Hello friends. You’ll notice this headline refers to the worst called strike of the second half. Late last week, I wrote about the worst called ball of the season. When I write about the worst called balls, I’m obligated to write about the worst called strikes. When was the worst called strike of the season? It turns out it happened pretty early on, and I already wrote about it in July. I figured there wasn’t any sense in writing about the same call a second time, since I’d have all the same stuff to say. So as a compromise, I’m following last week’s post with a more recent called-strike update. The worst called strike of the second half is still the worst called strike in a while.
Let me show you what was almost the worst called strike of the second half. This is determined, for the record, by distance from the nearest edge of the strike zone. The worst called strike of the second half was almost a pitch thrown to Jose Altuve. It was almost a pitch thrown by Jaime Barria. I don’t think I’ve ever actually written a sentence about Jaime Barria. This is as close as I’ve gotten. Barria got the benefit of the doubt in a 3-and-1 count.
I promise I’m not pulling your leg. That fastball went for strike two, even though it was almost level with the nape of Jose Altuve’s neck. Now, granted, Altuve crouched a little bit after the pitch was released. In theory, the top of the strike zone is set according to a hitter’s stance. But it didn’t make a big difference. Now to see something kind of incredible, here’s the exact same image, except this time I’ve photoshopped in George Springer in place of Altuve.
As baseball players go, Springer is more standard-sized. Had that exact same pitch been thrown in exactly the same spot to Springer, no one would think twice about it. Maybe a wee bit generous, but nothing outlandish in a 3-and-1 count. But Springer wasn’t in the box. Altuve was in the box. And even though this should go without saying at this point, Jose Altuve is relatively small. He is a small baseball player. He is a great baseball player who is short. He is so atypically short that umpires can’t always adjust their zones appropriately. Altuve’s strike zone is so far from the norm that, as he’s developed and as he’s gained experience, he’s had to learn a version of baseball that’s different from most everyone else. Most everyone else has a strike zone from the knee to the waist. Altuve is more like from the middle of the thigh to the belly button. Umpires are used to certain pitches in certain places going consistently in certain ways. Altuve is exceptional. Umpires aren’t good at adapting so dramatically.
I had almost a whole post written in my head. You just saw a chunk of it. Jose Altuve has always had to deal with high strikes. Aaron Judge has always had to deal with low strikes. There are lessons in here, lessons about how our brains can’t always adjust on the fly if circumstances change by too much. We get set in our patterns. Yet if I can just fast-forward here: The worst called strike of the second half wasn’t thrown to Jose Altuve. The worst called strike of the second half was thrown some number of days earlier, to Bryce Harper. Nationals fans already know what I’m talking about. I’ll — I’ll just start from the beginning.
This wasn’t the season the Nationals wanted to have. That’s the background. Entering play on September 14, the Nationals were 74-73, 8.5 games out in the division. They weren’t particularly close to the wild card. They were beginning a series in Atlanta, a series that could’ve been relevant, but there just wasn’t enough time to rally. Playing the Braves only reminded the Nationals that they’d been a season-long disappointment. It makes sense that Harper would’ve been frustrated. Playing for the Nationals over the years has caused plenty of frustration.
Just under the surface, Harper wouldn’t have been very happy. He’s always been a rather expressive ballplayer, and he tends to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but when you’re on edge, it doesn’t take a lot to piss you off. In the top of the first inning on the 14th, Harper took a borderline called strike.
Move along. Top of the fifth inning. Harper took another called strike away. Less borderline.
There are certain players who, as fans, you just kind of trust. Reds fans trust that Joey Votto knows his own zone. Giants fans trust that Brandon Belt knows his own zone. And Nationals fans trust that Bryce Harper knows his own zone. According to Bryce Harper’s brain, that one wasn’t a strike. According to home-plate umpire Laz Diaz’s brain, Bryce Harper’s brain was wrong. Harper doesn’t take kindly to being disagreed with. Not in the box, not when he’s just trying to get a pitch to hit.
Still, nothing much happened, not in the moment. Harper said a few words. Diaz heard them. The situation erupted in the bottom of the inning.
Dansby Swanson was at the plate. He took a pitch away that Diaz still called a strike.
Two pitches later, another taken fastball away, in a similar spot. More outside, granted. Diaz called a ball.
Definitely a ball. Unquestionably a ball. If any mistake were made, it was earlier in the at-bat, when Diaz had called the strike. But, standing 300 or so feet away in center field, Harper must have reacted somehow. Cameras didn’t catch it, because, why would a camera be trained on the center fielder while a pitch was being thrown to the plate? But Harper must have done something, because Diaz came out from behind the plate to show his disapproval.
It was a lot more than just a shrug. Here’s almost the entirety of the sequence. Diaz stared at Harper, and he pointed at Harper while he shouted at Dave Martinez in the Nationals’ dugout. He shouted that Martinez needed to have a talking-to with his center fielder, because he was doing something inappropriate.
I’m not sure what Harper possibly could’ve done to set Diaz off. He was standing so far away that Diaz would’ve had to be looking for a reason to get upset. I understand his body language was probably negative, and vaguely insulting. Maybe it was directly insulting. I understand something had already been building, and Harper and Diaz had gotten underneath one another’s skin. But umpires are supposedly trained to be adept at conflict resolution. This was the opposite of that. Diaz was practically baiting Harper to do something to get ejected. I believe the Twitter term is “umpshow.”
When the inning ended, Harper jogged straight to his own dugout, not so much as glancing in Diaz’s direction. Diaz, though, stared Harper down. He continued to shout, offended that Harper had, I don’t know, waved his glove or sulked? Diaz was giving everyone a graduate-level lecture in how not to de-escalate.
So we’ve established all of the history, leading up to the moment in question itself. The sixth inning was uneventful. But the seventh inning brought Harper to the plate. Harper swung at the first pitch, and took the next two high, for balls. With the count 2-and-1, Jesse Biddle threw a breaking ball outside. It was too far outside for Harper to chase, but it was exactly far enough outside for Diaz to send a message. A message that seemed, at the very least, subconsciously premeditated.
That’s the video; this is the screenshot:
It’s the perfect camera angle to see how bad a call this was. Not only was the pitch clearly outside, above the chalk of the opposite batter’s box — the pitch having been a breaking ball, it was only breaking further away. This is the worst called strike of the season’s second half, including the playoffs. By the most generous interpretation, the pitch was about 7.2 inches away from the nearest edge of the strike zone. The gap between the pitch and the zone was wider than the average sandwich. Worse, it seems like the pitch was called a strike on purpose.
I mean, all called strikes are called strikes on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to feel like Diaz was taking it out on Harper, here. He wasn’t going to call anything a strike — Harper had already taken two balls — but it reads as if Diaz weaponized the first call he could reasonably get away with. If that’s not the case, then Diaz is somewhat a victim of circumstances. Maybe it was a total coincidence he called the worst strike of the second half against Harper just two innings after yelling about Harper’s personal conduct. It would be like when a pitcher gets ejected for hitting a guy after some guys have already been hit, even though the pitch didn’t mean it in that instance. Sometimes a pitch does just get away. Sometimes a call is just made badly by mistake. On the one hand, the evidence strongly suggests Diaz wanted to make Harper pay. On the other hand, Diaz did then allow Harper to get away with an awful lot of talking.
Harper felt like he was targeted, which you can understand. He’s not the type to just let that go. Diaz, for his part, eyed Harper while he ranted. And then there’s Tyler Flowers in the clip, trying his damnedest to pretend like he’s not just squatting right there, listening to every single word. Flowers plays the part of an uninvolved third party while a couple gets into an argument in an elevator. You just try to think yourself invisible. Flowers just wanted to keep playing baseball. Harper had some difficulty getting back into the right frame of mind.
Diaz easily could’ve not granted Harper timeout. And actually, as I look at it, I’m not sure Diaz did grant Harper timeout. Harper might’ve just taken it, daring Diaz to allow play to continue. And then there’s more jawing, which drew Martinez out of the dugout. Martinez went out to protect his player, and to Diaz’s credit, he did appear to indicate he was going to let Harper say his piece. There was ample opportunity to just toss Harper out, and Diaz let him keep hitting. Perhaps he didn’t want to provoke an ejection, but just a direct conversation. That wouldn’t mean that things were handled *well.* And after Harper drove in a run with a grounder, Diaz didn’t need to stare him back to the dugout:
In the best-case interpretation here, Harper did something immature, and Diaz took issue with his behavior. But then neither party could let it just roll off his back, instead engaging in a sustained confrontation because real men don’t let anything slide. Maybe Harper “started it” by doing something way out in center field. But Diaz would’ve had to be looking for a reason, to notice Harper’s body language so far away. And then Diaz decided to yell. And he decided to stare. And it sure seems like he decided to make an intentionally bad call to send Harper a message, and maybe piss him off just a little extra. If that wasn’t done on purpose, and it was all just a wild coincidence, I don’t even know if that’s better. It’s just differently bad.
Generally, when I write, I try to be sympathetic to umpires, because they hear it from all sides and there’s a lack of understanding of how much they have to deal with on a nightly basis. Almost to an individual, major-league umpires are trying their best, and they know their mistakes count against them. They’re incentivized, like everyone else, to do as good a job as possible. But it’s 2018, and in 2018, all the umpires are still human. Laz Diaz allowed his emotions to get the best of him. The strongest defense I could mount is that he’s far from the first person to be rubbed the wrong way by Bryce Harper. It’s just that we should expect our umpires to be better than that. Or at least — at least — more subtle.
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.