His team’s season had just ended in the American League Division Series, and before the New York Yankees exited into the chill of winter, veteran left-hander CC Sabathia — one of the most respected players in baseball — wanted to vent.
“I need to say this,” Sabathia told reporters at Yankee Stadium after New York’s 4-3 loss to the Red Sox in Game 4. “I don’t think Angel Hernandez should be umping playoff games. He’s absolutely terrible. He was terrible behind the plate today. He was terrible at first base. It’s amazing how he’s getting a job umpiring in these playoff games.”
Later, when asked if Hernandez had been inconsistent Tuesday night, Sabathia added, “Always. He’s bad. I don’t understand why he’s doing these games.”
In the ALDS, Hernandez had become exactly what umpires seek to avoid: a major story line. He made three calls at first base Monday night in Game 3 that replay reviews overturned. Tuesday night, players and managers chirped at him all night. He carries a poor reputation within clubhouses and among fans, which highlights — perhaps unfairly, to some degree — his mistakes. Further raising his profile and adding another layer to the series, Hernandez is suing Major League Baseball for discrimination.
For many fans, Hernandez’s presence and performance in the ALDS spurred the same question Sabathia raised: If he is so bad, why is he umpiring in the playoffs?
Major League Baseball chooses its October umpires based on regular season performance, previous playoff experience, crew compatibility and other smaller factors. The league tries to create balanced crews, mixing umpires who excel on the bases with those who are judged better at calling balls and strikes, for example.
Hernandez, an MLB umpire since 1991, had worked nine division series before this year, seven championship series and two World Series, most recently in 2005. He has also worked three All-Star Games, including last year. And Hernandez, despite Sabathia’s ire, is generally regarded as a better ball-strike umpire than his reputation suggests, even among players, coaches and managers who chafe at how he handles confrontation and other game-management situations.
Umpires cannot work two consecutive rounds, which means Hernandez will not work either championship series. Under MLB’s rules, umpires cannot work consecutive World Series. Hernandez is eligible, along with 23 other division series umpires, to work the World Series. Odds are against Hernandez drawing the assignment.
In July 2017, Hernandez sued the commissioner’s office and Major League Baseball, alleging he had been discriminated against. Hernandez claimed Joe Torre’s personal animus against him, stemming from Torre’s time as the New York Yankees manager, prevented Hernandez from landing choice assignments and becoming a crew chief starting in 2011, when Torre became an MLB executive tasked with, among other roles, overseeing umpires.
Hernandez also alleged minority umpires had received fewer top assignments under Torre, calling it a “troubling trend” in the lawsuit. In the lawsuit, Hernandez said less experienced and less qualified umpires had been given World Series assignments, while he had not.
Among players and coaches, the sentiment that Hernandez is a deserving umpire being robbed of his rightful place on the sport’s biggest state would be laughable. In a 2011 Sports Illustrated poll, players voted Hernandez the third-worst umpire in baseball. Players routinely grumble at the sight of Hernandez umpiring one of their games.
After Game 3, Hernandez declined to speak with a pool reporter about his overturned calls. If you want to make a big leaguer angry, broach the topic of accountability. With near-uniformity, players bristle at having to answer for their worst days while umpires can shirk reporters.
From his perch on the TBS postgame show, Pedro Martinez piled on Hernandez after Game 3.
“Angel was horrible,” Martinez said. “Don’t get me going on Angel now. Major League Baseball needs to do something about Angel. It doesn’t matter how many times he sues Major League Baseball. He’s as bad as there is.”
While Hernandez took heat from several angles, at least one corner supported him. Not surprisingly, it was in the victorious clubhouse, where Red Sox starter Rick Porcello, Game 4’s winning pitcher, responded to Sabathia’s criticism of Hernandez.
“Throw the ball over the plate, CC,” Porcello told reporters in New York. “I thought Angel Hernandez called a good game. You’ve got to put the ball over the white part of the plate, and then you get strikes called.”
According to Statcast data, as analyzed by the umpire-centric website Close Call Sports, Porcello had a better case: Hernandez missed just three calls by a decisive margin. But umpire reputations are difficult to overcome. If players don’t want to see him in the playoffs, it’s going to be difficult to convince them he is making the right calls.