- Faith and Fear in Flushing - https://www.faithandfearinflushing.com -

The Human Element

Wednesday’s matinee against the Phillies was simultaneously an excellent baseball game and one about which there doesn’t seem to be a lot to say at first glance: Zack Wheeler [1] was good, but Jake Arrieta [2] was a little better. Wheeler gave up solo homers to Scott Kingery [3] and Cesar Hernandez [4], while Arrieta surrendered one to Michael Conforto [5], but got double plays when he needed them. Oh, and Wheeler’s line included a sac fly struck by Maikel Franco [6]. We’ll get back to that one.

Darned if the Mets didn’t make you think they were going to pull this one out. Arrieta began the ninth with a 3-1 lead, but departed when Pete Alonso [7] reached on an infield single. Gabe Kapler [8] brought in Adam Morgan [9], who unhelpfully hit Robinson Cano [10] in the back before retiring Conforto on a fly ball. Enter Hector Neris [11], who struck out J.D. Davis [12], but then yielded a run-scoring infield single to Amed Rosario [13] and hit Wilson Ramos [14] with a pitch, loading the bases for Keon Broxton [15].

Broxton battled through a superb at-bat, pushing the count to 3-2. A walk would tie the game; a hit could put the Mets ahead with Edwin Diaz [16] hot and ready in the bullpen. Broxton spat on a Neris splitter that was just low and figured Neris would throw him another one.

The ball came out of Neris’s hand headed for the middle of the plate. But it didn’t dive towards the dirt — it wasn’t a splitter, but a four-seam fastball. Broxton had guessed wrong, and bent his knees in reflexive horror as the pitch zipped through the strike zone. Ballgame [17].

But let’s go back to that Maikel Franco sac fly. It came in the second, and put the Phils up 1-0.

Wheeler’s first pitch to Franco was a curve ball that was a strike. Go look it up — it’s nowhere near a borderline case. Ted Barrett flat-out missed it, and called it a ball. Wheeler hung a curve in the strike zone that Franco swung through, then dotted an inside fastball at the knee — a perfect pitch, but one that Barrett’s miss meant was strike two, not strike three. Wheeler tried the same pitch again and sawed Franco off, resulting in a limp fly over the infield — one that proved just deep enough to score J.T. Realmuto [18].

What would have happened if Barrett had called that first pitch properly? It’s too simple to say Wheeler would have punched out Franco and kept the run from scoring. Hell, maybe Franco hits the hanging curve over the fence and things wind up worse for the Mets. But what is clear is that the at-bat was changed, and the outcome of that at-bat wound up costing the Mets a run they would desperately need.

And this is now routine in baseball. In nearly every game, a critical at-bat is marred by an umpire missing balls and strikes. Sometimes it clearly matters; other times it doesn’t; most of the time we don’t know and prefer not to think about it.

It’s past time for this to change. The technology exists to take balls and strikes away from umpires, who have proven collectively unable to judge them with the accuracy both pitchers and hitters deserve. And with that long-overdue change, let’s sweep away all the sentimental nonsense around the strike zone as adjudicated by human eyes. The idea that someone’s a hitter’s ump or a pitcher’s ump on a given day would strike us as unacceptable if we had a less fallible starting point — the strike zone should be the strike zone, full stop. (And the same for “a rookie doesn’t get that pitch,” “it’s 9-1, so swing the bats, boys” and all the other unwritten inanities.) Say goodbye to pitch framing — teams have wisely focused on its value in recent years, but a skill that encourages further errors by umpires is clearly a bug and not a feature. And don’t give me the old saw that umpire mistakes “even out.” For one thing, it’s self-evidently ridiculous to accept a mistake-prone system because the inherent shoddiness deals out unfairness more or less equitably; for another, it isn’t always true, and too many World Series highlight films are evidence of that.

Yes, baseball should always be fundamentally about the human element. But that ought to be about the players, not the referees. It ought to be about whether Broxton guesses splitter or four-seamer, and whether Neris can outthink him and execute that pitch. That’s how Wednesday afternoon ended, and it made for thrilling baseball. But that outcome was shadowed by another bit of human element — Barrett’s mistake on a first pitch that shaped a critical at-bat. It’s past time for that human element to disappear so the game can be better.