‘That’s Not A Strike’: A Lesson in Contrasts

2 different games, 2 different players and umpires, 2 different reactions to a called strike, 2 different results to said responses from said umpires.

So says me.

OK, enough alliterative foreshadowing and frolicking.

Yesterday, Bryce Harper was ejected on an appeal to third base umpire John Hirschbeck. The offending infraction that got Harper tossed nanoseconds after the called third strike, ending the inning? The shrugging of shoulders, with a corresponding raising of the arms, bat it tow, and a mildly passive-aggressive toss of his helmet towards the dugout.

Here, have a look for yourself, courtesy of mlb.com by way of the excellent Washington Nationals blog, Nats Enquirer:

By the looks of the pitch tracker in the video, it was the right call, as the incriminating pitch *just* grazed the bottom of the strike zone. Let’s have a look at the PITCHf/x for the at-bat, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

It was a strike

It was a strike

As we can see, the pitch in question (#5), was a strike; a low, borderline strike, but nonetheless one that Harper should have been swinging at. Whether Harper held up his swing in time is something that can’t been seen in the video, but apparently, he didn’t.

Also seen in the clip was Harper uttering, post-ejection, either ‘that ball was away’ or ‘no fucking way’. My lip-reading skills are suspect at best, so I leave it to the reader to investigate further.

It was a close pitch and Harper had some right to interject with his own interpretation of the strike zone and the pitch; whether his body language merited immediate ejection in the first inning of the game, again, I leave to reader scrutiny.

A day before in Houston, we had the following at bat, the Astros’ Lucas Harrell versus the Tigers’ Prince Fielder:

Screen shot 2013-05-06 at 12.43.01 PM

Screen shot taken from baseball-reference.com

Nothing real shocking here – Fielder is no stranger to the strikeout, whiffing at a 19% rate thus far in 2013; heck, he even had a strikeout earlier in the game in question, caught looking in the first inning, also at the hands of Harrell.

Let’s have a look at the last pitch of the at bat:


Another low ball, another strikeout, another hitter not too happy with the call. As we can see, Fielder repeated, over and over, to home plate umpire Scott Barry, ‘that ball is down’.

In the waning seconds, we can also see Fielder, body turned directly at Barry, vehemently state, ‘that’s not a fucking strike’, as he plods back to the Tigers dugout. He continues his tirade on the way back to the dugout, the entire time eyes locked with Barry’s, pleading his case in a not so professional manner.

The PITCHf/x plot for the at bat:


As the red dot, #6, shows us Fielder had a point; that ball *was* down.

However, what interests me in this tale of two K’s is the interface between the player and the umpire and their individual interpretations of the strike zone and how much rope a given player has to argue balls and strikes. Fielder stopped short of telling Barry he would take his mother out for a seafood dinner and never call her back, while Harper gets the heave-ho without so much as a whimper. While both Fielder and Harper gave the umpires body language that expressed their disdain for the calls, Harper’s was done so far away, it’s borderline ridiculous to believe that Hirschbeck felt ‘threatened’ by the gesturing. Barry, on the other hand, kept his composure and gave Fielder more than his time to plead his case; even more interesting is the fact that Barry let Fielder break two unwritten rules of interacting with an umpire.

First, you don’t turn around to engage them in argument (though I readily admit this might be more of a rule for catchers to not turn around or get out of the crouch to argue).

Second, no cursing. Again, this rule is loosely upheld, and is probably more egregious when used to directly address the umpire or his skills – ‘you fucking suck’ will be less tolerated than ‘that’s not a fucking strike’. Perhaps. Like many other things related to the rules of baseball, written or otherwise, it’s up for individual interpretation.

In a fortuitous twist, Harper’s and Fielder’s teams set off against one another this coming Tuesday, in interleague play. While the results of the match remain to be seen, we can be guaranteed one thing: the strike zone will remain in question – no clowning.

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