Washington's Bryce Harper was ejected in the top of the first inning of Sunday's game between the Nationals and the Pirates for arguing a check-swing call on what was ruled a third strike. Though, as we shall see it was hardly the first or even most notable incident of an umpire vs. player run-in this season, it was nonetheless notable for a few reasons.
Perhaps most curious was the fact that there appeared to be two blown calls on the pitch that added up to the correct result. The 2-2 pitch from Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez -- a low, sweeping curveball that looked like it crossed the plate above the knee before diving below the strike zone -- seemed to be a strike (and was, per the pitch-track graphic on the Nationals' TV broadcast), but home plate umpire Bob Davidson ruled it a ball. That led Harper to believe he caught a break only to have Davidson appeal to third base umpire John Hirschbeck, who called Harper out on a swing it didn't appear he took. Indeed, Harper had taken an almost identical check swing on the previous pitch on which no appeal was made and no swing was called.
So, Harper struck out as he should have but for the wrong reason. Harper then lingered at home plate and stared in disbelief at Hirschbeck. Hirschbeck immediately started screaming and walking toward Harper, but what he was doing was warning Harper that if he didn't leave the batter's box he was going to be ejected. Hirschbeck went so far as to send the Nationals' third base coach, Trent Jewett, to protect his player. However, Harper lingered a little too long for Hirschbeck's taste, and when Harper finally turned out of the box and flipped his bat away and dropped his helmet, though those actions were not demonstrable, Hirschbeck ejected him.
There have been a number of high-profile player player-umpire run-ins this season, but there have been just 10 incidents leading to player ejections in 918 games thus far. One of those incidents was the Carlos Quentin/Zack Greinke brawl back on April 11, which resulted in four players being kicked out but had nothing to do with the umpires. Sam Holbrook, who was the home plate umpire and crew chief in that game and thus issued those ejections, is the only umpire to toss a player on more than one occasion this season, but, again, the Quentin/Greinke incident had nothing to do with him, which leaves baseball with no serial ejectors thus far in the early going.
In fact, even with manager and coach ejections included, only one other umpire, Jim Reynolds, has issued an ejection on more than one occasion and he was justified in doing so both times. Reynolds tossed Diamondbacks shortstop Cliff Pennington on April 13 when Pennington reacted to Reynolds' third strike call by slamming his bat on home plate, breaking the barrel, and he booted A's pitching coach Curt Young on April 25 when Young used a third-inning mound visit as an opportunity to argue a check-swing call on a 1-1- pitch from earlier in the inning.
Altogether, six of the player ejections have stemmed from ball/strike calls (including check swings), three, including the Quentin incident, have been the result of hit batsmen, and just one followed a disputed safe/out call on the bases. Here then are the five most problematic umpire-player run-ins from the season to date, not all of which have resulted in an actual ejection of the player in question:
1. Tom Hallion vs. David Price, April 28
Hallion called a two-out, 1-2 pitch from Price that appeared to catch the strike zone a ball. Price disagreed. After the batter, Dewayne Wise, grounded out to Price on the next pitch to end the inning, Hallion approached Price as he headed toward the dugout and the two exchanged words. After much chirping from various Rays on the bench, Hallion ejected Tampa Bay pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. After the game, Price claimed that Hallion told him to "throw the ball over the [explative] plate." Hallion responded by calling Price "a liar." Price responded by going on a Twitter rant in which he questioned Hallion's character. Hallion, Price, Hellickson and fellow Rays pitcher and bench jockey Matt Moore were all fined for the incident, which didn't get out of line on the field but should have stayed there.
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2. Marty Foster vs. Ben Zobrist, April 8
With two-outs in the ninth inning and the tying run on base, home plate umpire Marty Foster called a full-count curveball from Joe Nathan to Ben Zobrist that was a half a foot outside and low a strike, putting a 5-4 Rangers win in the books instead of putting the go-ahead run on base, the tying run in scoring position and bringing Evan Longoria to the plate. Foster, who as I illustrated at the time, regularly calls pitches way outside to lefthanders strikes, admitted after the game that he had blown the call ("had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn't call that pitch a strike").
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3. CB Bucknor vs. Matt Albers, April 6
With the Indians' Albers pitching, Rays shorstop Yunel Escobar tried to stretch a single into a double and was thrown out by a fair distance. Except that Bucknor ruled that Cleveland second baseman Jason Kipnis missed the tag. Replays showed that Bucknor blew the call (Kipnis got Escobar on the foot and the knee before he reached the bag). Escobar scored on a single by the next hitter and after final out of that inning, Albers gave Bucknor an earful and was ejected from the game.
4. John Hirschbeck vs. Bryce Harper, May 5
I rank this here not as much for Hirschbeck's actions as for the fact that this ejection followed two bad calls. Here's the video:
[mlbvideo id="26863113" width="400" height="224" /]
5. Sam Holbrook vs. B.J. Upton, April 19
Holbrook called Upton out on a full-count fastball at the knees that did indeed look like a strike from Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez. Upton disagreed and squawked over his shoulder at Holbrook while walking toward the dugout. However, when Holbrook made a shooing motion with his hand, it inflamed Upton, who then got in Holbrook's face and earned an ejection.
Said Upton after the game, "We had our disagreements about the pitch. Obviously I didn't agree with it. He thought it was a strike. I can live with that. But the shooing away part -- no, I'm a grown man. You just don't do that."
Bonus: Chad Fairchild vs. Cody Ross, April 20
As a counterpoint to the above, this is the most egregious incident thus far this season of a player earning an ejection by overreacting to an umpire's call. Here, Ross, the Diamondbacks outfielder, is called out on a pitch that very much looked like a strike, throws his bat way up in the air in a manner that would seem to earn an automatic ejection, then, when he is ejected, spins on his heel and goes crazy on home plate umpire Fairchild.
Ross apparently didn't think the bat toss was worthy of an ejection because, as he said after the game, he was reacting out of frustration and didn't even disagree with the call. So, it was the ejection, not the strike call that set him off. Still, I don't know how a batter can fire a bat in the air like that after a called third strike and be surprised when he's ejected. It certainly didn't faze Ryan Braun.