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Everyone’s talking about the World Series strike zone

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The Astros vs. Nationals World Series Game 5 left everyone mad at umpire Lance Barksdale. Getty Images

If you’ve spent five minutes on Twitter during a postseason (or any) baseball game, you’ve probably heard people saying that MLB needs robot umps, right now. It’s been a common thread for most of this season, where people are starting to get even more acquainted with the umpires since it seems as if the level of umpiring is on the decline.

It’s possible this could just be bias on the part of us as fans, since we’ve been exposed to more and more information as the years have gone by. There’s a strike zone on the Gameday tracker on MLB’s own website. There’s a strikezone on most television broadcasts these days. After the game, you can head over to a website like brooksbaseball.com and look at the charts for a pitcher in each game. You can either use those charts for research purposes or you can use them to rage about that bad call that you know for a fact torpedoed your team’s chances at a win.

The point is, it’s understandable to think that maybe all of this information is causing us to believe certain things aren’t really on the up-and-up when truthfully, they actually are. It’s well known that there’s no automated strike zone and things vary from umpire to umpire. It’s been an tolerated part of baseball for a long time and while it can be infuriating, it’s also accepted. It’s the human element that we hear so much about.

With that being said, last night’s umpiring was an example of what happens when the human element becomes infuriating and it’s also unacceptable. That was the case with Lance Barksdale’s performance behind the plate for Game 5 of the World Series. A bad call every now and then is understandable — again, it’s just part of the ebbs and flows of a game and you kind of just accept that the umpire is human and they’re going to make mistakes. It’s when the umpire becomes the center of attention that this becomes a problem.

On Sunday night, things came to a head in the seventh inning. By this point, Barksdale had already drawn the ire of Nationals manager Davey Martinez after an incident in the sixth inning when the home plate umpire strangely called a pitch a ball when it was clearly a strike. Both Nationals catcher Yan Gomes and Martinez loudly let it known at that point that they weren’t a fan of the call and it was perplexing to say the least. So by the time the next inning rolled around, things were already heated once the Nationals returned to the plate.

If you missed the rest of the game, then the final two at-bats of the seventh inning would have been all you needed to see to know just what kind of night Lance Barksdale was having behind the plate. In what turned out to be the penultimate at-bat, Gerrit Cole ran the count full and he was officially locked into a serious duel with Ryan Zimmerman. Cole’s sixth pitch was high and a little outside. Astros catcher Martin Maldonado started to walk off as if if was strike three. Barksdale took his time making his decision and he ultimately ruled it a ball. Both Maldonado and Cole were stunned and even Zimmerman was a bit confused as to what was going on. Eventually, Zimmerman just took off to first base and the Nationals had a baserunner on with two outs.

Five pitches later, Cole was in the same situation with Victor Robles. It was a full count and Cole was either going to make the pitch to get Houston out of the inning or Robles was going to get something started for the Nationals. It’s the type of moment that both players and fans live for, so everybody was waiting as Cole pumped in his final fastball of the night. The sixth pitch of this at-bat landed in nearly the exact same spot as the sixth pitch of the previous at-bat. You could even argue that this pitch was even further outside than the other pitch. Zimmerman’s payoff pitch was called a ball — Robles’ payoff pitch was called a strike. That ended the inning and Lance Barksdale cemented his status as the second-most unpopular man in Nationals Park.

Once again, this appeared to be a case of the umpire having an adverse reaction to the players seemingly “showing him up.” Just as Maldonado ended up costing the Astros a strike in the eyes of the only man who mattered, Robles deciding to leave the batters box too quickly must have been too much of an offense for Barksdale to let go idly by and he called it a strike. You can easily argue that both of those pitches were borderline calls that could have gone either way, but you at least want consistency from the umpire when it comes to those borderline calls. If a pitch that’s just a bit high and outside is a ball in one at-bat, it better be a ball in the very next at-bat.

Of course, this isn’t to say that Barksdale cost the Nationals or helped the Astros win. Gerrit Cole is an excellent pitcher. He took the second chance he got to face this Nationals team in the World Series and ran with it. The Nationals have struggled mightily since this series moved to Washington and they’ve seen their 2-0 lead somehow transform into a 3-2 deficit. The umpiring probably didn’t do a lot to move the needle either way, but it was still disturbing to see and it was also the continuation of a trend that’s been going in the wrong direction for the umpires as of late. It may be a little unfair to call out an umpire for having one bad day when he’s probably had hundreds of better days in the past but to paraphrase Davey Martinez as he yelled at Lance Barksdale, “It’s the World Series.” Things get magnified for everybody and the umpires aren’t exempt.