Don’t kill the umps just yet

Justin Verlander may have sought divine intervention with Angel Hernandez, but his ex-Astros rotation mate Cole may have other sobering thoughts about the Angel of Doom.

The mere presence of Angel Hernandez among the division series umpiring crews may have been enough to drive most baseball temperatures through the top of the tube. His crew is working the National League division set between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres.

But New York Yankees pitcher Gerrit Cole may wish Hernandez was working their set with the Tampa Bay Rays, instead. Even if he ever had occasion to dispute one of Hernandez’s calls and the controversial umpire’s long-established reputation for trying to insert himelf too deep into the game for comfort.

This one comes from our Who’d-a-Thunk-It Department: Cole has pitched three times in his career with Hernandez calling balls and strikes. His ERA with the Angel of Doom behind the plate is—wait for it!—1.80.

Just don’t tell that to at least one ex-Yankee for whom Hernandez was as useful as a sore throat, CC Sabathia.

The only way Cole might reject Hernandez behind the plate would be if he were offered the choice between Hernandez and Adrian Johnson. Among the umps behind the plate for three or more games Cole’s pitched, his ERA with Johnson (also three games) is 0.90. But if you mention any of that, bank on it: it’ll be Hernandez who makes the jaws hit the floor.

Now, it’ll be easier to pass the political (lack of) class through polygraph tests than to discover Gerrit Cole demanding Angel Hernandez work his games behind the plate, of course. But wouldn’t you love to know how a group of today’s top-of-the-line pitchers work with certain umpires calling their pitches?

Cole himself has worked with three of the Four Wisenheimers: Hernandez, C.B. Bucknor, and Laz Diaz. Somehow, some way, Cole’s managed to pitch without Country Joe West behind the plate even once. Prepare yourself: With Bucknor behind the plate, Cole’s lifetime ERA is 1.50. (Maybe Hernandez shouldn’t be in a hurry for Cole’s personal invitation.) With Diaz behind the plate, though, Cole’s lifetime ERA is 5.68.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that Bucknor, Diaz, Hernandez, and West are baseball’s four worst or at least most confrontational self-promoters in the game today. Everybody with me?

Now, let’s look at how this season’s ERA leaders—every starting pitcher with a sub-3.00 ERA in 2020, irregular season or not—have fared in their careers according to the umps calling their balls and strikes. Among those umps who’ve worked behind the plate in a minimum three of their games lifetime, who do they love and hate the most back there?

You may or may not be surprised. (Arizona’s Zac Gallen, who sits between Zach Davis and Kyle Hendricks on the 2020 ERA parade, isn’t included because he’s never worked with any single umpire behind the plate for more than two games so far. He’s also never worked with the Four Wisenheimers. Yet.)

Pitchers & Plate Umps, At Least Three Games (2020 ERA Leaders)
Pitcher Loves Behind the Plate Hates Behind the Plate
Shane Bieber Carlos Torres (3.94) Larry Vanover (4.80)
Trevor Bauer Ted Barrett (0.78) Alan Porter (9.27)
Dallas Keuchel Mark Ripperger (0.95) Paul Nauert (7.91)
Yu Darvish Bill Welke (0.94) Rob Drake (7.53)
Dinelson Lamet Mike Muchlinski (2.65) Tom Woodring (2.81)
Chris Bassitt Alfonso Marquez (0.34) Phil Cuzzi (7.04)
Jacob deGrom Lance Barrett (0.48) Mike Muchlinski (7.98)
Hyun-Jin Ryu Brian Knight (0.43) Alan Porter (5.40)
Kenta Maeda Scott Barry (1.13) D.J. Rayburn (8.56)
Zach Davies Chris Conroy (1.00) Rob Drake (6.75)
Kyle Hendricks Marvin Hudson (0.44) Kerwin Danley (6.38)
Carlos Carrasco Adrian Johnson (0.52) Joe West (8.44)
Zack Wheeler James Hoye (0.87) Pat Hoberg (8.10)

Hands up to everyone who’s surprised three out of the Four Wisenheimers didn’t show up even once on that survey—never mind Alan Porter and Rob Drake showing up twice in the hates-behind-the-plate column.

Now, hands up to everyone who’s shocked that Joe West shows up only once. (Was anyone really surprised to see it’d be in the hates-behind-the-plate column?) Hands up, too, to everyone who’s shocked that Trevor Bauer hates Porter behind the plate more than Carlos Carrasco hates Country Joe.

You may have noticed that Mike Muchlinski is the only umpire to show up once each in the loves and hates columns. Making it tempting for cynics to ask what he has against Jacob deGrom that he doesn’t have against Dinelson Lamet. (Or, to ask when Chris Bassitt plans to blow Alfonso Marquez to a chateau briand dinner with all the trimmings.)

Of course, a pitcher’s ERA with a particular umpire behind the plate isn’t necessarily conclusive. Brian Knight could have given Hyun-Jin Ryu a small volume of strike calls on pitches that weren’t within a mile of the zone’s ZIP code. Porter could have called every pitch from Bauer on the money.

It could go in reverse, too. Knight could give Ryu a ton of balls that hit the zone and Ryu could just shake them off and bear down harder. Porter could call some strikes for Bauer that weren’t even visible on radar and Bauer could just get plain clobbered no matter where the other pitches were called.

Nor does any of the foregoing mean I’m backing off my calls for umpire accountability, for the end of umpires having their own kind of qualified immunity. I’m not backing off my approval of the coming electronic strike zones and even robot umps.

I’m funny that way. I don’t believe umps deserve qualified immunity from their glaring inaccuracies, any more than I believe rogue police deserve qualified immunity from answering for their misdeeds or crimes when they commit them. I don’t believe the “beautiful human factor” (Joe Torre’s words) means a license to blow calls on pitches Ray Charles could see in the zone or Superman couldn’t see out of the zone.

And, I don’t believe there’s a damn thing wrong with getting it right. Especially when championship advance or championship victory is squarely on the line.

But I’m still trying to fathom whether Gerrit Cole’s lifetime 1.80 ERA with the Angel of Doom calling his balls and strikes is more peculiar than Carlos Carrasco among this irregular season’s ERA leaders wishing for anyone except Joe West working behind the plate.

(Even the others among the Four Wisenheimers? Carrasco has three with C.B. Bucknor—7.54 ERA; thirteen strikeouts, three walks. He has three with Joe West, too—aside from the ghastly 8.44 ERA, he’s got a measly six strikeouts and five walks with Country Joe behind the dish. With the Angel of Doom behind the plate? One game, 0.00 ERA for the game with ten strikeouts and a walk. Maybe Carrasco ought to send Cole a text message.)

Or, maybe it’s just another useful affirmation of one of baseball’s oldest laws: Anything can happen—and usually does.

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