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On Monday April 18, Major League Baseball umpire Pat Hoberg called a near-perfect game. He called 122 of 123 taken pitches accurately. Hoberg missed a borderline call on the first pitch of the game, then called every other pitch correctly. It was an extraordinary effort.

Last Sunday night in a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and Philadelphia Phillies, umpire Angel Hernandez inaccurately called 16 pitches that were taken for an 88 per cent success rate. He actually called a pitch that was 6.5 inches off the inside corner of the plate a strike. It was the biggest miss of a pitch this season. Hernandez had players and manager in both dugouts screaming at him. Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber lost his mind and was ejected from the game for arguing.

Being an umpire is tough. They are asked to do an impossible job. I have great respect for them. Most umpires’ performances fall somewhere in between the Hoberg and Hernandez efforts. 

Hall of Famer Tom Seaver used to say that every game for a pitcher comes down to four or five key pitches. Every other pitch thrown sets up those pitches. If you ask any hitter, a mistake by an umpire on a 1-1 pitch can be crippling. A pitch called a strike that should be a ball changes the entire dynamic of an at-bat. A 1-2 count is totally different than a 2-1 count. Any one mistake can change the outcome of an at-bat, an inning, or a game.

The horrific game by Hernandez has renewed the call for automated strike zones. MLB has been testing them for several years now in the minor leagues. The Automated Ball and Strike System (ABS) operated in some spring training venues and is in AAA West and Low-A Southeast this season.

The feedback on the system has been good for the most part, but that isn’t good enough.  The biggest challenge has been calibrating what is the actual strike zone and applying that to each hitter’s stance. By most accounts, the system is improving but isn’t ready for MLB games. Sources I spoke with said they hope to get the technology in place by the start of the 2023 season, or for 2024 at the latest.

So many people are opposed to the ABS because they don’t want to lose the human element of the game. I think that is ridiculous. There isn’t one person in uniform that wants to accept the wrong calls to maintain the human element.

As a general manager, all I wanted was for the actual action on the field to lead to the actual outcome of the game. I don’t want to accept the mistakes that come with the human element, even if the correct call has a negative impact on my team. I can live with losing a game because the proper calls were made, but I never want to lose because of a mistake. I know fans say they want the human element, but what if it costs your team a playoff spot or a World Series? It sounds good until it hurts your team.

A's attendance woes

The Oakland Athletics drew just over 17,000 fans on Opening Day, a far cry from a sellout at the Oakland Coliseum. A few days later they played a game against the Baltimore Orioles that drew only 3,748 fans. Yikes. 

The A’s have needed a new stadium for more than a decade now. They’ve been trying to find locations and municipalities to help fund a new stadium.

Recently, the franchise found a location they hoped to build a new stadium on in the Bay area and secured a non-binding agreement with Oakland City Council. That sounds good but means nothing. There is growing pessimism that the new location will come to fruition. It seems highly likely that the team will have to relocate. Las Vegas seems to be the most likely landing spot, but San Antonio and Portland are possibilities that have been mentioned as well.

The lack of attendance is a clear statement from the fans that they are fed up with the process of building up and tearing down the roster due to financial limitations. Every time the club is competitive the players have to be traded because the team can’t afford to keep them. There are only so many punches to the gut that a fanbase can withstand.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has said that he wants the stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa resolved before baseball considers expansion. With financial losses due to COVID-19 and changes in the collective bargaining agreement, the other 28 owners want expansion as soon as possible. The expansion fees will be about $2 billion per team, which will be shared by the owners. It will go a long way toward mediating the losses from the past several years.  There will be mounting pressure from owners for these two teams to resolve their issues.

The writing is on the wall: Oakland will soon lose the Athletics. Things seems to be moving in that direction in Tampa as well.

Spitting Seeds

- The Jays (13-7) have played 14 of their first 20 games against playoff teams from 2021. It doesn’t get any easier as they play the Houston Astros and New York Yankees again in the next six games. The silver lining is they will miss Houston ace Justin Verlander, who beat the Texas Rangers on Thursday by throwing seven innings of one-run ball, while striking out eight. They will also miss Yankees ace Gerrit Cole as he toes the rubber on Saturday against the Kansas City Royals. Sometimes it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them. Timing matters during a season. 

- Alek Manoah delivered another dazzling start for the Jays on Thursday, chucking seven scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox. He allowed three hits and a walk while striking out seven batters. Manoah has won eight straight decisions, while the team has won in each of his past 12 games started. The Blue Jays record for most consecutive wins by a pitcher (11) and the club in a pitcher’s starts (14) are held by Roy Halladay. Manoah is currently tied for second in most consecutive wins with Roger Clemens.

That’s ironic because the big 24-year-old righty reminds me of a young Clemens. I asked him at spring training to name the pitcher he thought was his comparable and he said CC Sabathia. That’s not a bad one either. Clemens pitched with an aggression on the mound that he wore on his sleeve. I see that same competitiveness in Manoah. Someday, a young pitcher will be asked that same question about a comparable and he will say Alek Manoah. This young man is going to leave quite a mark on the game and this franchise. 

- It’s almost like he was never gone. Ronald Acuna Jr., the star outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, returned to the lineup on Thursday night for the first time since July 10 last year when he tore his ACL. He missed the excitement of the postseason and his first World Series. The injury was certainly painful, but the pain of the helplessness of not being able to play was excruciating for the young star.

He went 1 for 5 with a single but most surprisingly and amazingly he stole two bases in the game. So much for easing his way back into it. The Braves say they will rest him and make sure that he doesn’t overdo it. He won’t play on day games after night games, and they will be selective with other days off for him as well. But there was no holding him back on Thursday as he exploded out of the gates. It’s great news for fans and horrible news for opponents, particularly in the NL East. Welcome back, Ronald.