ALCS Game 5: Umpire Falls Two Pitches Short of Perfection in Rangers-Tigers Game

Gil Imber@RefereeOrganistAnalyst IIOctober 14, 2011

Major League Umpire Jeff Nelson
Major League Umpire Jeff Nelson

Before you get any ideas, this is not a joke. You're not reading the Onion.

A major league home plate umpire did indeed call a near-perfecto in Detroit Thursday night.

Wait. Aren't MLB umps supposed to get it right 100% of the time?

Yes and no. Put on the gear and get back there. Call a baseball game for nine innings. Heck, try it in the major leagues for a playoff game. Umpire a potential elimination game that decide the American League champion.

Get back there for a 3-2, two out, bases loaded, tying run at third base balls-and-strikes call. Now imagine a close pitch. "Anything close," they tell the batter. It was close. Very close. He should have swung. "Strike three," you yell.

Uh oh. The computer says it was a ball. By less than 1/8" of an inch. And they just showed a replay on the big screen with that little computer box. It's still tough to tell. But Tim McCarver is letting America know that you just made the incorrect game changing call.

"The entire ball must be in the box for it to be a strike," he says. "But that's not true," you exclaim. "It just has to touch the very edge of the plate!"

By rule, you know you're right and they're wrong. But they say you're wrong, anyway.

That's the reality of umpiring in professional baseball.

Since the early 2000s, Major League Baseball has tracked umpire accuracy at the plate using the QuesTec and Zone Evaluation systems. Whereas MLB umpires in 2003 called balls and strikes at an accuracy to the tune of 92.9 percent, the rate more or less leveled out in 2006, with a more precise 94.91 percent.

Throughout the 2011 MLB Playoffs, the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League has tracked home plate umpire accuracy. No matter the umpire's accuracy, which have ranged from below 90.0 percent to today's near perfect score of 98.7 percent, Buck, Darling, and Anderson have all complained about umpires' balls and strikes calls.

Through the first two games of the American League Championship Series, even when FoxTrax showed a called ball that clearly missed the strike zone, substitute analyst Terry Francona would chirp: "Even though the computer shows that pitch is a ball, it was a good pitch and should have been called a strike."

What? The umpire is right... but wrong anyway? The computer is wrong?

It gets even better.

Thursday in Detroit, home plate umpire Jeff Nelson called a near perfect game. By missing only two pitches (both called strikes on balls outside of the strike zone), Nelson called the best game so far in the 2011 postseason, if not in 2011 altogether.

Nelson's first missed pitch came in the bottom of the fourth inning, when he incorrectly called a first strike against Detroit's Jhonny Peralta. His second missed pitch came in the bottom of the sixth inning, when he incorrectly called a strike against Tigers catcher Alex Avila.

That's it. Besides those two pitches, he was perfect.

Nelson's Pitch f/x Plot for Thursday's ALCS Game (umpireejections.blogspot.com / brooksbaseball.net)
Nelson's Pitch f/x Plot for Thursday's ALCS Game (umpireejections.blogspot.com / brooksbaseball.net)

According to Pitch f/x, MLB's GameDay service which relies on carefully positioned cameras that capture pitch trajectories, locations and overall nastiness, Nelson scored 98.7 percent with just two missed pitches. If he was a pitcher, he'd be Sandy Koufax. Efficiency to the tune of 98.7 percent just doesn't happen for umpires.

Though both calls benefited the Rangers while hurting the Tigers, that didn't dissuade several angry Rangers fans from taking to Twitter to blast the accurate arbiter: "Jeff Nelson you piece of [garbage]," or, "if Jeff Nelson had one more eye he would by a cyclopes [sic]." The Rangers lost the contest, 7-5.

Assuming that most fans simply like to vent their frustration by unjustifiably trashing a hardworking umpire who almost called a perfect game, Thursday's ALCS officiating performance was something spectacular.

Umpire Jeff Nelson just pulled off the unimaginable. He is the 2011 postseason's version of Roy Halladay, the Phillies pitcher who no-hit the Reds during last year's playoffs.

Nelson's blemish came in the form of two benign strike calls. Halladay narrowly missed perfection by walking Jay Bruce with two out in the fifth inning. So close to perfection, yet they settled for no-nos.

Nelson even was the plate umpire for Halladay's victory during Game 5 of the 2010 NLCS. He didn't come as close to perfection that time around, missing five pitches for a still-impressive 96.7 percent accuracy, but neither did Halladay.

But like Halladay, whose Phillies defeated the Giants 4-2, Nelson turned in a solid performance to solidify his already sterling baseball resume. Nelson has received prestigious postseason assignments for four consecutive years starting in 2008. He was ineligible for postseason consideration in 2007 after missing too many regular season games while recovering from an illness, though he was selected to work the All-Star Game in 2006.

Halladay completes his 2010 NLDS no hitter
Halladay completes his 2010 NLDS no hitterChris Trotman/Getty Images

Unlike Halladay, however, Nelson can't credit his near-perfecto to hitters bailing him out on bad pitches. He of all people cannot thank the umpire for widening the strike zone. And he could never credit his defense for making spectacular plays or his catcher for calling the right pitches in the right spots. If anything, Nelson's job is complicated by both catchers' framing of pitches in an attempt to earn an incorrect strike call.

The perfect game and the no hitter. They routinely yet rarely happen during the half-year baseball season, usually to the best of pitchers no matter which team they play for.

When a pitcher is in the midst of a no-no or perfecto, fans of all teams gather round the television in anticipation of that final out, that glove toss and wild infield party that almost always immediately follows. Even opposing fans give standing ovations, disappointed by their team's loss, but appreciative of bearing witness to baseball history.

When an umpire is in the midst of his near perfect game, however, there is no party waiting to start. There is no added excitement in the air. There is no tension that rises until that last out when all insanity breaks loose.

When an umpire calls a near perfect game, the winning team cheers, the losing team sulks, and the men in blue or black walk off the field unnoticed, not to be glorified in the history books for all time nor cherished for years to come.

But for an umpire, that's exactly how it should be. By calling the umpiring equivalent of a no-hitter, Jeff Nelson was simply doing his job. 


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