Sunday in Umpiring: Four Decisions of Varying Egregiousness

You’re making decisions all of the time, even if you might not realize it. You decided, for example, to click on this post. You’ve decided, for another example, to continue reading this post, despite the first couple sentences. You decided where to browse, and what to wear, and when to scratch your neck, and when not to get up to take a walk to get a break from the computer. You are a decision-making machine, but most of your decisions are made quickly and quietly, without other people being made aware. Usually it’s not really their business.

Baseball umpires are also making decisions all of the time. They make ordinary decisions like how to stand up and when to rub their eyes, but they also make decisions pertaining to the gameplay. These decisions affect other people, and they’re made consciously and deliberately, with future decisions resting upon current decisions. A baseball game requires constant umpire decisions in order to proceed, and they’re not always obvious, not always black and white. Many can be questioned, reasonably, which adds certain stresses to the work. Sunday was an interesting day in baseball umpiring. Let’s quickly examine four questionable decisions, and remark on their egregiousness. We’ll go in ascending order.

Angels vs. Astros



  • Setting: Brett Oberholtzer was pitching to Chris Nelson in the bottom of the second inning. There was a runner on third and nobody out, and Nelson was preparing for the first pitch. The score was 3-0 Astros.
  • The questionable decision: the home-plate umpire ruled the first pitch a ball.
  • Why it was questionable: the first pitch was a fastball more or less over the middle of the plate, and that’s where the strike zone is.
  • Egregiousness: 2 out of 10. It’s a fact: pitches in the middle of the zone are supposed to be strikes, basically 100% of the time. The more you think about this, the more upset you might become. But for one thing, this pitch was received poorly, and we’re beyond the point of knowing that the catcher makes a different to the umpire. The catcher made this pitch look low and away. Beyond that, the egregiousness formula ought to have some significance factor, and this was the first pitch of a second-inning at-bat of a game between the Astros and the Angels in the middle of August. This is a pitch I’m guessing Brett Oberholtzer doesn’t even remember throwing. Can’t in good conscience give a high egregiousness score to a pitch that ultimately just doesn’t matter.
  • Result: Ball, no argument.

Rangers vs. Mariners



  • Setting: With two outs in the sixth, Adrian Beltre singled off Erasmo Ramirez, driving home a run. Beltre took an aggressive turn around first base, and as he returned, Endy Chavez threw behind him, to Justin Smoak.
  • The questionable decision: Beltre was called safe at first, by the second-base umpire, the umpire apparently deciding he either beat the tag, or avoided it.
  • Why it was questionable: Beltre neither beat the tag nor avoided it.
  • Egregiousness: 4 out of 10. The first-base umpire was out of position, as he had to follow the fly-ball single into right field to make sure it was fair. That left the call at first to be made by the second-base umpire, who got a late start and who wound up with a bad angle, with Beltre’s body between his eyes and the glove. Replays showed that Beltre was most certainly out, but he wasn’t out by that much, and in real time it was close. Beltre was not out by five feet, as the radio suggested to me at the time. It’s a problem that the umpire got a late start and a bad angle, and it’s a problem that he made the wrong call, but this is also a fairly unusual circumstance. One’s assumption is generally that a hitter won’t be thrown out at first.
  • Result: Safe, brief argument.

Red Sox vs. Yankees


  • Setting: Ryan Dempster was pitching to Alex Rodriguez in the top of the second. The first pitch of the plate appearance sailed behind Rodriguez’s legs. The next two were inside, and then the fourth drilled Rodriguez in the arm and the side. Dempster walked forward and continued to stare in.
  • The questionable decision: The home-plate umpire issued warnings to the pitcher and to the dugouts, instead of choosing to eject Dempster outright.
  • Why it was questionable: Dempster could’ve been ejected, especially given the first pitch, because there was little doubt regarding the intent.
  • Egregiousness: 5 out of 10. Everybody knows Dempster hit Rodriguez on purpose. Everybody suspects they know the reason. This is really easy for us to put together: Dempster doesn’t like what Rodriguez stands for, so he elected to send a message, and then send another, more compelling message. Dempster’s denied his own intent, but such denials are a waste of everyone’s time. However, it’s up to the umpire to decide whether or not an ejection is warranted. Once intent is suspected, it’s left to the umpire’s discretion which decision to make, and Dempster didn’t, say, target Rodriguez’s head. There wasn’t any prior warning, even if in retrospect it looks like warnings should’ve been issued after pitch No. 1. Based on precedent, this could’ve gone either way, so I can’t call it highly egregious. Maybe it deserves a 6 instead of a 5, but, who honestly cares?
  • Result: HBP, warnings, Joe Girardi ejection.

Cubs vs. Cardinals



  • Setting: Adam Wainwright was pitching to Donnie Murphy in the bottom of the seventh. It was 6-1 Cardinals, but the Cubs had two on with none out. Murphy was behind 0-and-2.
  • The questionable decision: Murphy checked his swing at the next pitch, but the home-plate umpire claimed that he went around, and then he didn’t ask for any help.
  • Why it was questionable: lol
  • Egregiousness: 10 out of 10. I know I said earlier that one pitch is only one pitch, and only one of these teams is in contention, and Murphy was behind a good pitcher by two strikes, but, holy actual crap. There are two awful decisions here: the awful decision that Murphy went, and the awful decision to not confirm by asking a base umpire. Said Dale Sveum: “That’s easily the worst check-swing call I’ve ever seen. That’s why the other umpires are there, to give him help.” Added Sveum: “[Cuzzi] said he thought he got it right.” So here we have an umpire making a bad call and then being too stubborn and arrogant to ask his peers if he was right. It doesn’t even reflect poorly on a home-plate umpire to check down — that’s common. It happens all the time. In this instance, the umpire was so sure he didn’t even want to take the time to investigate, which would take a fraction of one second. This is, basically, umpiring at its worst, even if the circumstances weren’t particularly dramatic or meaningful. The Cardinals still would’ve won this game, I’m all but certain, and the Cubs are going nowhere, and this isn’t the strikeout that’ll cost Donnie Murphy millions, but this is that classic umpire blend of error and self-importance. Phil Cuzzi umpired in last year’s playoffs.
  • Result: Strikeout, Dale Sveum and James Russell ejections.

For what it’s worth, one of these decisions, presumably, would be subject to next year’s proposed instant-replay review.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

The Beltre decision is why you need replay. If the umpires did what they were supposed to and it was impossible for one of them to see the play well enough to make the right call, then why shouldn’t we give them the means to make the right call?