Supervisor keeps eye on baseball umpires’ calls

Posted March 04, 2011, at 7:30 p.m.
Last modified March 04, 2011, at 9:19 p.m.

Charlie Reliford was a major league umpire for 20 years. This year he turns to the position of umpire supervisor.

We met up at a spring training game in Florida where he was watching a crew working, and we talked about his new job.

“I have to smile,” he said, “when people say umpires are not accountable to anyone. That’s just not true.”

In his new role, Reliford will in fact be a person holding umpires accountable.

“Every call by the plate umpire and all the calls on the bases are recorded and reviewed on video,” said Reliford. “We send out a DVD to the home plate umpire with comments and one for the base umpires for every game.”

“We are looking for trends,” he said. “If an umpire makes a mistake or is out of position, we want to make sure we know why and can help get it right.”

According to Reliford, those errors are few and far between.

“Ninety-eight percent of the time the calls on the bases are correct, and 96 percent of the time the ball/strike calls are right,” Reliford said.

Those are impressive numbers. “We have an electronic system in every major league park that outlines the strike zone as defined in the rule book and that is how we measure correct calls,” Reliford noted.

“We want to get away from the idea that every umpire has his own strike zone. There is only one and that is the one in the rule book and every umpire is evaluated on that and only that strike zone,” he said.

One problem for umpires is that the strike zone shown on television replays is not necessarily accurate. The system used to define the zone for television is not the same as the system employed by MLB.

Reliford noted that in recent years the improvement in the percentage of correct calls made by umpires increased by percentage points. With the percentage of correct calls as high as it is now, improvement will be measured in smaller increments, but that will not reduce the scrutiny by him and fellow supervisors.

The errors in calls on the bases he said come from “the timing of the call. Usually the mistake occurs because the call is made to quickly.”

That is why you will see umpires take the extra beat before making a call. It’s not that the call is delayed, but the beat is to make sure the umpire has had time to see the complete play and evaluate that in his mind.

When the percentage of correct calls are as high as Reliford notes, is there any need for instant replay on the bases?

“It’s the question of whether correcting that one colossal mistake (the prefect game that wasn’t because of the error on a call at first) warrants the time it will take when the mistake involves base runners who have either moved up or stayed put on a call that was wrong and now you have to figure out where they would have been if the call had been right.”

If the percentage of correct calls is as high as Reliford cites, there may be little gained if replay is instituted.

With that, Reliford went back to his computer and the analysis of calls being made. Just as he did on the field, he wants the calls to be right the first time. His evaluation now will be from the front of a screen rather than behind a mask.

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