MINNEAPOLIS – One by one, they scurried up the tunnel to witness the latest umpiring disgrace. By now, the Minnesota Twins are used to crucial calls in the postseason going against them, though that doesn't make them any less masochistic about it. When one happens, they want to see it.
And so they exited the dugout, took a right turn, then a left into the room that houses the BATS Video Coaching System. It replays pitches from any number of camera angles, and it affirmed their first impression: Hunter Wendelstedt, the umpire whose strike zone would've been bad for a Little League game, had indeed blown the most important call of the night. The tailing fastball from Carl Pavano(notes) had crossed home plate, and it should have been a called third strike on Lance Berkman(notes) for the second out of the seventh inning.
When Berkman slammed the next pitch over Denard Span's(notes) head in center field for a go-ahead double in the New York Yankees' 5-2 victory at Target Field, the Twins couldn't help but lament their fortunes. Last postseason, a muffed call by umpire Phil Cuzzi cost them in an eventual Yankees sweep in the American League Division Series. After falling behind 2-0 in a best-of-five series that heads to Yankee Stadium, a similar fate seems to be chasing these Twins.
[Big League Stew: Postseason opened with a blown call]
They skulked out of the BATS room lamenting their fortune that Major League Baseball dipped into its expansive umpiring clown car for the man who stood behind home plate Thursday night.
Now, let's get one thing straight: If Hunter Wendelstedt really did earn this postseason assignment based on merit – and MLB claims that it puts only the best umpires in the playoffs, though that's rather dubious seeing as it's anything but transparent with umpiring data – he should've been nowhere near this series. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire last season said Wendelstedt believes "he's God as umpires go," and that "he's got a smart-ass mouth," and that "he's got an attitude," and, for good measure, he had "a lot of problems with Hunter."
Sounds like the perfect candidate to bring impartiality and objectivity.
Wendelstedt ejected Gardenhire when he came to visit Pavano after the Berkman double and let his feelings be known. Gardenhire said their history "has nothing to do with it," and since umpires don't have to hold themselves accountable, crew chief Jerry Crawford spoke to a pool reporter on behalf of Wendelstedt. Their conversation went accordingly:
Reporter: What did Gardenhire say?
Crawford: Balls and strikes. That simple.
Reporter: Was there anything said regarding the history between Hunter and Ron that's been public?
Reporter: Did Hunter say anything about the pitch, the 2-2 to Berkman?
Here's what can be said about the pitch to Berkman: It was a strike – in plain view, in slow motion and captured by the cameras of the Pitchf/x system that provides data on every pitch thrown today in the major leagues. Pitchf/x is the enemy of umpires because it holds them accountable and highlights their mistakes. And Thursday night, Hunter Wendelstedt made an unconscionable number of errors for a playoff umpire.
It wasn't just the Berkman pitch. Wendelstedt's strike zone was askew all night. A website called Brooks Baseball takes the Pitchf/x data and filters it by pitcher, at-bat and even umpire. With the umpiring data, the site calibrates each at-bat to reflect a hitter's height, then puts out a data plot showing his accuracy on balls and strikes.
A number of umpire Hunter Wendelstedt's called strikes and balls in the ALDS Game 2 appeared to be wrong.
The Berkman pitch was one of 31 wrong calls by Wendelstedt. Thirteen other times he called a ball on a pitch inside the strike zone, one of them on a cutter to Derek Jeter(notes) that literally was in the center of the strike zone, at the belt, halving the plate. And 17 times – most of them actually benefitting Pavano – Wendelstedt called a strike on a pitch outside the zone.
This is not normal. It is not close. In the Atlanta-San Francisco game Thursday, Dana DeMuth missed nine calls. With Texas-Tampa Bay, Jim Wolf was wrong 12 times. Both were reasonable. Both, too, are good umpires.
Good ball-and-strike umpires are difficult to find, sure, but not so much that MLB should be forced to stick bad ones in vital games. On the day Tim Lincecum(notes) threw an all-time postseason gem, and a day after Roy Halladay(notes) threw the first postseason no-hitter in more than 50 years, baseball couldn't escape the umpiring screw-ups that have plagued it for three seasons running.
This is a matter of integrity. Umpires, as Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, "aren't robots, and they don't have X-ray vision." They must, however, live up to a high standard, and those who don't ought to be jettisoned. Forget the union. MLB broke it once. Forget the politics. Baseball need not kowtow. There is too much at stake.
Miscues, like the non-call on Texas third baseman Michael Young's(notes) check swing Thursday, have little recourse. Some of the problems are fixable. More instant replay, for example. In Game 1 of the Yankees-Twins series, Greg Golson(notes) made what should've been a game-ending catch. Umpire Chris Guccione ruled it a trap. Buster Posey(notes) scored the only run in the Giants-Braves game after an umpire missed the tag on a shouldn't-have-been stolen base. Remedying a missed call is as easy as having an extra umpire in the booth. But hey. Baseball needs its human element.
And humans, as Hunter Wendelstedt so ably proved Thursday, are very fallible. A world in which computers call balls and strikes is so terribly dystopian, yet in Game 2 it would've been a good alternative to the on-field debacle that was Wendelstedt's eyesight.
Unlike last year's call with Cuzzi, the Twins publicly took the high road. Pavano, who refused to criticize Wendelstedt, said: "I don't think it does you any justice or your teammates justice when you lose your emotions over maybe a missed call or not a missed call."
Perhaps it doesn't, though under their breaths Twins players muttered about Wendelstedt's inclusion on the postseason umpiring docket. Some of it was sour grapes. Most of it was the truth. His reputation is summed up in one word by Oakland first baseman Daric Barton(notes), whom he ejected after a Sept. 12 game in which Wendelstedt called a game-ending third strike: "Terrible."
Like Barton, Berkman has excellent plate discipline, and he called the pitch borderline. And, in a way, he was right. The fashion in which Wendelstedt was calling pitches all night – giving away up to eight inches on the outside corner against left-handed hitters and squeezing the inner half of the plate – he was moderately consistent. Such dependability is generally all for which players ask.
It's a shame that the standards have gotten so low. While umpires will vary on the height of their zone, the width is not some subjective determination. Home plate is home plate. It doesn't move.
The Twins saw it on their video machine, saw it with their own two eyes. They had been hosed. Again. The man who did it – the man who shouldn't have ever been there in the first place – will stand on the right-field line Saturday for Game 3, gainfully, laughably employed.
- Hunter Wendelstedt