yankees-strike-zone-disaster-increases-urgency-for-robot-umpires

Once upon a time, an umpire had a strike zone that turned an unknown pitcher into a household name.

OK. That’s not entirely true. Livan Hernandez had already had a terrific 1997 season for the Florida Marlins. He went 9-3 in 17 starts. He had a 3.18 ERA. He finished second to Scott Rolen in NL Rookie of the Year voting. He’d already won a game in the NLCS against the Braves, pitching 1 ²/₃ solid innings in relief in Game 3. Two days later, Jim Leyland gave him the ball to start pivotal Game 5, the series tied 2-2.

And Hernandez was, in a word, otherworldly. Or to be more precise: his line was. He threw nine innings, threw 143 pitches, allowed only three hits in a 2-1 win. But the eye-popping number was this: 15 strikeouts.

Hernandez was not a strikeout pitcher. He never was at any point in a 17-year career that yielded, in wonderful baseball symmetry, a 178-177 lifetime won-loss record. His career high in whiffs, to that point, was eight. He’d done that twice. Yet in the biggest game of his life, he’d nearly doubled that.

And of course, all these years later, we know why. The late Eric Gregg, known for an affable personality and a zaftig body, called balls and strikes that day. And when it came to Gregg, he called a lot of balls strikes. His zone got wider as the shadows grew longer. After awhile, it became a running joke in real time.

CB Bucknor
CB Bucknor had a rough night during Game 2 of the ALDS.Getty Images

The Braves, of course, didn’t find it funny.

“I’m so mad right now, I can’t see straight,” Chipper Jones said back in ’97. “Some people work their whole lives to get into this situation, and when you’re not allowed to do your job …”

For years Gregg, who died at age 55 in 2006, has been the easiest reference point for awful home plate umpiring. But after Game 2 Tuesday night, he has some company. CB Bucknor, who has long been among the least-respected umps in the game, had a tough night, with a strike zone that expanded and shrank inexplicably all night.

The Rays and Yankees both spent some time complaining about Bucknor’s wayward zone, but it was the Yankees who made the most vocal appeal in the ninth, when a 3-and-1 pitch from a scatter-armed Tampa pitcher named Pete Fairbanks sailed high and outside to Gleyber Torres … only to have Bucknor call it a strike.

The reaction in the New York dugout, especially from Brett Gardner, was immediate and it was histrionic, and it is a fortunate thing for Bucknor and for baseball that it wound up a footnote: Torres walked anyway, and the rest of the inning was generally uneventful.

Still, this is 2020 now. In 1997, you did what you’d been doing since the beginning of time if an umpire marred a game: you complained and you yelled and you offered up any manner of dispute, but it mostly fell on deaf ears. What was baseball going to do about it?

Well, baseball is nearing a day when it can do something about it. Mechanical umps already exist. And their day is coming. And when umpires like Bucknor have the kind of night he had Tuesday … well, it feels like that day is coming quicker and quicker.

Bucknor isn’t the only ump who’s had a tough go of things. A night earlier, in Game 1, in a huge spot, Gerrit Cole threw a curveball to Manuel Margot with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth that crossed up Yankees catcher Kyle Higashioka, who was looking fastball but snagged the pitch.

It also crossed up home plate ump David Rackley. The problem was the pitch was a strike, and a pretty obvious one. Cole blew away Margot with a pair of blazing fastballs so that pitch barely registered, except from this perspective: an auto ump wouldn’t have been fooled.

Auto umps don’t get crossed up.

We are getting there some day. It’s inevitable. Once the system is considered fail-safe, it’s only a matter of time. If you believe in the human element that will be a sad day.

If you believe in getting the calls right 100 percent of the time?

You probably won’t feel quite so melancholy.