Should Umpires Be Required to Pass Mandatory Rules Tests During the MLB Season?
Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Major League Baseball already has in-season tests for players, ones implemented to ensure that they're not getting ahead of the curve by doing things they shouldn't be doing.
But what about the other guys on the field? Should umpires be subjected to different sorts of tests? Perhaps tests implemented to ensure that they're not drifting behind the curve?
Here's the idea: Tests on the rules. Mandatory ones. Administered here and there during the MLB season.
Heck, why not?
I got in touch with an MLB spokesman on Monday and asked him if the idea to implement occasional tests on the rules for umpires has ever been kicked around. To the spokesman's knowledge, the answer was no.
This, however, was after he made it clear to me that the communication between baseball and the umpires about the rules is pretty much constant. There are reviews. There are meetings. There is general correspondence. All for the sake of making sure that everyone is on the same page at all times.
In other words, it's not like there's a status quo of indifference in the relationship between baseball and the umpires when it comes to the rules. And to be fair, this status quo is hardly useless.
Due to that blasted "human element" thing, umpires make mistakes all the time. But when these mistakes happen, they're typically judgment calls that have nothing to do with not knowing the rules.
The call that Jim Joyce made in 2010 that robbed Armando Galarraga of a perfect game? It was a horrible call, but it was a judgment call. It would have been a rules issue if Joyce had called the runner safe because Galarraga forgot to tag him or something.
The home run call that Angel Hernandez blew earlier this year despite the fact he got to review it? Baffling and frustrating to no end, but it was a judgment call. It would have been a rules issue if his ruling had been that anything that bounces back into the field of play isn't a home run by rule.
That infield fly rule call that Sam Holbrook made in last year's National League Wild Card Game? It was a poorly-timed and back-breaking judgment call from the Atlanta Braves' perspective, but it was technically the right call. WEEI.com's Mike Petraglia heard from an MLB source that the infield fly rule was appropriately called.
We could go on, but you know how it is. If we were to put together a list of all the mistakes ever made by umpires, it would be 99 percent bad judgment calls and maybe one percent umpires not knowing the rules. Instances of the blue guys forgetting the rules aren't an epidemic.
It's just that when these instances happen, the embarrassment is palpable.
Remember Jean Segura's wild ride on the basepaths back in April?
Why was Segura allowed to go safely to first base on that play? According to Adam McCalvy of MLB.com, the umpires cited Rule 7.08(i):
If a runner touches an unoccupied base and then thinks the ball was caught or is decoyed into returning to the base he last touched, he may be put out running back to that base, but if he reaches the previously occupied base safely he cannot be put out while in contact with that base.
"Any point between second and first that they would have tagged him, he's out," said crew chief Tom Hallion. "What he did was take the liability to be put out by leaving second base. But once he got to first base, now that's his."
It sounded like a legit enough explanation. At the very least, Hallion was making it clear that the umpires weren't just making it up as they went along. They were abiding by the rulebook.
Just the wrong part of it, as it turned out. ESPN's Jayson Stark reported a few days after the silliness that MLB had determined the wrong rule had been cited, and that Segura should have been called out.
To make sure all umpires were aware of the foul-up, MLB sent out a "clarification memo" to all umpires—exactly the sort of thing that falls in line with the protocol that exists between the league and the umpires regarding the rules.
But there was another incident a few weeks later. You know, the one that involved Mike Scioscia, Bo Porter and one confused umpiring crew:
This is how we came to know all about Rule 3.05(b).
Crew chief Fieldin Culbreth and his crew had allowed Porter to make a pitching change even though the guy he had just put in hadn't yet faced a single batter. That's a no-no, as Rule 3.05(b) states:
If the pitcher is replaced, the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief’s judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher.
Culbreth ended up getting suspended for two games. It was widely agreed that was the right thing to do, and Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com said it best when he wrote that bad judgment calls may be "inexplicable," but umpires forgetting the rules is "inexcusable."
Agreed, but all it takes to conjure up a shred of sympathy when these things happen is one look at baseball's rule book. It's about as dense and as hard to decipher as Finnegans Wake. Memorizing it all once must be hard enough. It follows that keeping all of it memorized for a prolonged period of time would be even harder.
And that's where the odd test here and there throughout the season could come in handy.
The idea of the tests wouldn't necessarily be to weed out the numbskulls among the umpire population. The fact that they so rarely forget the rules is a pretty clear indication that, when it comes to knowing the rules, there really aren't any.
If umpires were to be given tests that presented them with a series of scenarios with accompanying "true or false" sections as to the proper ruling—i.e. the soul-crushing rules quiz that Jayson Stark put together recently—I doubt there would be any actual failures. In fact, I have to imagine that the vast majority of umpires would do quite well. Like, 99 out of 100 well.
But that one...
Getting that one wrong and then being corrected on it could set an umpire straight as to a certain section of the rulebook he had either forgotten completely or was fuzzy on.
Maybe it would mean nothing in the long run. But then again, maybe the umpire would remember that one wrong answer when presented with a relevant scenario in a game. In that event, a call that might have been wrong would be right, and there would be no fuss. Huzzahs all around.
Now zoom out and think about it from a wider perspective. If you get enough umpires getting enough answers wrong and subsequently being set straight on the relevant rules, you're effectively working to eliminate the potential for embarrassing instances of umpires not knowing the rules.
Should umpires have to take mandatory in-season tests on the rules?
These tests alone wouldn't make umpires perfect. Short of easing human umpires out of the game and steadily replacing them with T-800s, there's nothing MLB can do to stop the human element from rearing its ugly head.
We are, however, progressing towards a long-overdue point in the game's history when the human element is going to be corrected more easily and more often than ever before. Expanded replay is going to do the trick.
Now imagine a world that has both instant replay curbing the human element and a series of tests keeping umpires up to speed on the rules at all times. In that world, the umpires might as well be robots.
How about it, Major League Baseball?
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