Cooperstown Confidential: The umpires, Moneybags Jaramillo, and the legacy of Larry Jansen

If you’re thinking that the quality of umpiring in this year’s postseason has been historically atrocious, you’re not guilty of exaggeration. In my 35 years of fandom, I’ve never seen postseason umpiring as egregiously awful as it’s been this fall—and it’s not even close. Hardly a game goes by without some obvious failure by an arbiter, whether it’s a fly ball called foul despite being clearly fair, a home plate umpire with a radically inconsistent strike zone, the inability to call runners out when they’re not standing on a base, or a phantom determination that a runner left third base too soon when he clearly did not.

The wave of botched rulings has led to a clarion call for increased use of instant replay, especially during the postseason. Expanded instant replay would improve the ratio of good calls to blown calls, but also would lengthen games that are already marathons. It would not improve the quality of umpiring, which remains the crux of the problem. In fact, instant replay would only make umpires more tentative and less attentive, since they would come to rely on replay as a crutch, a corrective measure that could magically fix their on-field mistakes.

Clearly, Major League Baseball needs to adopt a more stringent evaluation process that rewards the best umpires and penalizes the worst. It might not be feasible to evaluate umpires on an every-game basis, the way that it is done in the NFL, but MLB needs to judge as many games as possible, preferably on a random, unannounced basis. The evaluation process should include the number of disputed calls for each umpire, the tendency of specific umpires to escalate on-field arguments, and the ability of each umpire to interpret the rule book properly. (Umpires’ conditioning also should be addressed. There is no excuse for a major league umpire to be 30 or 40 pounds overweight, not when positioning is such a vital part of an umpire’s job.)

One solution, as politically incorrect as it might be, would involve ranking umpires. The ranking would be based on performance points that reward umpires who make the highest percentage of correct calls and most accurately follow the guidelines of the rulebook strike zone. According to the MLB web site, 67 fulltime umpires currently work at the major league level. So let’s fully evaluate all 67 throughout the regular season and then rank them at season’s end. The top 24 umpires would receive postseason assignments, with the top 12 advancing to the Championship Series, and a “super six” moving on to the World Series. Postseason performance should count, too, so that a top-rated umpire who has a particularly rough Division Series could lose his chance to advance to the LCS.

In addition to basing postseason assignments on merit, MLB needs to look at the other end of the spectrum and weed out the weakest umpires. Under our proposed system, the 10 worst-ranked umpires would be penalized at season’s end by being sent back to Triple-A for the following season. Just like players, umpires should be subject to demotion for poor performance. That would also allow the best minor league umpires, many of whom are unfairly stuck in the bushes for years, more opportunity to move to the highest level.

Without question, the current performance of umpires in the postseason has forced Major League Baseball to a watershed moment. The commissioner’s office can no longer push the issue of umpire performance to the back burner, not when the outcry from fans and media has reached these levels. When the umpires are making as many headlines as the players, especially in the showcase known as the postseason, the time has come to make some major changes.

Another famous hitting coach?

Is Rudy Jaramillo the reincarnation of Charlie Lau, or perhaps a newer version of Walt Hriniak? Those questions came to my mind when I heard that Jaramillo had signed a three-year deal worth nearly $2.5 million from the Chicago Cubs.

Jaramillo, who had been with the Texas Rangers for 15 years, might be the most prominent hitting instructor since either Hriniak, now retired from the game, or Lau, who died after a long battle with cancer in 1984. Lau and Hriniak are probably the two most famous batting coaches over the last 35 years.

Hriniak learned from the master in Lau, who was his minor league manager in the late 1960s. It was Lau who taught him the distinctive (and controversial) style of hitting that became his trademark: Batters were taught to practically throw their bat toward the ball while releasing the top hand from the grip. Hriniak adopted the unique hitting style and carried it over to his own teachings as a batting coach in Boston and Chicago, where he reworked the swings of Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk. He also taught Frank Thomas the Lau approach.

During the 1970s, Lau brought his methods into the public spotlight by working with a young pupil named George Brett. Brett lapped up Lau’s teachings, translating them into a picture-perfect swing that made him a three-time batting champion. Brett became the most famous of Lau’s students, but certainly not the only good one; Hal McRae, Amos Otis and Willie Wilson also incorporated many of Lau’s philosophies, all becoming better major league hitters in the process. During later stints with the Yankees and White Sox, Lau seemed to have less tangible impact, but did tutor a young Harold Baines in Chicago.

Jaramillo’s contract, a reward for a reputation he developed during his years in Texas, now puts him into the conversation with Hriniak and Lau. Before this year, when his Rangers turned in a subpar performance at the plate, Jaramillo had received high praise for maximizing the hitting potential of developing stars like Mark Teixeira, Michael Young and Josh Hamilton. The Cubs are hoping he can yield similar results with their underachieving offense, albeit one laced with veteran hitters like Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and Milton Bradley. The latter two are former pupils of Jaramillo in Texas.

Jaramillo’s hiring raises another interesting question. What will his relationship be with manager Lou Piniella, who has always developed close ties to his teams’ hitters? If the Cubs underachieve again in 2010, could Piniella be fired in midseason and be replaced by Jaramillo, who was once considered a candidate for the managerial job in Texas? After all, Lau and Hriniak had such strong followings with their teams that they sometimes clashed with their managers (as Lau once did with Jack McKeon). Based on such history, it could be an interesting summer at Wrigley Field.

Jansen was more than one shining moment

Former major league right-hander Larry Jansen, a standout starter on several New York Giants staffs in the late 1940s and early ’50s, died this month at the age of 89. Many of the obituaries underscored the fact that he was the winning pitcher in the famed 1951 tiebreaker game decided by Bobby Thomson’s iconic “Shot Heard Round the World.” As with many news stories, the headline here placed the achievements of a man like Jansen in an extremely limited light. Jansen’s accomplishments go well beyond that happenstance.

Jansen began carving out a significant legacy as a minor league pitcher. He became the last Triple-A pitcher to win 30 or more games in a season, which helped earn him a promotion to the Giants in 1947. Pitching in his first full major league season, Jansen posted victories in 21 of 26 decisions, a statistical feat that would have won him the Rookie of the Year Award in most seasons. Unfortunately for him, Jansen happened to be a rookie at the same time as Hall of Fame second baseman Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier and pushed the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant.

Jansen remained a Giants stalwart through the 1951 season, when he led the National League with 23 wins. A huge component to the Giants’ remarkable second-half comeback, which culminated with the “Miracle at Coogan’s Bluff,” Jansen made up for his lack of overpowering stuff with pinpoint control and a keen sense of mixing his pitches.

Jansen’s performance in 1951 earned him the second of two All-Star Game nods, while capping a two-season stint in which his ERA registered just a tick over 3.00. And then, in 1952, Jansen’s career began to fall off severely. He suffered from back trouble, which caused him to change his pitching motion, eventually affecting the health of his arm. By the end of the 1956 season, in what amounted to a lackluster eight-game stint with the Cincinnati Reds, Jansen’s major league career was over.

To no one’s surprise, Jansen used his high pitching intelligence in making a smooth transition to coaching. As the Giants moved to San Francisco, Jansen emerged as one of the game’s leading pitching coaches. He received acclaim for his work with two young right handers in particular, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, who earned most of their Hall of Fame credit while pitching for San Francisco. Even with the Giants changing managers frequently during the 1960s and ’70s, winding their way from Alvin Dark to Herman Franks to Clyde King to Charlie Fox, Jansen remained the Giants’ pitching coach year after year. Jansen’s work paid strong dividends in 1962 and 1971, when the Giants won a league pennant and a Western Division title, respectively.

From minor league standout to major league ace to pitching guru, Larry Jansen’s career deserves far more notice than a mere link to Bobby Thomson.

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  1. Jamie said...

    I think Jaramillo was hired largely due to his past (successful) work with Alfonso Soriano. With something like 5 years and $90 million left on Sori’s contract, a hitting coach that can help him get back to anything resembling his past form would be well worth the extra $2.4 mil. 

    I wouldn’t worry about Jaramillo clashing with LouPa. Piniella didn’t hire any of the current Cubs coaches (outside his buddy Matt Sinatro). Hendry brought in Alan Trammel and Larry Rothschild, and the rest are all “organizational guys”.

  2. Total said...

    How about we rank umpiring crews, rather than individuals, and keep those crews together during the postseason?

  3. jim vankoski said...

    Bruce, I remember attending a spring training game in Pompano Beach Fla. between Kansas City and Texas. This was in the good old days of spring training when fans could be part of the action. Charley Lau the hitting coach for KC was having a heated discussion with Lou Piniella and Hal McRae on changes they should make regarding their style of hitting. If Jaramille is a Lau advocate I guess Lau’s arguments won out. I personally give Lau as much credit as drugs for the increase in offense after the pitching era. Charley Lau was a genius who was never given the credit he deserved by the pros involved in baseball after his death.

  4. Bob Sanchez said...

    How about we use the technology we have and take responsibilities away from the umpires?  Why do we need them for fair/foul, ball/strike, home run/not home run?  MLB could pay for someone to develop devices that make indisputable calls instantly and have them installed by 2011.

    I see two options – give in to the machines and keep four guys around to call tag plays, balks, and to interpret rules; or MLB and the networks agree not to show replays.  Ever.

    Both of these at least spare us from the embarrassment of having to watch the human and computer systems war against each other on TV.  It’s getting less and less entertaining.

  5. Jim Casey said...

    Here’s how you fix the umpiring problem. You have a guy in a booth with 3 tv’s, and access to every angle available from the broadcast network. He is in voice contact with the crew chief via an earpiece that the crew chief would wear. On any close or questionable call, the guy in the booth tells the crew chief he’s looking at it. Should take less than a minute for him to watch the play, and then tell the crew chief to change the call or affirm the call on the field.

  6. Meaux Joe said...

    I percieve umpires intentionally blowing calls as an investment in thier future. It will make for some interesting reading when their book comes out.
    In this day and age in which everyone wants to be famous for something, there are those who will take the fame even if it means admitting to being dishonest. Lies=$$$
    Meaux Joe

  7. Paul Singman said...

    My one quibble with your discussion of the umpiring situation:

    “Expanded instant replay would improve the ratio of good calls to blown calls, but also would lengthen games that are already marathons.”

    I do not believe games would be lengthened if an ump in a booth like Jim said was watching the replays because then you wouldn’t have those old skippers limping out onto the field, stating their futile case the ump, maybe getting tossed, and then hobbling back into the dugout.

    In fact, instant replay might even make the games shorter.

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