MLB won’t suspend Kyle Schwarber, but they should impose consequences on umpires
After Philadelphia Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber totally (and rightfully) lost his cool at home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez on Sunday night, the world waited to see what kind of punishment Major League Baseball would hand down.
On Monday afternoon, the baseball world got an answer. While Schwarber slammed down his bat and batting helmet and hurled expletives at Hernandez, the oft-criticized umpire had it coming after a long night of bad calls. MLB clearly agrees, as they aren’t suspending the slugger.
No word on Hernandez, though past precedent suggests he won’t face any consequences for being bad at his job. His only punishment is in the court of public opinion, also known as social media.
But why don’t umpires get punished for being bad at their jobs? The logical assumption is that if umpires faced real consequences for poor performance or conduct, they’d be motivated to perform their duties with extra care. Doing so would ideally lead to fewer missed calls, ergo, fewer player blowups and subsequent ejections and suspensions. Sounds good for the game.
Instead, umpires essentially wield unfettered power. It’s truer now than ever with the addition of inspecting and ejecting pitchers for foreign substances. They are judge, jury, and executioner, and rarely does anyone check them.
In the most heightened cases, umpires can make or break a game, as evidenced on Sunday night. According to the breakdown of Hernandez’s work on Sunday night, 23% of the pitches he called strikes were actually balls; in other words, nearly one in four.
To make matters worse, umpires know that they can do what they want. Don’t believe me? Here’s Ron Kulpa, a big-league ump since the 90s, screaming “I can do anything I want.” at former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch in April 2019:
There’s nothing more fragile than a person clinging to power while refusing to admit they abuse it. Jeff Passan said it best in 2017, when umpires wore white wristbands to protest Ian Kinsler not getting suspended for insulting none other than Hernandez, himself:
"“If umpires weren’t every bit the chest-puffing ninnies they purport the players to be, maybe their stand wouldn’t look so nakedly duplicitous. And to make the whole charade even more farcical, the umpires seemingly didn’t realize white wristbands are often worn in support of people who suffer from blindness.”"
Kinsler was fined, but not suspended for accurately stating that Hernandez is a “bad umpire,” and saying,
"“It’s pretty obvious he needs to stop ruining baseball games. Candidly, leave the game. No one wants you behind the plate anymore.”"
In response, the Major League Baseball Umpires Association didn’t even try to hide its fragility on Twitter.
The umpire’s job is to keep the game in line, but there’s basically no overhead to keep them in line. And unless that changes, which seems unlikely after all this time and so many incidents like this, these issues will continue.
There’s no doubt in my mind that umpires have a difficult, thankless job. They must decide on pitches that are thrown at eye-popping speeds, and deal with unhappy athletes who don’t want to strike out. But they have better technology than anyone who did the job before them, and don’t make things any easier on themselves by going about the game as pompous overlords.
It’s long past the time for their overlords to actually take charge.