Everybody’s favorite umpire, Angel Hernandez, found himself in the middle of another controversy because of a missed call at Kauffman Stadium Tuesday night. It was not all his fault, but Hernandez didn’t help matters with his call on the field or his explanation afterward.
It’s another chapter in a notorious career for Hernandez, who many complain is not an effective umpire. His story also is complicated by a racial discrimination lawsuit he lost against the league claiming MLB passed him over for promotions and rewards in favor of white umpires who were no more deserving. Hernandez, who was born in Cuba, could still be right about MLB; his lawyers just couldn’t prove it this time. But also, if you were to get an honest reply from many major league players and managers about Hernandez’s job performance, it wouldn’t be kind.
This time: With runners at second and third base and one out in the bottom of the third inning, Salvador Perez of the Royals hit a deep fly to the warning track. Neither of the Cleveland outfielders near the ball, Harold Ramirez or Josh Naylor, made the catch. After Ramirez whiffed, Naylor quickly scooped up the ball and threw it toward the infield.
The only problem at this point — OK, it wasn’t the only problem — was that umpires did not make an immediate ruling on the play. The second-base up, David Rackley, had moved to the inner infield to get better positioning for what might happen next. Apparently the fly ball wasn’t his to make, even though he was the closest umpire when the pitch was thrown.
Hernandez, the first-base ump, jogged to shallow right to get a better view of the play, but he didn’t have one because he lost track of the ball, he said later, in the bright lights of a field-level scoreboard. Instead of having the backdrop of a dark-colored fence or even something decorated with a traditional advertisement, it’s like a Lite Brite on steroids out there, which makes it easy to lose track of the ball.
Was it a hit or a catch? Nobody was saying, which — as announcer Rex Hudler said — is all the players have to go on. The immediate issue was: Hernandez needed to signal something quickly, but he didn’t raise his thumb to indicate “out” until after the ball was thrown back into the infield. Here’s a screenshot of the moment Hernandez made his signal:
You can barely see his tiny thumb when the ball is on its way back in. Too late for the baserunners. Andrew Benintendi, as a result, didn’t know where to run and got hung up between second and third base. He was tagged out by Cleveland, but the play definitely was headed for video replay review.
In a postgame chat with a pool reporter, Hernandez detailed what he saw and how it was resolved. Hernandez emphasized, of course, that the assist from video review helped get the call right — not that his call was a problem.
“Our goal was to get the play right, and that’s exactly what we did. We talk about this. Replay is an extension of what we do out there. As you saw, I got basically blinded by the outfield scoreboard. The pixels on the lights were as clear as white can be. I was trying to make out what happened out there.
“The harder I looked, the less I could see. So I was trying to read the players to see what they did with the ball. And I had to come out with the call. I basically guessed on the wrong call. So as soon as I turned around, (home plate umpire) Edwin (Moscoso) started walking towards me. We got the crew together. And we fixed the problem.”
Upon review, Perez was awarded a 380-foot single and Benintendi was sent to third base. Whit Merrifield, who had been at third, was awarded home.
Hernandez making a “guess” with his call isn’t the worst thing. Umpires probably guess more often than they admit or we want to know, and Hernandez is no exception. It was his indecision in the moment that’s the issue.
He’s right about the lights of the scoreboard being confusing; umpires are forced to make absurdly tough calls in modern ballparks that have difficult backdrops. But not making a call on the spot was a huge error on his part.
Cleveland manager Terry Francona argued the call, but not necessarily because it was wrong, saying later: “I just kind of told Angel: ‘Why’s it always happening when you’re here?’ It’s aggravating, but I don’t think there was anything we could do.”
Slow umpire calls are not reviewable by replay anyway.
“What are they going to review? We knew it wasn’t a catch,” Francona said. “Everybody I think knew it but Angel.”