Dodgers catcher]
Z.E. is not an excuse that flies with most players, especially Schneider, who said he's been told numerous times that an umpire couldn't call a pitch because of the automated system.
"I hate that QuesTec," Schneider said. "I just don't like it. A lot of times you ask an umpire about it, and he'll say, 'Well, if I go to the system, the system will probably tell me it's a strike.' I don't want to know what the system says. I don't want a machine to tell me a pitch was a half-inch too low.
"But I know where they're coming from -- they're getting graded on that system."
Though the MLB-utilized Z.E. is the grading system that matters to the umpires' future, they are graded in the court of public opinion by fans every game. Television networks routinely superimpose a strike zone on the screen, which can be a disservice to the umpires who aren't afforded the luxury of time or laser-precision in making their calls.
"Television sends it up to the booth, grids it out, then has the ball go across in slow motion and zooming in, and they expect the umpire to have it right," Buck said. "Or they ask they hitter, 'Why did you take that? It's right on the corner.' Well, look at where it started -- it was about two feet out. But you've got the big fat guy eating potato chips on the couch and is like, 'S---, what is the umpire looking at?'
"[A missed call] is when they start showing that and overanalyzing it. But they didn't do it the 80 pitches before when the guy got it perfectly right."
There is, of course, no way to prepare for a bad call, but the majority of balls and strikes are called consistently by umpires -- if not altogether correctly -- and teams are discovering that a little knowledge can go a long way.