Tuesday September 16th, 2014

On Monday night, Major League Baseball handed down a whopping seven-game suspension to Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon for his actions in Sunday's game. After blowing a three-run lead in a 5-4 loss to the Marlins, Papelbon grabbed his crotch as he came off the mound in response to the boos from fans at Citizens Bank Park, then made contact with umpire Joe West upon being ejected. It’s an excessive penalty, particularly given that the league did not announce any discipline for the notoriously confrontational West, who escalated the situation by grabbing the pitcher's jersey and shoving him out of the way.

UPDATE: On Wednesday, the league finally did suspend West for one game; see below.

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​Papelbon had entered the game with the Phillies leading 4-1, but he loaded the bases before retiring a batter, and didn't escape until after four runs had scored via four hits, a walk and a wild pitch. It was the first time he allowed four runs in an appearance since June 4, 2010 against the Athletics, and the first time he'd done so in a blown save since Sept. 5, 2010 against the White Sox. As he walked off the mound following the third out, he responded to the boos by squatting and grabbing his crotch, producing an indelible image that wound up on the back page of the Philadelphia Daily News:

Papelbon was in the dugout by the time West ejected him, but upon being tossed, he bolted back onto the field and went nose-to-nose with the umpire. During the argument, his forehead made contact with the brim of West's cap, after which West grabbed him by the jersey and pushed him out of the way before umpire Marty Foster interceded. Before heading back to the Phillies clubhouse, he continued his tantrum by emptying a cup of water onto the field. You can see the video here:

After the game, West explained the ejection. Via MLB.com's Eric Bacharach:

"The whole thing started because the fans booed him and he made an obscene gesture," West said. "He had no business doing that. He's got to be more professional than that. And that's why he was ejected. Whatever happened out of that may have happened in anger out of being kicked out. But that's irrelevant."

For his part, the 33-year-old closer claimed to have been adjusting his athletic supporter — because what adult doesn't do that in front of 30,000 angry fans? — and to have been mystified by the ejection. Again from Bacharach:

"He basically came over and said that I did an inappropriate gesture, and I had no clue what he was talking about… That is when I got upset. I had no idea what he was talking about. I had no explanation. I was still obviously pretty heated from what had just transpired. Me and Joe we go way back. We don't see eye to eye a lot of times."

…"I had to make an adjustment and I did it," Papelbon said.

"I don't even hear the fans out there. When I am out there I am in the moment — the fans are irrelevant to me. I don't even see them or hear them. To me, it's pretty stupid, to be totally honest with you. The fans come and pay their money and want to see a good game. They have the right to boo and do whatever they want to do, but an umpire gets caught up in that and starts trying to look for extra things he may think are going on."

Via a statement issued by his agent, Papelbon maintained his innocence even while accepting the seven-game suspension. Via MLB.com's Todd Zolecki:

"I am accepting my suspension and regret making any contact with the umpires. While I completely understand how the fans would perceive my gesture while being booed, it was not my intent whatsoever to insult the fans of Philadelphia. If it was perceived in that manner, I sincerely apologize. … I look forward to returning this season and closing it out strong. For those reasons, I will not delay this process with an appeal."

It's difficult to buy Papelbon's initial explanation, as he had to know that he would be the focal point of attention under such circumstances, yet would have his privacy following just a handful of steps into the dugout. In the context of his unrequited desire to be traded to a contender, his expression can be seen as frustration over having to play out the string with a losing club.

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Even so, his seven-game suspension feels excessive in the context of recent punishments. It's the second-longest non-drug-related suspension of the 2014 season, behind only Michael Pineda's 10-game suspension for using pine tar. It's two games more than Manny Machado's suspension for tossing a bat, and for Martin Maldonado's part in a brawl that saw teammate Carlos Gomez draw a three-game suspension as well.

In terms of recent suspensions related to contact with umpires, Papelbon's suspension significantly exceeds those of Torii Hunter (four games in 2010 for making contact with umpire Ron Kulpa and throwing a bag of baseballs onto the field), Yorvit Torrealba (three games in 2010 for the brim of his helmet making contact with umpire Larry Vanover), Ty Wigginton (three games in 2010 for making contact with umpire Gary Darling and throwing a ball into the stands), Yadier Molina (five games in 2011 for making contact multiple times and spraying umpire Rob Drake with spittle, plus one game in 2013), and Devin Mesoraco (three games in 2012 for jabbing Chad Fairchild with his finger).

Further in the past, the longest suspension for physical contact with an umpire is believed to belong to Pete Rose, who in 1988 drew 30 days for pushing Dave Pallone; he was serving as manager by that point, however, not as a player. In 2001, Carl Everett netted a 10-game suspension in 2010 for bumping Kulpa in the chest and face and slamming his helmet to the ground.

In terms of obscene gestures, Ivan Rodriguez was suspended for one game in 2002. Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell was suspended two weeks for making homophobic comments, obscene gestures and threats to fans with a bat back in 2011. In perhaps the most notorious incident of making an obscene gesture towards fans, Jack McDowell was fined but not suspended for a 1995 incident while with the Yankees.

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Given all of that, seven games seems an unjustifiable length of suspension for Papelbon, and he likely could have had it shortened upon appeal. But by choosing not to go that route, he may in fact be making yet another gesture toward the going-nowhere Phillies, who at 69-81 are running last in the NL East and on the precipice of clinching their second straight losing season. Sunday's loss aside, Papelbon isn't to blame for that sorry showing; he's had arguably the best of his three seasons with the Phillies. With 37 saves, he's one shy of his 2012 total, and his four blown saves matches that year's low with the team. Meanwhile, his 2.10 ERA is his lowest mark since 2009, while his 2.56 FIP is his lowest since 2008.

Papelbon is in the third season of a four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies, one that includes a limited no-trade clause (he can block deals up to 17 teams) and a $13 million vesting option for 2016 based on finishing 55 games in 2015 or 100 games in 2014-15; he's finished 50 this year, down from 54 last year and 64 in his first year with the team. His $12.5 million average annual salary makes him the game's second-highest paid closer behind the Nationals' Rafael Soriano ($14 million per year), but it's a deal that's out of date with regards to the going rate for top-flight relievers. Craig Kimbrel ($10.5 million AAV), Joe Nathan, Jim Johnson and Brian Wilson (all $10 million AAV) are the only others pulling down eight-figure salaries, and the latter two aren't even closing; neither, for that matter is Soriano.

The Phillies have the league's oldest roster and fourth-highest payroll ($177.8 million, with $127.9 million committed to just nine players for next year). Given their need to rebuild, a pricey closer is a luxury, but the size of Papelbon’s contract and its additional poison pills make him difficult to trade, particularly given the falling prices of closers. If general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. wants to unload Papelbon, he'll likely have to eat some portion of that salary, something he has thus far been unwilling to do for any of his high-paid players who have passed their sell dates. After the July 31 trading deadline passed, Amaro complained, "Frankly, I don't think the clubs were aggressive enough for the kind of talent we have on our club."

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It remains to be seen whether this incident strengthens the GM's resolve to move Papelbon this winter. While his track record says to bet against it, the Phillies didn’t exactly rush to the player’s defense. Said manager Ryne Sandberg (via Zolecki) in the wake of an 18-minute meeting during which Papelbon stuck to his story, "It's not my position or my spot to make any judgment on that, but just to listen to him." Said the Phillies in a post-suspension statement via Philadelphia Magazine:

"The Phillies fully support the decision of the Commissioner’s Office, which has exclusive jurisdiction for on-field player behavior. By Major League Baseball rules, the Phillies have no authority to make official judgments about activity which occurs on the field or to determine the appropriate penalty for misconduct. We apologize to our fans for the actions of our player yesterday."

Via Twitter, Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer Matt Gelb called the statement "a damning 59 words," and in his writeup went further:

The Phillies' anger at Papelbon, perhaps the game's most untradeable player, is evident. They extended no loyalty to a player they have long attempted to jettison. It is reasonable to wonder if the penalty would have been greater had the team issued it.

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A major league umpire since 1976, the 62-year-old West is a powerful one as the president of the umpires' union (the WUA), but he's notorious for holding grudges and for seeking the limelight. He has a long list of confrontations under his considerable belt, dating back to a 1983 incident in which he shoved then-Braves manager Joe Torre and was suspended for three games (ironically, as current MLB executive vice president of baseball operations, with duties that include overseeing on-field discipline and umpiring, Torre is now West’s boss). In 1990, while attempting to break up a brawl, West threw Phillies pitcher Dennis Cook to the ground and drew a warning from NL president Bill White. In 2010, he was fined for his part in an argument with White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, and warned for publicly complaining about the slow pace of play by the Yankees and Red Sox. In 2011, he grabbed Red Sox manager Terry Francona during an argument over a balk, but Francona was the only one to have been fined (at least publicly).

On Wednesday, MLB handed down a one-game suspension for West — small by comparison to that of Papelbon, but as umpire discipline goes, not insignificant. Here's Torre's statement:

Joe West handled himself appropriately in ejecting Papelbon after the player's lewd gesture to the fans. I fully understand that Joe was reacting to a player who was acting aggressively, and can understand his frustration with the situation. However, Joe knows that an umpire cannot initiate physical contact with a player just as a player cannot initiate physical contact with an umpire. I spoke to Joe about the incident, and he admitted that there was a better way to handle the situation. I consider this matter closed.

I've long argued that the state of umpiring would improve given more public accountability and transparency with regards to disciplining umpires. West obviously didn't instigate Sunday's situation, but his contact with Papelbon didn’t defuse it, either. Still, the bulk of the blame lies with Papelbon, who can ask Jack McDowell about how quickly fans forget rude and confrontational gestures. Check back in 2033.

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