Umpire Relations

How to Make Friends and Influence People (or Not): Umpire Edition

Things got testy for Denard Span Tuesday.

We know already that there are different ways to deal with umpires—some effective, some not so much. We know already that superstars have more leeway in this regard than the average player. And if we didn’t know already that you may as well go ahead and vent once you have nothing left to lose in a game—say, if you’ve just been rung up on three pitches out of the strike zone as your team’s final out in the ninth inning—we learned about it on Monday.

We’ve learned a lot about umpire relations since Monday, in fact. Three examples (at least), in three different situations, with three different kinds of player. Whether these examples set any sort of precedent when it comes to understanding player-umpire relations is less clear than the fact that they were all wildly entertaining, and gave some insight into the psyches of those involved, players and umpires alike.

Start with Monday’s game in San Francisco, in which Roy Halladay walked Aubrey Huff in the fifth inning on an 88 mph cutter with two outs and a runner on first. Trouble was, Halladay didn’t agree that the pitch was a ball. (To his credit, neither pitch-tracking service Brooks Baseball; thanks to Hardball Talk for the link.)  From the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb:

Halladay snatched the throw from Carlos Ruiz and didn’t flinch. His eyes were focused on (Marty) Foster, the home-plate umpire . . . Foster noticed the death stare. He said something to Halladay, who barked back. Then Halladay pointed to make his anger totally clear. It was a brief exchange, one Halladay later claimed was not directed at Foster. But that was the pitcher’s way of being diplomatic.

The result: Five pitches later, Halladay threw another cutter to Brandon Belt, this one well off the plate. It was called a strike, Belt’s third of the at-bat. Inning over.

“His demands had been heard,” wrote Gelb. Halladay had “conquered the umpire.”

Across the country, more balls were being called strikes, including three of Fernando Rodney’s five pitches to Cody Ross, Boston’s final batter in the final frame of a 1-0 loss to Tampa Bay.  (See them in another chart from Brooks Baseball, also via Hardball Talk.)

Ross, suffice it to say, was less than pleased, going off later in the Boston Herald about the ignominy of what had just occurred, calling the judgement of plate ump Larry Vanover “unacceptable.”

“If I’m going up there and striking out every at-bat, I’m going to get benched,” he said. “But it’s not that way with (umpires). They can go out there and make bad calls all day, and they’re not going to be held accountable for it.”

Confronting an umpire apparently made a difference for Halladay. The same might be said for Ross (who did it through the press), but not in a way that held any appeal for the player. It could be coincidence, but the following day, three Rangers pitchers struck out a total of 11 Boston hitters—a team high since opening day, when they struck out 13 White Sox—as Texas cruised, 18-3.

On Tuesday in New York, Minnesota’s Denard Span was tossed by plate ump Greg Gibson for arguing balls and strikes. Actually, he was tossed for the fact that he did so in an obvious fashion, swiveling his head backward as he stood in his batting stance to face the ump during the course of the conversation. (See it all here.)

It’s well-known that such a move is widely taken as disrespectful by umpires, and few are willing to tolerate much, if any, of it. This became clear when Span was caught by on-field microphones saying, “I didn’t disrespect you,” shortly before he was tossed.

Said Span in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “It went from Level 1 to “Level 10 in like two seconds.”

“You don’t want to turn on an umpire, to show him up,” said longtime catcher Ron Hassey, discussing the general concept, not Span specifically. “If you’re going to talk, talk straight out. He knows what’s going on. He can hear you.”

Ultimately, what do all these interactions tell us? Unfortunately, not a heck of a lot. Every ump is different, as are players’ relationships with them. Halladay’s ability to stare down an umpire certainly had no bearing on Span’s inability to try to talk sense to one.

None of the three players, of course, had anything on former Yankees pitcher Ryne Duren, long noted for his combination of blazing fastball and lack of control. Jim Bouton recounted in his book, I’m Glad You Didn’t Take it Personally, the time that Duren walked three straight hitters on 12 neck-high fastballs. Wrote Bouton:

Finally he walked across a run and he stormed up to the home-plate umpire. “Goddammit, where the hell are those pitches?”

“Right up here, Ryne,” the umpire said, pointing to his neck.

“Well, goddammit,” Duren said, “I’ve got to have that pitch.”

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