Brett Lawrie, the ump and the human element

We may be right in assuming that Will Rogers was talking about baseball when he quipped, “diplomacy is the art of saying ‘nice doggie’ until you can find a rock.” You see, baseball and diplomacy will forever be intertwined until our forthcoming alien or robot overlords take charge of this planet and play it themselves perfectly. For a game that is defined by its static moments, it is a showcase in moving parts nonetheless.

Chief among these moving parts are the relationships between those on the field. The batter and pitcher, batter and fielding alignment, fielders among each other, umpires and the 10 players in the field of play and so on and so forth all consistently interact on multiple levels. Many of these are physical, but there are plenty more unspoken rules which crop up every game without exception.

We know there are codes on the field and they are always intact. No matter what they may feel compelled to do on the field, players abide by them to the best of their abilities, often through gritted teeth, until they can’t take it anymore. When the stew of codes does boil over, the result is toxic in nature and will naturally lead to brawls, ejections and other moments that will be immortalized on the internet until the takeover referred to above.

We’ve all seen the batter-umpire dynamic ignite. The thing about diplomacy is, guys get mad and develop grudges and it festers and festers until we have that chemical reaction. In the major leagues, everyone knows they’re on TV and nobody wants to be the guy who gets shown up.

Monday, in a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays, Brett Lawrie flipped his lid. Up 3-1 in the count, he thought he had drawn a walk. He started running down the first base line.

“Strike two.”

Back to the batter’s box, there after another apparent ball four, he went back down the baseline.

“Strike Three.”

Lawrie didn’t take too kindly to this, earned an immediate ejection, and spiked a batting helmet off the ground. It ricocheted off umpire Bill Miller, who proceeded to exchange words with Lawrie on his way to ejecting Jays manager John Farrell from the game right behind his energetic 22-year-old.

Make no mistake about it, Lawrie will be suspended and with good reason. Baseball blow-ups are excessive regardless of context and this went along those lines. It was petulant and moronic and helped no one on his team.

Likewise Miller’s calls were clearly meant to teach the kid—exactly what he calls Lawrie during the ensuing altercation, for you lip readers—a lesson. Strikes two and three were out of the zone, as evidenced by pitches five and six in the graph below. Miller was angry that he was stood up and Lawrie was getting punched out for undermining the man in the mask.

The code was there and it disappeared quickly.

Now, for many this signals the problem with the old school in baseball. The conventional old-time argument suggests that the human element is necessary for baseball. Quite frankly though, the human element in baseball has nothing to do with umpiring—baseball itself does the job just fine.

The sad fact is that humans are often unsavory. At our core we can be foolish, petty egomaniacs who can’t separate the big picture from the here and now. Baseball at its core is a game that brings those of us who fail the least to the top of the mountain and celebrate our achievements. You are put through the wringer and we find out what’s left. Often, it’s that foolish, petty egomaniac caught up in a moment.

Perhaps this is a dynamic we can stop. Anyone can figure out what a ball or strike is. We’ve figured out how to gauge movement, velocity and rotation. We can even figure out the “Nasty Factor” if we feel so compelled. If we can pinpoint all of this, why can’t we let bygones be bygones and play ball?

Many are aware that Barry Bonds has the all-time major league record for bases on balls with 2,558. To think, could he have hit 2,600 or more had it not been for questionable calls here or there? Sure it seems like splitting hairs at a point, but it’s worth a thought. Mr. Bonds, as we are keenly aware, was known to be prickly and surely rubbed an umpire or two the wrong way. How often was he robbed of a base because someone didn’t appreciate a comment as he passed by?

Now, it’s not the intention of the author to suggest that Brett Lawrie and Barry Bonds will have even remotely similar careers, but when you frame these spats in the context of history it is sobering. An umpire trying to teach a lesson can impact the game years beyond its date. If Lawrie finishes his career with 2,557 walks, will anyone flip back to May 15, 2012 and point that out missed call as the one that robbed him of history? Our Chris Jaffe might, but beyond him? Doubtful.

In a game with divisional implications and six errors between two teams just one run apart, perhaps there was enough human element for one night. Perhaps an umpire didn’t need to teach a lesson to a kid who annoyed him.

There’s enough failure in baseball, and it’s time that we find ways to get it right.

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Comments

  1. chuck said...

    i love the human element.  this is part of what makes baseball great.  here you have a highly touted rookie trying to get over on the ump, saying he knows the strike zone.  if and when lawrie puts in his time, i am sure he will get those calls.  until then, that is the umpires territory and he shouldnt mess with it.  just like hamels hitting harper.  put your time in, rook!!!

  2. RDG said...

    There have been so many “human errors” this season that something should be done with the game changing plays.

    nohelmetsrequired.com

  3. Drekkan said...

    So you have a way of getting many more calls right, a way that eliminates the possibility of a crowd, adrenaline, or personal grudges from interfering with the call… and you don’t want to use it?

    What’s next – should umpires be able to say “Yup, that home run to center field… I think it’s actually foul. What, disagree? You’re tossed! HUMAN ELEMENT!!!!!”

    No, the purpose of officiating is to get the calls right as close to 100% of the time as possible. If this computer system can achieve a higher accuracy rate, particularly in high tension and high emotion settings… then not using it is moronic and juvenile.

  4. Joshua said...

    I love the human element too, but umpires are there to call balls and strikes…not determine who has put in enough time to “earn” that ball or strike.

    What Lawrie did was stupid and he will be punished, probably pretty severely. But it could not have been more obvious that Miller was “making a point” and showing up a rookie…I just don’t agree that umpires have that right, especially when you make the wrong call twice to do it.

    Also for what it’s worth,  I could buy the ump being fooled into thinking that was strike three, IF he hadn’t waited until Lawrie took off for first base before making a fairly theatric punch out.

  5. RDG said...

    The human element is fine when it comes to balls and strikes, but in late game situations like the Rangers’ squeeze play against the Tigers last month, that’s not ok.

    nohelmetsrequired.com

  6. Vinny said...

    The last pitch may have been a inch too high on FX pitch data, but in the real world umps who are not petty petulant children that ball was 5 6 inches too high and a few inches outside, Ump felt it was his time to take game into his hands to teach a punk kid a lesson, great time when tying run should have been on 1B by the way, if the helmet bounces left or right no one cares, but it grazed his leg now Lawrie must pay…I agree a suspension is warranted but anything over 5 games is (and it will be, Im expecting 25) is crazy, he would have been better off getting drunk after the game and actually beating his wife, then he would have just gotten 1 game to sober up and another to go to ciourt and he would have gotten paid.

  7. Chris Lund said...

    Good discussion folks, just to make it clear because I didn’t touch on it too much in the piece, I think Brett Lawrie is a super, massive idiot for reacting the way he did and absolutely deserves a suspension.

  8. The Guy That Actually Watched The Game said...

    Simon said…
    The third strike appears to be around an inch out of the zone, with one of the best pitch framers behind the plate. It’s hardly a shock that an umpire could get that wrong, and certainly too close a pitch to take.

    Also, it’s way over the top to say that Lawrie was punched out for undermining the umpire without any evidence to support this. They make mistakes, you know. Anyway, the biggest mistake that was made last night was the one made by Lawrie.

    Suggestion Simon: watch the game.  It was clear Lawrie was on his way to 1st on the first bad call, the Ump made a very late strike 2 call.  It’s true that pitch 6 was iffy, but if you are a good Ump you make up for pitch 5 with it.  Miller wanted to show the rookie up and now Lawrie will be suspended and Miller will get nothing done to him. They’re both paid to do their job professionally and yet only one is getting suspended for being unprofessional.  Pretty pathetic if you ask me.

    Posted 05/16 at 08:55 AM

  9. Jim C said...

    It is way past time for all of these umpires to be locked into a room with the head of officiating in the NFL. Yes, the NFL. Do you think football players and coaches don’t ream out refs for what they see as bad calls? Of course they do; but there is no tradition in football of referees ejecting players or coaches for arguing, so they let the player or coach blow off steam, they let it roll off their backs, and they all go on to the next play. The baseball tradition is that the umpire screams back just as hard as he is screamed at, curses and swears at players and coaches, and many times the umpires deliberately goad a particular player or manager they don’t like into an argument. That stuff really has to stop, and umpires who ignore it should be fined and suspended in the same manner as players. There are plenty of solid, professional umpires who do a great job day in and day out. We need to get rid of the confrontational ones and the incompetent ones as soon as possible.

  10. Greg Simons said...

    Chris mentions ” foolish, petty egomaniacs who can’t separate the big picture from the here and now” and who get “caught up in a moment.”

    There were two such individuals involved in that at-bat last night, Bill Miller and Brett Lawrie – and that’s assuming we can read Miller’s mind and determine he was trying to teach the kid a lesson instead of making (according to Pitch-f/x) one bad call and one borderline one.

    Chris, I’m glad you added the comment that “Brett Lawrie is a super, massive idiot for reacting the way he did and absolutely deserves a suspension.”  It takes two to tango, and Lawrie’s explosion deserves a long (15-game?) unpaid vacation.

    I’m not sure how to discipline Miller because he’s unlikely to admit he was trying to teach the kid a lesson, and he can argue that he thought both pitches were strikes.  He very well may be lying, but how will we known for sure.

  11. Ricardo Elorza said...

    Human Element: Where if you’re a player and fail, you get demoted or cut, but if you’re an umpire and fail, you’re colorful and stand for the beauty of the game.

    Unless you have a bloated contract. Or your name is Enrico Palazzo.

  12. Drew said...

    “The third strike appears to be around an inch out of the zone, with one of the best pitch framers behind the plate. It’s hardly a shock that an umpire could get that wrong, and certainly too close a pitch to take.”

    I’d say the opposite – that pitch was too close NOT to take it. 

    As another commenter mentioned, the pitch was a good 5 inches higher than the typical umpire zone.  I would think that any pitch an inch out of the zone would be called a ball at least 50% of the time, since it’s right on the border.  Basically you have a .500 OBP by taking that pitch.  Half the time you draw a walk and half the time you strike out.  There’s no such thing as too close to take.  With a three ball count players should be taking more often than they do, not less.

  13. Mitch said...

    Bill Miller was going to call strike 3 if the ball were anywhere near the plate. Pure speculation of course, but I watched the game live and had a very strong feeling what was about to happen on after the 3-1 pitch played out.

    MLB needs to evolve out of this “old-school” B.S.

  14. Ted M said...

    One thing I’ve been interested to see a study of, now that we have the PitchFX data (but am, unfortunately, too busy/lazy to do myself), is just how much of a factor the “Rookies have to earn their calls” thing really is.  I suspect it’s significant, and that if it is, it’s really a problem.  A strike should be a strike regardless of who the batter is. 

    Has anyone looked at the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone and not swung at that are called strikes for rookies and compared it to veterans?

  15. Rocky said...

    There were poor calls made by Miller and by Lawrie. The sad fact is, Lawrie will face discipline and Miller won’t.

  16. Chicago Mark said...

    Umps should be seen and not heard!  They seem to think they are now part of the game and it’s entertainment.  That won’t soon change.  But it surely should.  Surely, Should???

  17. Simon said...

    The third strike appears to be around an inch out of the zone, with one of the best pitch framers behind the plate. It’s hardly a shock that an umpire could get that wrong, and certainly too close a pitch to take.

    Also, it’s way over the top to say that Lawrie was punched out for undermining the umpire without any evidence to support this. They make mistakes, you know. Anyway, the biggest mistake that was made last night was the one made by Lawrie.

  18. Sanity said...

    A misrepresentation of the facts.  Lawrie CLEARLY throws the helmet towards the umpires feet.  Naturally it hits him, you can see the ump anticipating the event by turning sideways.  Lawrie just as clearly thinks he decides balls and strikes, and gets the usual penalty for doing so.

    The whiners above still haven’t gotten the message after 100+ years, the umpires will still be in control of the game.  Pounding your head against the wall isn’t the smart move, you fight the ones you can win instead.  By objecting to the suspension, Lawrie makes sure this will last all year.  The brotherhood of umpires stands united and has a long memory.

    Temper tantrums are for kids.  Problems are usually traded.  Players that wait for the call and quietly discuss it do a lot better than the helmet bouncers.

  19. dipshitz said...

    …i can see lawrie taking the first pitch, and being pissed at the call.  that was an obvious bad call.

    but the last pitch?  that’s a pitch that goes either way, it’s ‘too close to take, in that situation,’ as the conventional wisdom’s always gone…

    you can’t take that pitch In That Situation and be pissed when the call goes the other way.  you’re a dumbass if you do…

  20. Chris Lund said...

    Hi Sanity,

    Thanks for commenting and approaching this with a presumably open mind.

    I’m going to take issue though because you state that I’ve misrepresented the facts. I haven’t. Lawrie throws the helmet directly at the ground, it bounces up and hits the umpire. He’s turned sideways because he just gave Lawrie a theatrical toss and doesn’t react to the helmet until well after it made contact with his leg.

    The video is here if you need a refresher: http://mlb.mlb.com/video/play.jsp?content_id=21468797&topic;_id=&c_id=mlb&tcid=vpp_copy_21468797&v=3

    I’m assuming you come from an umpiring background based on the jargon, which is fine, but I’m not going to have someone suggest that I’m compromising the truth to fit a narrative.

    Lawrie IS a kid, he will learn and you’re nuts if you think he’s getting traded.

    While we’re at it, nobody who has commented here is a whiner, we’re talking baseball.

    Thanks for your time.

  21. Jim C said...

    Ok, enough. Any umpire who shows consistent incompetence, consistent desire to either start or exacerbate arguments, or where evidence suggest he has a grudge against a particular player or players, needs to be immediately terminated. The game is about the players, not the umpires, and most of them need a lesson in humility and in learning to turn their backs and walk away. One of the easiest ways to be sure an umpire has missed a call is the quick hook. He doesn’t want his mistake thrown back in his face, though everyone who watches highlights or youtube will see what a brainless piece of #### he is. Since the cardinal offense seems to be “Showing up the umpire” will ESPN, the MLB network, and every sports show now be subject to ejection? They need to get over themslves and get a lot better at their jobs.

  22. chongo said...

    Let me go out on a limb and say “I hate the human element”.  Hate it.  Who invited the umps to the party?  What human pays money for tickets, gasoline, concessions and parking to go see an UMPIRE get involved in the game?  Who wants to gamble their money on inconsistent calls?  Who wants to see their fantasy pitcher give up a home run when he had strike 3 on the previous pitch?  I would rather a robot or technology make the correct call, than see an ump make a “dramatic” incorrect call.  We watch the game for the plays, players, and final score;  the umps should be as anonymous as possible.

  23. Adam said...

    Interestingly, I’ve been a staunch opponent to implementing video into game decisions for a long time but the exchange between Lawrie and Miller is begining to sway me somewhat. Personally, the “just get the calls right” argument rings hollow with me because I enjoy watching players overcoming bad calls. I also don’t believe tools such as PitchFX or other forms of instant replay are all that accurate anyway so to me there just isn’t a need on that level.

    However, I do tend to find the attitude of most umpires as completely reprehensible and cannot stand the current policy in most professional sports of fining/suspending players for complaining about officiating. We have got to get to a point in which players and managers can voice a truthful opinion about a game without being penalized by the league. Thus, perhaps the best way to diffuse these situations is to take some of the control out of the umpires hands. 

    As for fighting battles you know you can’t win. It’s called progress and not much of it would have occured over the course of several millenia if individuals hadn’t decided to fight unwinable battles. The funny thing about people in unwinable situations, every so often they actually win.

  24. Steve I said...

    I disagree with people who say it’s the umpire’s job to run the game.  The rules are supposed to run the game; the umpire’s job is to see the rules are fairly applied.

    Anybody can blow a call, but that was pretty bad on strike two.

    I had more respect for umpires before reading Ken Kaiser’s “Planet of the Umps.”

  25. Simon said...

    The other thing that nobody has touched on is that pitches similar to both the ones in question had been called strikes previously in the game. In the previous half inning a pitch that was considerably wider than the strike two call was called a strike when Jose Molina was batting.

  26. the Flint Bomber said...

    I side with the ump on this one.  Lawrie running to first without waiting for the ball four call is a dumb move, but doing it twice in a row is a jerk move, and the ump is doing Lawrie‘s career a favor by getting him out of the habit now.  Take your medicine, Brett.

  27. Paul E said...

    Flint Bomber:
        Couldn’t agree more.

        And as for “punishing” the umpire, what for?It wasn’t like he took off his face mask and raked it across Lawrie’s face. Lawrie is getting suspended for acting like a maniac….let him sulk at home.

  28. Ted said...

    The second strike was clearly well outside. On the other hand, pitches like that have been routinely called strikes for a long time (see Hernandez, Livan.)

    The idea of “showing up” the ump has always struck me as stupid. Lawrie didn’t think to himself “that pitch was good, I think I’ll take a stroll and show up the ump.” He thought it was outside and that he had walked. He though the third strike was high and that he had walked. You don’t get to the major leagues without developing a sense somewhere along the way of which pitches are strikes and which are not. (at least most don’t)

    While it’s impossible to prove, the third strike looked to me like an intentional attempt to teach the kid a lesson, which should not be tolerated. I also though Miller intentionally overreacted to the glancing blow of the the thrown helmet to further ensure the wise ass kid would get his.

    At the end of the day we wind up with a kid who behaved slightly stupidly and will likely pay a greater than warranted price and an umpire who behaved far worse and will pay no price at all.

  29. Greg Simons said...

    Lawrie showed up the ump by assuming he knew better than the ump what a strike is – twice.

    The ump certainly may have been trying to teach him a lesson, but we don’t know that.  And if a helmet comes bouncing up at me – something I’m sure the ump did not expect – I’d probably react in a very surprised manner.

    We know Lawrie behave in a manner I would characterize as much worse than “slightly stupidly.”  The ump may or may not have behaved worse – sorry, unless he tells us, we can’t know – but Lawrie’s response was over the top.  I’m surprised he only received a four-game suspension.  I was expecting double digits.

  30. SFNative said...

    Simon said… “In the previous half inning a pitch that was considerably wider than the strike two call was called a strike when Jose Molina was batting.”

    Further proof of the ump’s incompetence/desire to ignore the rules of the game.

  31. Jim C said...

    This idea of “showing up the ump” in the TV age is just a joke. When every pitch is replayed, and the strike zone graphic is displayed, the only one showing up the ump is the ump himself, when everyone with a tv can see how bad their calls are, and with lipreading, everyone can see how the umps ratchet up the arguments.

  32. Frank Drakman said...

    As a Jay fan, I like Brett Lawrie, but I agree that his hockey-like intensity needs to be ratcheted down a notch or two. I cringe when I see him high-jumping into a crowd of team mates. Sure, he’s exuberant and playing the game, etc., but if/when he spikes Romero on the foot and puts him out for six weeks, I’m also sure Lawrie will feel like an idiot.

    What does it cost Lawrie to stay in the box for another second and wait for the ump’s call? Nothing. What does he gain by running down to first base two seconds earlier? Nothing. So in a situation where he’s got nothing to gain, and no cost to do nothing, why do something to piss off the ump? It’s called maturity, and Lawrie needs to learn it.

    On the other issue here, at the Skydome, they have a camera directly over home plate, and they used to frequently show shots of balls which clearly didn’t get any part of the plate and were called strikes. Although it was never confirmed officially, rumours abound that the umps didn’t like this, and the Jay telecast now only shows that shot once or twice a game (if at all) and it seems now they only back up the umpire’s call. (They had a great shot of Morrow clearly hitting the black on a called strike three in his 3-hitter against the Mets.)

    So I think both Miller and Lawrie were wrong, but it’s hard to tell who hurt the Jays more. They went 3-1 in Lawrie’s absence, but if Lawrie walks and they win that game against Tampa – well, that could decide the AL East pennant or a wild card spot at the end of the year. Of course, just because Lawrie walks doesn’t mean they would have won against Tampa, so in the end, who knows who did the bigger harm? Only Lawrie’s pocket book gets hurt though.

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