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.”

Angel Campos, Matt Treanor, Ned Yost, Umpire Relations

Young Umps at it Again: Royals Catcher Tossed for No Good Reason

Matt Treanor and Angel Campos share some thoughtful opinions.

What is it with the Kansas City Royals and fill-in umpires? Last year it was Jason Kendall getting 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.

– Jason