For the second day in a row, Major League Baseball officially conceded that its umpires screwed up. MLB vice president of communications Pat Courtney said that the rule covering pitching changes was not properly applied in the seventh inning of Thursday night's Angels-Astros game. Angels manager Mike Scioscia protested the game, but dropped the protest after the Angels prevailed 6-5.
Courtney also said that the matter was still under review, which leaves open the possibility that the umpiring crew of Culbreth, Adrian Johnson, Brian O’Nora and Bill Welke will be disciplined for failing to uphold one of the most basic rules, which reads:
"If the pitcher is replaced, the substitute pitcher shall pitch to the batter then at bat, or any substitute batter, until such batter is put out or reaches first base, or until the offensive team is put out, unless the substitute pitcher sustains injury or illness which, in the umpire-in-chief's judgment, incapacitates him for further play as a pitcher."
Update: Shortly after this was published, MLB announced that it is suspending Fieldin Culbreth for two games and fining him for "misapplication of Official Baseball Rule 3.05(b)," with the other three members of the umpiring crew also fined.
Crew chief Culbreth and his cohorts should not have allowed Astros manager Bo Porter to remove Wesley Wright (a lefty) from the game during his warmup tosses in favor of Hector Ambriz (a righty) once Scioscia opted to replace pinch-hitter Luis Jimenez (a righty) with another pinch-hitter, Scott Cousins (a lefty). Somehow, Porter — a rookie manager — convinced the umps that the rule had been changed. He told reporters after the game:
"My understanding of the rule, and I was fortunate enough last year to sit in with [Nationals manager] Davey [Johnson] when they changed the rule of a pitcher having to face a batter. But at the same time, if you have to pinch-hit for that batter, you now have the right to bring in another pitcher. Technically, Wesley came in to pitch the batter that was scheduled to hit [Shuck] but he pinch-hit for the batter that was scheduled to hit. Which, from my understanding of the rule, you can bring in another pitcher to face the pinch-hitter."
Here's how the crew should have responded:
Apart from umpires not knowing a fundamental rule of the game, what's particularly galling — again — is their lack of accountability. When approached by a pool reporter designated to represent the rest of the media, Culbreth offered even less of an explanation than Angel Hernandez had the night before with regards to the blown instant replay call, saying, "The only thing I can tell you is that all matters concerning protests are handled through the league office, and that's all I can tell you."
It's rare that disciplinary action against umpires is reported, but not unprecedented. In 2003, Bruce Froemming and John Hirschbeck were each suspended 10 days for separate off-field incidents involving comments made to senior officials. In 2007, Mike Winters was suspended for the final week of the season for escalating an argument with the Padres' Milton Bradley. In 2010, Joe West was fined for his handling of an ejection of the White Sox Ozzie Guillen and Mark Buehrle.
Last May, Bob Davidson was suspended one game "for his repeated violations of the Office of the Commissioner's standards for situation handling," according to MLB; his handling of an ejection of Phillies manager Charlie Manuel is what triggered it, but apparently the league had seen enough other instances of his conduct to send a message publicly. Earlier this month, umpire Tom Hallon was fined for his part in an argument with the Rays' David Price.
If those last two incidents reflect the start of a trend, it's a welcome one. Eleven months ago in this space, I called for more accountability from umpires and more transparency when discipline against them is meted out. The two aren't unrelated, and if umpires such as Hernandez and Culbreth were more open about explaining their decisions and admitting their mistakes, controversies like those of the last two nights would be extinguished much more quickly. For more than half the year, baseball is an everyday activity, and games are lost when players and managers make mistakes. They generally own up to those mistakes and move on. If umpires did the same, the game would be better for it.