In the wake of his latest confrontation with an umpire over balls-and-strikes, Jose Bautista elected against commenting publicly, saying nothing good could come out of it. The incident, however, provoked questions about whether umpires' borderline calls are influenced by personal feelings toward players who irritate them with their conduct.
Evidence collected by a company which claims baseball teams as its clients shows that Bautista gets a disproportionate amount of pitches called strikes when they are outside the strike zone. In short, he's evidently getting a raw deal from plate umpires this season.
"There is no doubt that if a player shows up an umpire, a close call on balls and strikes can go against a hitter," former umpire Dave Pallone wrote in an e-mail.
Other umpires disagree on this assertion. Jim Evans, a 28-year-veteran now running an umpiring school in Colorado, says modern technology permits umpires to be evaluated for consistency in an unprecedented fashion and they can't afford to be biased against certain players. Larry Barnett, a 31-year veteran, says umpires are obliged to let go of personal feelings, otherwise they'd have "ulcers on their tongues."
Bautista went ballistic last Sunday after striking out in the ninth inning of a close game in Toronto, against Texas. He'd been angered by a strike-one call by home-plate ump Gary Darling on an 88 mile-an-hour slider, Joe Nathan's pitch having come in borderline low. After he struck out, Darling ejected him for arguing. Bautista punctuated his feelings about the exchange by tossing his helmet, bat and padding while storming off the field.
Two nights later in Chicago against the White Sox, batting against Jose Quintana in the first inning, Bautista took a full-count curveball that appeared to be low and outside as it reached the plate. Thinking he'd drawn a walk, Bautista took a half-stride toward first before hearing Ed Hickox call strike three. He paused, grimaced and walked away, saying nothing and yet, registering his disagreement with all watching.
These are the types of pitches that a veteran top-of-the-lineup player with a certain status might expect to have called in his favour, or at least at the midpoint. Yet, according to Baseball Info Solutions, a company that uses a variety of analytical tools including video and computer tracking to assess calls, of 376 pitches that he took outside the strike zone, Bautista had 58 called strikes for a rate of 15 per cent through Monday's games. It was the 40th-highest rate in the major leagues among 233 batters who hadn't swung at a minimum of 200 pitches outside the strike zone.
"In words, I would say that Bautista has received worse ball-and-strike-call treatment than most players this season," Scott Spratt, a researcher with the company.
Calls go both ways. Sometimes, pitches that should be called strikes are called balls by umpires, according to computer testing. For such favours, Bautista ranked 22nd-lowest among 228 batters.
Are umpires influenced, consciously or sub-consciously, to call close pitches with a negative bias when a player reacts emotionally rather than robotically?
"In my 31 years, I never felt I had time to worry about getting even with a player," Barnett said by telephone. "If they did something wrong, I got rid of them [with ejections]. Tomorrow was always a new day. It's a controversial job with adversarial relationships, and the art of the game is to manage that."
Evans admitted that in the past, a senior umpire might have given a disrespectful player a lesson by "stretching" the strike zone by up to six inches. Today, he said, "you would subject yourself to criticism by making calls that you know to be incorrect, especially with all the TV cameras around today." The two tenets of successful umpiring are credibility and consistency, and ball-and-strike calls will test umpires most severely on both grounds, he said.
In April, Baustista said he saw meant no disrespect by playing with emotion, while at the same time admitting to having trouble digesting that his production at the plate may be "affected by someone else's mediocrity." He argued that no matter how a player reacts, a ball ought to be called a ball, a strike a strike … period. Logically, yes, but the human dynamic remains part of the game, at least for now.
"You're not going to get everything right and anybody who says they do is lying," Barnett said. "Integrity is what you stand for, as an umpire. It is what you want your family to be proud of."
Pallone said pitch trackers can deceive viewers but no matter, the former umpires agree technology has ramped up the pressure to get it right.
If they err on a close pitch, the worst thing to do is lean the other way on the next.
"If you miss one and make it up, how many mistakes have you made?" he asked. "You've made two."