NEW YORK -- Well, at least the umpires have to be feeling a tiny bit better today. Turns out they aren't the only ones who are human in this mistake-filled October.
The Angels did their best Minnesota Twins impersonation in Game 1 of their Division Series matchup with the Yankees. The team that allegedly doesn't beat itself did just that (though they clearly had help from CC Sabathia, who was terrific one more time in the 4-1 Yankees victory).
Meanwhile, the Phillies wasted PedroMartinez's magical effort with their own mistakes in Game 2 of the NLCS. When Phillies star Chase Utley threw one into the dugout for an error in Game 1, pitcher Cole Hamels threw up his hands. Then Utley did the very same thing in Game 2. It was such a similar play it looked like a replay of the first one. But this time Phillies pitcher Chan Ho Park did not have a similar outward reaction as Hamels. So while the performance didn't necessarily improve, at least the decorum did. (Hamels later apologized for his demonstrative demeanor but, really, it's hard for anyone to believe what's going on in some of these games.)
To be fair, there is no reason to single out Utley, as he is far from alone. Whether it is the players or umpires, this has been the October of the miscue.
The umpires actually have taken most of the heat, and it's true that as a group in the Division Series they were dreadful. C.B. Bucknor missed two calls at first base in the Angels-Red Sox series, and Phil Cuzzi missed what appeared to be easy ones down the left-field line in Yankees-Twins. What's more, ball-strike calls seemed little better than guesses at times, as the TV pitch tracker often seemed little more than a way to count mistakes. MLB executive Mike Port, who's in charge of umpires, cautioned that the TV gimmick shouldn't be taken too seriously, saying, "They are meant for spur-of-the-moment entertainment purposes.''
Port also pointed out that there were probably only "six to eight'' missed calls that caused all the negative attention. But Port also acknowledged that this wasn't the umpires' finest hour. "We can do better,'' Port said. "It's not to the standard any of us desires. However, misses though they were, one has to realize how many opinions are made on replay as opposed to live action, as umpires have to handle them.''
The live action has lacked something at times, as well. Respected baseball writer Ed Price from AOL Fanhouse started listing all the misplays already in this postseason while watching the Yankees-Angels game, and his list seemed to take about half the game. "Nine primary goats,'' is how Price summarized what we've all seen so far.
Even if I give a pass to the trio of closers who blew games (maybe good hitting had something to do with all those blowups), there were plenty of problems. The ousted Twins are always a scrappy and tough bunch, but they didn't play too smart, running themselves out of the derby with glaring baserunning mistakes by Carlos Gomez and Nick Punto. The Twins' gaffes were so noticeable that one Angel suggested to me midway through the series that that the Twins had no chance against the stacked, $200 million Yankees and were about to be done.
Turns out the Angel player was right but his own team was no better in Game 1 of the Division Series. The night was frigid, their play less than lukewarm, as well.
The Angels, famous for forcing the opposition into mistakes, made two huge ones of their own, sealing their fate early. The Angels dug themselves a 2-0 hole when left fielder Juan Rivera made such a bad throw to second base he allowed Johnny Damon to take second on his single, then three batters later shortstop Erick Aybar and third baseman Chone Figgins let a high popup by Hideki Matsui fall between them when each apparently through the other was catching it. "We haven't seen our guys crack the door open for a team like we did tonight in a long time,'' Angels manager Mike Scioscia said. "The Yankees are going to take advantage of that, and they did. But, it was a poor defensive night.''
The NLCS Game 2 had its moments, too, and that game was decided when Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ walked Andre Ethier to force home the winning run on a low pitch just outside the strike zone (the pitch tracker confirmed that call). If nothing else, now we know it's not only the umps.
They tell us that umpires are picked on "merit'' for the postseason. But the reality is that because of umpiring attrition (six crew chiefs are on the umpiring disabled list), rules that hamstring the selectors and what seems to be too much selectivity (and maybe a little favoritism), the merit system has been sabotaged.
Based on what we've seen so far, Major League Baseball may want to take a look at how the umpires are selected for the postseason. There's nothing that can be done about the injuries. But office politics needs to be removed from the process altogether. Joe Girardi isn't making out his lineup based on which players he likes best but who'll help him win. Umpiring is a skill, and some umpires are better than others.
Port said that there is some "subjectivity'' to the selection process, and that doesn't sound too bad on the surface. But subjectivity is only one step away from favoritism and two from office politics. Baseball needs a serious scoring system, and it needs to stick to it.
MLB does use data to rate umpires. But apparently they have so little faith in their own numbers they wind up sitting around and picking up the umpires. Maybe it's time to just line them up, one through 36, for the postseason.
Another issue is that the umpiring supervisors, who were all once umpires themselves (and who Port says have 200 years of umpiring experience between them), may have their own favorites and may not necessarily be the greatest graders. But why compound that issue by taking their subjectivity and adding some more subjectivity.
So, how is the overall grade looking after the Division Series?
Most players and serious fans could tell you, without looking at any paperwork, that certain umpires aren't among the best in baseball. And they'd probably be close to right about that. As Port conceded, "There's got to be some merit to perception.'' But Port also noted that there are a variety of skills (11, actually) that the umpires are graded on, that some are better on some things than others and they needed to form cxrews that highlighted the best of their skills. That may be so. But that shouldn't change the fact that they need to use the best umps, and there's considerable question as to whether they are doing that. Is it possible that Bucknor, Joe West, Angel Hernandez and Chuck Meriweather all rank in the top 36? Highly questionable.
With 36 umpires used in the postseason out of 68 major league umpires, even if the top 36 are identified a few who are deemed slightly below average would make the postseason crews. Then there are baseball's rules that move the line lower. Umpires are disallowed by regulation from working consecutives series or consecutive World Series. The last thing that killed them this year is that six crew chiefs suffered injuries and were unavailable this postseason.
While even the worst umpire in major league baseball is still presumably one of the best 68 in the world at what he does, the result of all these issues and problems is that several below average major league umpires are working this postseason. And it's showing so far.
While Bobby Abreu didn't accept the Angels' $16 million, two-year offer to him, he remains positive about his experience there and he answered "I think so,'' when asked whether he'll be back with the team next season.
"I want to,'' Abreu added. "I feel happy. I want to come back. I'm here with the Angels. Let's see what's going to happen. They play the game the way I like it.''
Of course, many of the Angels' players have tailored their games to fit Abreu's. They have become much more patient at the plate.
Abreu will be patient in negotiations, as the Angels' first offer may reflect their knowledge that he'd like to return. They are apparently trying to apply a hometown discount to the first-time Angel, who played his entire career on the East Coast before the Yankees decided not to pick up his $16 million option for 2009.
Abreu was booed in his playoff return to the Bronx. But that really wasn't right, as he was made to leave. He didn't want to. It was the Yankees' call not to exercise that option.
• While Jon Lester kept walking Abreu in the Division Series, Sabathia's strategy was to throw strikes to him early and often. "He was good. He attacked,'' is the way Abreu, who struck out twice against Sabathia, put it.
• Big mistake by young Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. "He just wasn't ready, or was too preoccupied with the cold weather,'' one scout said. Aybar let Matsui's popup drop while just staring at third baseman Figgins. Angels manager Mike Scioscia talked to Aybar afterward. Matsui was awarded a gift single.
• The scouting report on Vladimir Guererro and Manny Ramirez is apparently the same: Beat them by elevating fastballs.
• The Dodgers' strategy was to avoid pitching to Albert Pujols at all costs, and that worked. But they are pitching to Ryan Howard. They appear to be trying to bust Howard in. But Vicente Padilla was hurt hanging a curve, as Howard, who has an RBI in every postseason game so far, hit a long opposite-field home run. Last postseason, the strategy was a steady diet of slow breaking pitches for Howard. "He adjusted,'' one scout said.
• Incredible performance by Pedro Martinez. And remember, only four teams really pursued him hard this summer: the Phillies, Rangers, Rays and Cubs (and Cubs couldn't do anything with their ownership situation in limbo at the time). The Brewers were also interested, but their scout left when Martinez arrived characteristically late for his workout. Big mistake
• According to the L.A. Times, FrankMcCourt's lawyer says the Dodgers are his. Wife JamieMcCourt's lawyer says it's 50-50. "This is going to get ugly,'' one Dodgers person said of the divorce.
• One scout said Andy Pettitte pitched his best game of the year in vs. the Twins. "I feel unbelievable,'' Pettitte said. "We are so rested.''
• Mariano Rivera has allowed three runs total in 28 postseason appearances since LuisGonzalez's broken-bat World Series-winning hit, according to Danny Knobler of cbssports.com.
• Kevin Kennedy would like the chance to manage again.
• I still think Jim Riggleman has a good shot of keeping the Nats' managerial job. GM Mike Rizzo noted how he's a "terrific'' in-house candidate. Plus, we have yet to hear about any other candidates.
• Astros media outlets are saying Bob Melvin and Manny Acta had great interviews in Houston. Interim manager Dave Clark can't be eliminated, either. And Phil Garner is said to have "left on good terms,'' according to an Astros person. A return for him would be like a "Billy Martin thing,'' one competing exec said. Not quite -- this would only be two tenures for Garner there, compared to five for Martin with the Yankees.
• Where's the buzz? The Yankees didn't sell out for Game 1, even with prices reduced for the playoffs.
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