Everyone has bad days at work. You’ve had them. If you read my work, you sure as heck know I’ve had them. Even Mike Trout’s theoretically had one or two. Not everyone can be on top of his or her game at every second of every minute on the clock. It’s just a simple fact of life.
CB Bucknor seems to have these nights more often than most. Any cursory poll asking for the names of the worst umpires in the big leagues will yield Bucknor’s name as one of the most popular answers. Less cursory polls have produced a similar result. He has long been at the center of some of baseball’s more frustrating officiating experiences, whether it be with his work behind the plate or on the bases. It was the former that drew the ire of just about everyone in Cobb County last night, especially that of Jayson Werth.
Werth, at this stage of his career, has fully bought into the Danny Glover-in-Lethal–Weapon method of thinking. He’s too old for your crap, and he’s been here long enough to tell you why you’re wrong. It’s a pretty fun thing to behold, especially when he’s had it up to here with whatever injustice has been perpetrated that day. The crap, in Werth’s estimation, began with his fourth-inning plate appearance. Here’s a graph of the pitches from same. (Note: from catcher’s perspective.)
He struck out. BrooksBaseball and PitchInfo think the third pitch was a strike, and video from last night shows that it was borderline, but not an egregious call.
Strikes two and three, however, were bad. Very bad.
These were the most egregious calls (in terms of balls and strikes) on the night. There were too many borderline calls for comfort, but we can’t get into every one of them here. What we can get into, however, is how the game ended. Or, rather, how it didn’t end.
It’s the ninth inning. Shawn Kelley is on the mound following a sloppy outing from Blake Treinen. The bases are loaded, and Chase d’Arnaud is at the plate with two strikes. Kelley throws a looping breaking ball on the outer portion of the plate, d’Arnaud feebly swings, and that’s the ballgame. Right? You’d think that would be the case.
There’s so much to unpack here. First and foremost, what exactly is a foul ball?
The official rules of Major League Baseball define a foul ball thusly:
A FOUL BALL is a batted ball that settles on foul territory between home and first base, or between home and third base, or that bounds past first or third base on or over foul territory, or that first falls on foul territory beyond first or third base, or that, while on or over foul territory, touches the person of an umpire or player, or any object foreign to the natural ground. A foul fly shall be judged according to the relative position of the ball and the foul line, including the foul pole, and not as to whether the infielder is on foul or fair territory at the time he touches the ball.
As with a lot of the rules of baseball, there’s a fun little bit of grey area there, namely when it comes to foul balls around the plate. Yet the key phrase here is “batted ball” and, quite clearly, d’Arnaud did not apply bat to ball on what would have been Kelley’s final pitch of the evening. Perhaps Bucknor assumed that because Matt Wieters didn’t cleanly catch the ball that d’Arnaud must have gotten a piece of it. Perhaps the thump of the ball off of Wieters’ mitt was mistaken for the crack of a bat hitting a ball. Perhaps Bucknor is a thinker of a higher order, attempting to provide a commentary on life and on baseball. We have rules that define things for us, but really, at the end of the day, what is a foul ball? Does it really matter in the end, when the cold grip of death, at some point, comes for us all? Do squabbles over what is and is not foul matter at that point?
Regardless, the-foul-that-wasn’t wasn’t clarified to be a “foul” until after the grounds crew had already begun their post-game duties and the handshake procession of players was already in progress. Rather fittingly, when everyone was ordered back to their places, Kelley threw d’Arnaud another breaking ball, and the Nationals won, again. Werth made sure to tell Bucknor exactly what he thought, and he told reporters too.
Jayson Werth's full quote on the end-of-game umpiring tonight… pic.twitter.com/Q24LU7F0qy
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) April 19, 2017
However, it’s only April 19th. We’ve got a lot of baseball left. A lot of those games will be called by Bucknor. It’s never a good idea to peak too early.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.