Umpire Relations

No Strike 3 For You: The High Cost Of Scuffing An Umpire’s Ego During the World Series

Game 5 of the World Series gave us a particularly interesting moment during the course of an otherwise dull blowout: After a host of questionable ball-strike calls, plate ump Lance Barksdale outdid himself during the sixth inning.

Nats right-hander Tanner Rainey threw a 2-2 fastball to Michael Brantley that should have been called strike three, after which catcher Yan Gomes popped up from his crouch to toss the ball around the infield. Apparently he did so a bit too quickly, preempting Barksdale’s official decision. To teach Gomes a lesson, Barksdale called the pitch a ball and kept the at-bat alive.

“You were taking off on me,” Barksdale said when Gomes asked what happened.

The catcher was incredulous, replying, “Oh, it’s my fault?”

A few things happened here. One, Gomes turned around to converse with the plate ump. In a world of sensitive egos and well-established rules of comportment, this is an absolute no-no. Catchers question umpires’ calls all the time, but they inevitably do so from the squat, while facing the pitcher. “You never show them up—that’s the worst thing you can do,” former Tigers catcher Jim Price said in an interview for The Baseball Codes. “Don’t ever turn around to talk to them.”

Occasionally, the umpire will walk around and dust off the plate in order to face the catcher and offer an eye-to-eye retort. It can be vocal and it can be personal, but it’s also private, done behind a mask. Nobody watching from the stands or on TV realizes anything is happening. This is time-tested baseball tradition.

“The best advice that I can give is to have a little dialogue with the home plate umpire throughout the game,” longtime catcher Michael Barrett told ESPN in 2007. “Break the tension a little bit. Realize that the home plate umpire is the authority and make sure to communicate with him during the game and as the game goes on. It’s important to understand that the umpire is human, he’s going to make mistakes like everyone else, and we are going to have a better relationship if we are talking.”

Who knows what Gomes might have already said to Barksdale over the course of the game, though in light of the umpire’s consistently shaky calls, some sort of dialog between them wouldn’t be surprising.

Former Yankees reliever George Frazier once found himself in a similar situation as pertains to prematurely reacting to what he believed to be strike three. As Frazier told it during an interview for The Baseball Codes, it was the ninth inning in Baltimore, and Len Sakata was at the plate with two strikes and two outs.  

“I painted a slider and took a hop toward the dugout,” he said. “I’m looking in [at plate umpire Durwood Merrill], and he’s looking at me. Then he comes out toward the mound. I’m from Oklahoma, and he was a big OU football recruiter—he recruited Billy Sims from Texas. He said, ‘What are you doin’, Okie?’ I said, ‘Man, come on! That ball was right there.’ He says ‘OK, put it there again and we’ll ring him up.’ ”

Frazier agreed … but didn’t execute.

“I threw a pitch that literally bounced a foot out in front of the plate,” he said. “Durwood had already started his wind to ring him up, and he’s walking off. The umpires had to go down our dugout steps, where I’m walking off too, and he’s growling, ‘Don’t ever do that to me again.’ Sakata was right behind him, yelling, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding me!’ ”

“Durwood said to me, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘You shoulda rung him up on the other one!’ ”

(For what it’s worth, Frazier never faced Sakata in the described circumstance. As is the way with ballplayers telling decades-old stories, details are known to inadvertently blur.)

The difference between Frazer and Rainey was that Lance Barksdale was working the freaking World Series. Petty displays of ego shouldn’t be part of an umpire’s tool kit in the first place, but in the postseason they need to be put away entirely. Luckily, the call on Brantley had no bearing on the game’s outcome, but strikes are strikes and balls are balls and, sure, calls might get blown, but for a guy to try to teach a lesson to a veteran catcher on the sport’s biggest stage is downright shameful.

Retaliation, Umpire Relations

Memo to Pitchers: ‘Kill the Ump’ is an Axiom, Not a Suggestion

Ump drilled

Shortly after Tigers manager Brad Ausmus and catcher James McCann were ejected by plate ump Quinn Walcott on Wednesday for arguing balls and strikes, Detroit pitcher Buck Farmer crossed up catcher John Hicks and drilled Wolcott in the chest with a fastball.

Cleveland TV broadcasters immediately implied that he did it on purpose.

Is intentionally hitting an umpire even a thing? There are many ways to think about this, primary among them being that no player wants to permanently find himself on the bad side of a given ump. Close calls can go either way, and just like their ballplaying counterparts, umpires have been known to carry grudges. To show up an umpire during an argument is one thing. To intentionally injure him is guaranteed to sour things not only with the umpire in question, but with the guy’s colleagues. Umpires are a tight-knit bunch, after all.

After the game, Hicks explained away the pitch as coincidental. “Obviously, it looks bad right after Brad and Mac get tossed, but it’s bases loaded, we’re trying to win a baseball game,” Hicks said in an MLB.com report. “Any thoughts of us trying to do that on purpose are just ridiculous.”

Ausmus, who heard the TV broadcast from the clubhouse after being ejected, agreed. “To imply that was intentional is, first of all, a lie,” Ausmus said. “If any player intentionally tried to hurt an umpire on this team, we’d deal with that severely. … But for anyone to imply that was intentional, it’s just completely wrong. And they’re out of line saying that, quite frankly.”

The denials from Detroit are likely valid, but there’s no getting around how bad it looks. Also, this kind of thing does happen from time to time.

In just one instance, from 1999, Tampa Bay was trailing the Angels 7-1 in the third inning, when Anaheim catcher Mike DiFelice failed to get his glove on a pitch that ended up rocketing into the facemask of plate ump John Shulock with such force that it bent the bars. It didn’t help that Tampa Bay’s starter, Wilson Alvarez, had been questioning Shulock’s calls all afternoon.

Shulock was irate, needing to be restrained from charging the mound by DiFelice.

“I know in my heart [he] meant to hit me, but I can’t prove it,” said the umpire after the game, in an AP report. “The catcher set up for a curveball outside, and he drilled me with a fastball inside. The more I think about it, I do think he did it intentionally.”

Alvarez, who was removed from the game immediately afterward, denied everything, because what else could he do?

“He’s going to get his,” Shulock said in the Los Angeles Times. “Things have a way of evening out in this game, and one of these days somebody is going to hit a line drive off the side of his head and I’ll be the first guy laughing.”

Shulock was certainly not the last guy laughing. Based on the fact that he had stormed the mound after being hit, and possibly because of his postgame comments, the umpire was suspended for three games.

Beyond that, there appears to be little aftermath. Alvarez injured his shoulder and missed the following two seasons, and never again had Shulock behind the plate for a start. (It’s interesting that during Shulock’s last season as an umpire, he worked the Tampa Bay-Oakland game the day before Alvarez pitched, and was immediately transferred to Arlington for a series against the Royals. The last game he called was on July 18 of that season.)

Buck Farmer’s pitch was far less suspicious than that, and Quinn Wolcott took it a lot better than Shulock did. That might be the end of things, but it’ll be interesting to see how and if Wolcott reacts the next time he calls balls and strikes against the Tigers.

Earning respect, Umpire Relations

Rizzo Rapid to Render Respect

rizzo

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.

[H/T Hardball Talk]

Umpire Relations

Strike a Pose … But Not For Too Long

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.

Rookie Hazing, Umpire Relations

Rookie Tossed, Manager Tight, Tradition the Same as it Ever Was

Matheny tossedMike 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.

“Ball two!”

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.

Angel Campos, Matt Kemp, Umpire Relations

Know Your Umpires: Kemp Tossed Early, Dodgers Lose

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.

Angel Hernandez, Bryce Harper, Umpire Relations

Harper Learning the Rookie Ropes, by Hook or by Crook

Harper reacts to a called strike three.

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.