HOT TAKE on Umpires

By Jason Wojciechowski on May 18, 2014 at 12:18 AM

Tonight, Scott Kazmir was tossed by home-plate umpire Jerry Layne for arguing balls and strikes in the second inning. Let's start with a couple of factual points:

  • That it was the second inning doesn't matter. Glen Kuiper, I believe, made some noise about how Layne had thrown out the starting pitcher "in the second inning!" The justification required to throw out a player ought not to shift depending on the early or lateness of the game. If it's Game 7 of the World Series and Paul Clemens throws one between Jed Lowrie's legs after a warning, he's hitting the showers.
  • That it was for arguing balls and strikes doesn't matter. This one is maybe more controversial, but I claim that it's a description of reality notwithstanding the rulebook, which apparently (I've never actually looked because I don't care that much) says that arguing balls and strikes is an automatic ejection. We all know, if we've seen more than 3 innings of professional baseball in our lives, that that's not true. Players, coaches, managers, announcers, fans, and squirrels who intrude on the field all argue balls and strikes all the time. Pitchers stare in after a pitch, batters share words on their way back to the dugout or even mid-at-bat, and, as I understand it, catchers are in a near-constant dialogue with the umpire to some degree or another all game. All of which means that when an umpire has a quick trigger on a balls-and-strikes argument, that's on the umpire. Leaning in the postgame press conference on, "No arguing, that's the rule" is just a convenient excuse, not an actual reason. The threshold for ejection may be lower on balls and strikes, but it isn't zero-tolerance.

So with that said my Hot Take is that umpires need to chill and the baiting by the coaches needs to chill. Robo-umps being some measure of the ideal, umpires should listen to arguments, answer reasonable questions posed them, and eject a manager who crosses whatever line it is that we've drawn for decorum when frustrated. Umpires should not escalate the fight, they should not defend themselves, they should not yell back, they should not initiate contact by walking toward a player or taking off their mask unless the player is already quite near to them and talking, such that it would be weird to see a human right up in the face of a guy with a big metal/plastic contraption on his mug.

That said, fans also need to chill with the villainizing. It's a character flaw in the sense that some people are more confrontational than others and can't necessarily tamp that down when Bob Melvin or whoever is standing in front of them cursing their mother and everyone else involved in the process of creating the umpire, but it's not a simple "don't do that" fix, most likely. Brain chemistry isn't like that.

Ideally, MLB selects for this as it promotes umpires up the chain, but, frankly, temperament is a lot less important, it would seem, than a consistent strike zone, communication skills, and sharp command of the rulebook. So you end up with umpires with solid strike zones (above the average of the population at large, anyway) and awful people skills.

We'll be a lot happier if we blame the frailty of humanity and the limitations of the market for our umpire-temperament issues because we won't find ourselves railing against the unfixable.