Madison Bumgarner and How Baseball Is Really Played
Major League Baseball has an image it likes to promote and it goes something like this: their Umpires are Wise and Fair Men just trying to get each and every call right, their Players are Hard-Working, Clean-Living Athletes who just love to compete and their Owners are Stewards of the Game doing their best to promote and protect our National Pastime.
All of which is about 92% bullshit.
And it’s too bad MLB promotes this bullshit because reality is so much more interesting.
In reality the game is filled with Geniuses and Knuckleheads, Good Guys and Jerks, Feuds and Friendships, Written Rules that are routinely ignored and Unwritten Rules that are enforced like one of the Ten Commandments.
Walking off before a call is made is considered “showing up” an umpire whether a pitcher or hitter does it and the same thing goes for a hitter or catcher turning their head and looking back at the umpire after a borderline pitch or a pitcher throwing his arms in the air in frustration, because all those actions make it clear to the fans that the player thinks the umpire just missed a call.
So keep this Unwritten Rule in mind because it will explain a lot as we go forward.
A pitch I can work with
So one night I’m watching a ballgame with a former Big League umpire and the batter thinks the pitcher just threw ball four, flips his bat and starts down to first base, but the home plate umpire thinks the pitch was a strike and calls the batter back to the plate.
I turn to the former umpire and say you guys hate that shit don’t you and ask what the odds are that the next pitch will be called a strike and the former umpire grins and says:
“Just give me a pitch I can work with.”
Here’s what that former umpire meant:
If the next pitch was two feet outside he couldn’t call it a strike because that would be too obvious, but give him a pitch just a few inches off the plate – a pitch he could work with – and he’d be happy to stick it to the batter.
In the Real World umpires don’t like being shown up and might find a way to retaliate.
Now here’s a story about an umpire not retaliating after a hitter showed him up by throwing his hands in the air and looking up into the sky like “Why me, Lord?” on the very first pitch the hitter saw that night. After being shown up, I figured the umpire would stick it to the hitter on every borderline pitch for the rest of the game, but that didn’t happen.
The next day I asked a coach about it and he said that particular umpire already had the reputation of being awful behind the plate and couldn’t afford to call an obvious ball a strike, but the next umpire in the rotation had a better reputation and would retaliate for the awful umpire in that night’s game.
(See? I told you the truth was more interesting than the bullshit.)
How a catcher can use a pissed-off umpire
When we wrote our book “Throwback” former Big League catcher Jason Kendall had no problem admitting he had beers with maybe 80 percent of the umpires and wasn’t afraid to use those relationships to lobby umpires during games.
While he talked to the umpire, Kendall would keep staring straight ahead so nobody knew what was going on and if a hitter made the mistake of turning his head and looking at the umpire after a questionable call, Jason wasn’t afraid to use that either.
Jason would point out that the hitter had just shown up the umpire and then ask the umpire what he was going to do about it. He’d then set up off the plate to see if the umpire would give him those calls.
Here’s what Jason said about that tactic:
“The hitter won’t like it. He’ll talk to the umpire, too: ‘Where was that pitch? Are you kidding me, Bob? That ball’s out.’
After that, I’m going farther out because now Bob is starting to get pissed at the hitter. I can be off the plate, but if the pitcher hits the glove? It’s a strike. If the hitter and umpire start bitching at each other, I set up farther outside the zone. If the ball hits my glove, whether it’s in the zone or off the plate, I’m getting that call.”
And if a batter shows up an umpire by flipping his bat and walking off on what he thinks was ball four, Jason suggested that a smart pitcher quick pitch the batter when he got back in the box because while a quick pitch is most definitely against the rules, it’s a rule that’s rarely enforced and the pitcher wouldn’t even have to throw a strike because the umpire will want to retaliate for being shown up.
Jason also said if the pitcher was a veteran and had good relationships with the umpires, he’d have a better chance of getting away with an obvious quick pitch.
Time out for some self-promotion…sort of
Re-reading these parts of the book, I’d forgotten just how good Throwback was and I get almost no credit for that because all I did was write down the remarkable stuff Jason was saying. The book’s subtitle was “A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played” and that’s exactly what Jason did.
It’s too bad the publishers didn’t realize what they had on their hands and promote the hell out of Throwback, but they didn’t, which shouldn’t stop you from buying a copy if you can find one because if you want to understand baseball, you can’t find a better teacher than Jason Kendall.
Now here’s how Jason would fuck over rookies.
Welcome to the Big Leagues
Jason made it extremely clear that new players in the league would get tested and when a rookie came up to bat for the very first time, Jason would intentionally set up off the plate and see if the umpire wanted to test the rookie by making a bad call just to see how the rookie reacted.
Now here’s what he said about that:
“If a borderline call does not go a rookie’s way, everybody watches to see how the rookie reacts: Does he keep his mouth shut or act like a jackass? If a rookie shoots his mouth off. It gets around the league real quick – this dude’s act is tired, he thinks he’s bigger than the game – and everybody will be a little harder on him.
Catchers can use that: if they know the umpires don’t like a kid, a catcher can make it worse. Set up off the plate and see if you get the call. If the kid says anything or shoots the umpire a dirty look, ask the umpire if he’s going to let the kid get away with that: ‘Bob, did you see what he just did? You gonna let him do that to you?’ I’d egg the umpire on. I’d even do it if the rookie asked where a pitch was: ‘Bob, he’s got thirty days in the big leagues – you think he’s got enough time to ask you where that pitch is?’
After that, we’ll go off the plate even more. Trust me: Albert Pujols gets a different strike zone than Bryce Harper.”
(At the time Jason said that, Albert Pujols was a well-liked veteran and Bryce Harper had neither of those things going for him.)
I recently asked Jason if the electronic strike zones kept umpires honest and he said nobody in baseball believes those things are 100 percent accurate (even though fans are encouraged to) and for the most part, veteran umpires could still get away with calling their own strike zones.
The remarkable thing about Throwback was Jason Kendall being completely honest (which he almost always is and if Jason doesn’t want to say something, he just won’t talk to you) and admitting this is how baseball is actually played. And if you can get Big League Ballplayers to trust you and tell you the truth (and that takes a while, so most reporters just get a string of clichés) they’ll admit Jason Kendall is 100 percent correct.
Which finally brings us to Madison Bumgarner.
Bumgarner’s hand check and ejection
In the first inning of the Diamondbacks game against the Marlins, Madison Bumgarner thought he threw strike three to end the inning and showed up the home plate umpire Ryan Wills by walking off the mound.
According to Baseball Reference, Wills has less than two years in the big leagues, so the question you might ask (or just wait right there and I’ll ask it for you) is this: was a fairly new umpire reluctant to confront an established star like Madison Bumgarner?
Also according to Baseball Reference, first base umpire Dan Bellino became a full-time umpire in 2011, so Bellino’s been around awhile and might be more willing to take on a star player.
When the inning ended, Bellino checked Bumgarner’s hand for a foreign substance, which is dumb because smart pitchers have their catchers apply the foreign substance to the ball and if baseball really wanted to catch somebody cheating (it doesn’t, I mean just look how they handled the Astros scandal) they’d start checking catcher’s shin guards because some of those shin guards have more pine tar on them than a George Brett bat.
As a number of people have already pointed out, if you watch video of the incident you’ll see that Bellino never looks at Bumgarner’s hand, he just keeps staring at the pitcher in what seems like an attempt to provoke Bumgarner into a reaction that will give him an excuse to eject the Diamondback’s pitcher and eventually Bumgarner was ejected for directing profanity at an umpire.
So knowing what you now know about umpires, feel free to speculate that a veteran umpire stepped in to protect a young umpire and do what the young umpire was reluctant to do: confront a star player.
Bellino has since apologized for the incident, but in baseball terms his real crime was making the retaliation obvious; Bellino didn’t wait for a pitch he could “work with.”
I once had a former umpire tell me that if he was getting yelled at by an entire team, he’d go over to their dugout, find a starting pitcher who had the day off and eject him even if he wasn’t yelling and the umpire did that because it would get his message across, but ejecting a player who wasn’t going to play that day wouldn’t affect the game.
And when I told a player about it, the player said he wished all umpires would be that sensitive to the game and that’s another thing Bellino screwed up; he went out of his way to eject a starting pitcher after just one inning.
Read the articles about this incident and people call it “puzzling” or “bizarre” or “weird” and if the people who wrote those articles truly believe the incident was “puzzling” or “bizarre” or “weird” it probably means they don’t know jackshit about how baseball is actually played.
Maybe they ought to buy a copy of Throwback and let Jason Kendall explain it to them.