Whether or not one agrees with their implementation, the underlying nature of baseball’s unwritten rules—respect each other and the game at large—is difficult to quibble with. We saw one of its most basic elements yesterday, courtesy of Anthony Rizzo.
In an at-bat earlier in the game, Chicago’s first baseman had incorrectly assumed ball four from Pedro Baez, but as he was heading toward first base plate ump Angel Hernandez informed him that, no, it was actually a strike.
There’s no indication that Hernandez was upset with Rizzo, but the hitter took it upon himself during his next at-bat, when the game paused for a mound conference, to make sure everything was square between himself and Hernandez. Watch for yourself:
On one hand, there’s self-preservation involved in the strategy. The more an umpire likes a player—or, more pertinently, the less he doesn’t like a player—the better the chances that close calls will go that player’s way. More important, however, is the basic decency of the gesture. There was a chance that Hernandez read something in Rizzo’s actions that Rizzo did not intend, so Rizzo took care of it as soon as he could.
“I don’t like showing up the umpires,” he said after the game. “They’re out here working their tails off 162 like we are. … I just let him know that, hey, my fault there. I probably should have waited a little longer and not just assumed that it was a ball.”
Turns out that a little bit of introspection suits ballplayers nicely.
The above moment is from the Little League World Series over the weekend, but it hardly tells the entire story.
The catcher, from the Seoul, South Korea, team, futilely attempts to frame a pitch, and when the umpire doesn’t bite, holds his pose as a matter of protest. It’s what comes next that makes it special. Check it out over at Deadspin. There’s a lot to love.
There’s the umpire, coolly roaming around to dust off the plate, the better to squat down to the catcher’s level and make sure the message that’s about to be delivered is heard.
And there’s the message itself, which, without even knowing what’s being said, is obviously received. (Kudos to the umpire for employing subtle tactics, which, to judge by the catcher’s response, were utterly effective.)
It’s an easy example of baseball dynamics, because Respect one’s elders is an even older-school maxim than Let’s play two. A kid catcher expressing public discontent to an adult umpire is as black and white as a child talking back to the teacher in class.
But those respective roles aren’t so different from their big league counterparts, with professional umpires—the authority figures of a baseball game—demanding commensurate respect (though not always employing such effective tactics in order to get it).
The lesson for today: Nobody likes to be shown up. Sometimes it takes a kid to illustrate the essential truth of a situation.
Mike Matheny is apparently not a fan of rookie treatment, at least when it comes to umpires. On Thursday, St. Louis’ first-year first baseman Matt Adams struck out in the ninth inning, on what he considered to be a high, inside pitch. He questioned plate ump Dan Belino, then, on his way back to the dugout, turned around and questioned him again.
Belino shooed him away. The gesture was more than Matheny was willing to tolerate. Once closer Kevin Gregg had sealed the Cubs’ 3-0 victory moments later, Matheny raced toward Belino, to the point of necessitating restraint from the rest of the umpiring crew. (Watch it here.)
His frustration, he told reporters after the game, had less to do with the strike call than “with the umpire and how he mistreated one of our players, Adams.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Matheny said. “You can’t take your mask off and motion somebody away. We had not had any trouble. We hadn’t been complaining all game long. He wanted to be seen, so now he’s going to be seen.”
There is, however, something else at play: If the unwritten rule that labels such a display disrespectful constitutes one side of the coin, the other side is covered by the notion that rookies must earn their place in the game. This is true within clubhouse hierarchies, and it is true when it comes to umpires. Although it is generally less prevalent now than in past generations, umpires throughout the game’s history have taken the position that young players must earn their respect, and will test them accordingly to push the issue.
Last year Bryce Harper felt it with Angel Hernandez’s strike zone. If it was a test, Harper failed, badly.
A similar story comes to us courtesy of Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter. In his autobiography, Catfish: My Life in Baseball, he described a confrontation during his rookie season in 1965:
One of the biggest lessons I learned came courtesy of senior umpire Ed Runge. “You’ll like this guy, Cat,” my teammates told me the first time Runge was behind the plate. “He gives you everything.”
Great. A friend in high places. I fired my first pitch, a fastball, right down the middle.
“Ball,” screamed Runge, yanking off his mask like someone had just yelled “Fire!” He stared out at the mound, begging me to argue. I didn’t say a word.
Another pitch. Another fastball right down Main Street.
Same yank. Same look. Still I don’t say boo.
We play the same game a couple of more times—me throwing strikes, Runge playing hard to please—and still I don’t let out a peep. A few weeks later Runge is set to go behind the plate again. Before the game, we happened to meet.
He gives me a quick once-over. “I see you don’t argue with umpires, kid.”
“No, sir,” I said.
A smile. “It’s a good thing.”
From then on I was a card-carrying member of the Ed Runge Club. Anything close was a strike. I’d passed the test.
Credit Matheny for protecting his players, but if Belino was hoping to see from Adams something similar to the deference that Runge got from Hunter, he’s going to have to wait a while.
Proper response to umpires is an essential component of survival as a baseball player. Some players go to lengths to learn names and details from umpires’ lives, then chat them up, as friends do, because it might buy some goodwill down the road.
Others have a more difficult time determining appropriate behavior.
That definition, of course, differs from ump to ump, and may even differ from day to day for the same guy, depending on his mood. Thursday in Pittsburgh, it appeared that plate umpire Angel Campos was a bit grumpy.
Things began in the second inning, with Matt Kemp—still upset over calls during his first-inning strikeout—chirping from the dugout toward the plate. As Andre Ethier stood in the batter’s box, Campos can be heard on the telecast saying toward the Dodgers dugout, “I don’t want to hear you again, I’m telling you that right now.” Somebody on the bench replies, “Just watch the game.”
“That’s all I’m telling you,” replies Campos.
“Just watch the game,” echoes the bench.
Talk from the dugout continued, though it can not be understood on the game audio, and a moment later Campos responded firmly, ejecting Kemp. (Watch it all here.)
According to Kemp, the phrase he used to break the Campos’ back: “Let’s go, Dre.” Manager Don Mattingly’s swift and outraged reaction to the ejection—he was tossed as well in short order—supports the statement.
“Matt got thrown out today for cheering for Andre,” Mattingly said after the game, as reported by MLB.com. “He was barking about the pitch to Dre, the second strike, but then Angel said, ‘That’s enough. I don’t want to hear another word.’ So the next thing that came out of [Matt’s mouth]—I heard it, clear as a bell—he said—because Matt knows where to stop—and Matt said, ‘Let’s go, Dre!’ And [Campos] looked over, and he threw him out of the game. It’s unacceptable.”
We’re left with the fact that an umpire has little reason to eject anyone over a statement of teammate support that can in no way be interpreted as an attack. We’re left with the fact that ejecting a team’s best player in the second inning of a game—especially a team in the heat of a pennant race—is an action that should only be utilized as a final resort, not a first one. We’re left with an outraged roster that, short its No. 3 hitter, ultimately fell to the Pirates, 10-6.
Something trumps all of that, however—a rule about which both Kemp and Mattingly should have been glaringly aware: Know Your Umps.
Campos clearly told them to zip it, and zip it they did not. Was it justified? Probably not. But to push things in such a manner when a directive has already been issued to refrain from said pushing isn’t the world’s greatest strategy. Kemp may feel like he backed down from a potential confrontation, but he clearly didn’t back down enough.
Umps don’t have to be just or reasonable or even correct. They’re hopefully held accountable for their actions at some point during or after the season, but in the moment, the wrongest-of-the-wrong umpires still has the power to toss a player for the smallest-of-the-small reasons. Kemp should never have given him that reason.
Pitcher Joe Blanton’s ejection in the fifth was another matter entirely. As the right-hander was heading for the dugout after being pulled from the game, he stared daggers at Campos until the umpire said something, then lit off toward him to engage in heated conversation. He knew what he was doing and he knew where it would end, and all went precisely according to plan. (Watch it here.)
Kemp: Not so much. His spot in the order came up three more times with runners on base—once with the bases loaded—and even though the Dodgers got a bunt single and a hit-by-pitch from his replacements to score runs in two of those situations, there’s little question that Kemp’s presence would have offered them significantly more.
The chance to win a game trumps nearly every one of baseball’s unwritten rules. When it comes to the one about knowing how to deal with umpires, however, the two go hand in hand. The Dodgers know this as well as anybody, but on Wednesday they ignored it—and it cost them.
Update (8/18): Mattingly, not Kemp, was suspended for his actions.
This was to be the year of Trout and Harper, Harper and Trout, wonderkind rookies primed to change the face of baseball—and in late spring and early summer, it was.
It’s still the year of Mike Trout, of course. Bryce Harper, though: not so much. His high-water mark was a .307 batting average on June 12; three games later he went 0-for-7 against the Yankees, with five strikeouts, and has hit .210 over the 49 games since, with only three homers. Since the All-Star break, he’s batting .176.
Harper has been baseball’s most touted prospect since he was 16 years old, and now, for what may be the first time in his life, he’s scuffling in a significant way.
In the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Astros, he took a two-strike pitch, low and outside from Armando Galarraga—“catcher Carlos Corporan’s mitt nearly scraped the dirt,” reported the Washington Post—so certain it was a ball that he stepped back into the box. Plate ump Angel Hernandez called it strike three.
Harper got into Hernandez’s face, shouting and pointing, and had to be physically removed by first base coach Trent Jewett.
It was a reaction borne of frustration, likely as much about Harper’s own struggles as Hernandez’s strike zone. The ump didn’t come close to ejecting the rookie (“Let him have his say—nothing wrong with that,” Hernandez told a pool reporter after the game) but it’s possible that the display affected his outlook toward Harper’s ensuing at-bats.
Umpires vociferously reject the notion that they ever test rookies in creative ways—denying them close calls as a means of putting them into their place, letting them know from the get-go who holds the power on a baseball diamond—but their ranks have long been accused of doing exactly that.
Former catcher Randy Knorr tells a story about Wade Miller’s first major league start, with the Houston Astros in 1999. He was struggling against the Arizona Diamondbacks, and plate umpire Rich Rieker wasn’t giving him any close calls. Miller was 22 years old, and was becoming increasingly frustrated at his inability to get a break from Rieker.
“[Miller] throws one pitch right down the middle and it’s called a ball,” said Knorr. “I throw the ball back out there and he’s looking in at the umpire. I say, ‘Hold on,’ and I call time out and run out to the mound. I said, ‘Wade, man, just get through today. If you get through today, you’ll be fine. Just don’t show up the umpire. He’s testing you. I’m trying to work him back there, so don’t be snapping the ball on him or anything like that.’ ”
Miller did as instructed, and though his day didn’t go well—he gave up seven runs in three innings and took the loss—when he walked past Rieker on his way off the field, the arbiter said, “Good job, Wade.”
In the sixth inning Wednesday, when Hernandez called a strike against Harper on another low, outside pitch—which would have been ball four from reliever Xavier Cedeno—it smacked of a similar type of rookie baiting. Harper had showed up the ump in the fourth by so publicly questioning his strike zone. This time the bases were loaded, and Harper had already started jogging to first; when he heard Hernandez’s strike call, he was sufficiently disbelieving as to take a few more steps.
Now the count was full, and Cedeno’s next pitch was again low and away. Again Harper watched it. Again it was called a strike. From the Post:
Harper cocked his bat with one hand, as if he was going to throw it, then restrained himself. He chucked his helmet and tossed his bat, and as he ripped his batting gloves off in the middle of the diamond he shook his head.
The calls were so questionable, and Harper so visibly upset, that Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche checked in with Hernandez after the inning, the obvious on his mind. “I said, ‘What’s going on? From where I’m at, those balls are down.’ ” he said. “[Hernandez] assured me that they were good pitches. He said he would never do that to Bryce, he loves him, he loves the way he plays and that there’s no kind of initiation there. He called it the way he would call it to anybody.”
La Roche, a 9-year vet, has seen this kind of thing before. Without saying as much, he made it obvious that he felt like he recognized exactly what was going on.
“I’ve been in that position,” he said after the game. “I’ve talked to Bryce a lot about it. I said, ‘You’ve got to keep your mouth shut, but at some point, if it gets really bad, you’ve got to stand up for yourself and not sit there and take it.’ ”
Harper is still trying to figure that one out. Speaking the following day about Hernandez’s expanded zone, he said, “When you have to chase a 2-1 fastball two inches off, it’s not fun.”
The Post cited FanGraphs.com stats showing that only 40 percent of the pitches Harper has seen since the All-Star break have been in the strike zone (27th lowest in the majors), and he’s swung and missed at fewer than 30 percent of those (and at 8.5 percent of his pitches overall). These are good numbers, not usually aligned with a guy who’s striking out more than 22 percent of the time.
An umpiring conspiracy to deliver some humility to the guy who wore gold cleats in the All-Star Game as a teenager? A longshot, at best. But the notion that individual umps view Harper just a bit differently than they do other players around the league is not so far-fetched, especially considering the media hype that followed him through the first half of the season. Knowing one’s place in the baseball hierarchy has always been of vital importance to many of those involved in the game, and umpires are no exception.
If such calls are indeed intentional, each is only a small factor in putting Harper in his place. Cumulatively, however, they’re having an effect. Whether or not they’re just, there’s little doubt that the lessons Harper is learning today will be of use later in his career.
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.
“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.”
What is it with the Kansas City Royals and fill-in umpires? Last year it was Jason Kendallgetting shown up, then ejected by a recent call-up from Triple-A. Today it was Matt Treanor.
The incidents have one thing in common, apart from the ejections of each catcher and manager Ned Yost: neither Kendall or Treanor did anything wrong.
Sunday’s run-in began immediately after Royals pitcher Everett Teaford walked Colby Rasmus. Treanor had some things to say to plate ump Angel Campos—he insists that they had nothing to do with balls and strikes, which is an ejection-worthy offense—but never turned around as he spoke.
This is key. The umpires’ code—which every catcher knows intimately—mandates that catchers and hitters have significant leeway when addressing an umpire, but the moment they turn around to do so—in other words, when they make it look like they’re saying something contentious—whatever ice they may be standing on grows quickly and dangerously thin.
This wasn’t Treanor’s problem. He was in his squat, facing the pitcher’s mound, when Campos ejected him. There was no indication they were even having a discussion.
According to Treanor, Campos roamed to the front of the plate to address him just prior to their fateful exchange, but that was not caught on the Royals’ broadcast. (Watch it here.)
“I basically told him not to show me up by coming around the plate,” Treanor said in the Kansas City Star. “I’m not doing anything to disrespect him. I was just trying to ask him some questions. He came back around the plate, said he had enough of me.”
The motivation of a young umpire to interject himself so forcefully and ignorantly into game action is tough to explain, especially now that it’s happened twice in two seasons to the Royals. Minor league umps are generally instructed to have shorter leashes than than their big league brethren, which may have played a part in this, but it’s hardly an excuse. Baseball has enough problems with a small handful of veteran umps thinking they’re bigger than the game; if they allow young umps to grow unchecked into that role, it’s going to make for some very rocky exchanges in the future. Especially for Yost.
“Treanor did a great job in that situation,” said the Royals manager on MLB.com. “Nobody in the park knew that they were arguing. Nobody. And to eject the guy under those circumstances isn’t right.”
Perhaps Yost should write a new line in the Codebook for his catchers: If you’re wearing powder blue and there’s a young ump behind the plate, keep your mouth shut at all costs—no matter how correct you might be.