Laz Diaz and Joe Girardi had some words for each other during Monday's game. (Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Laz Diaz isn't the majors' most trigger-happy umpire, but over the years he's found himself at the center of controversy more than a few times. During Monday night's Yankees-Angels game in Anaheim, he put on quite the Ump Show, ejecting Yankees manager Joe Girardi and pitcher Shawn Kelley for arguing balls and strikes, the latter after he had been given the hook. Following the game, Girardi claimed that Diaz had escalated tensions with an earlier, Dikembe Mutambo-style finger wag.
Girardi's ejection came in the top of the eighth inning, when the two teams were tied at 1-1. With the bases loaded, nobody out and Brett Gardner facing a flagging Jered Weaver, Diaz called a low 1-0 sinker — the second pitch of this sequence, just a whisker higher than the one he had called a ball to start the plate appearance — a strike. With the frustration of a skipper who's just traveled three time zones amid a 1-4 skid, Girardi came out of the dugout to argue, triggering an automatic ejection. He stayed to get his money's worth, not only spiking his cap but going jaw-to-jaw with Diaz for about a minute before departing, leaving bench coach Tony Pena at the helm. Via NJ.com:
The Yankees didn't score; Gardner wound up striking out and then Derek Jeter hit into a double play. Kelley began the bottom of the inning by walking Colin Cowgill on six pitches, and after getting two outs, one of which advanced Cowgill to second, he was issued orders to intentionally walk Albert Pujols, who was 2-for-3 on the night, and from there things spiraled out of control. He lost an eight-pitch battle to Raul Ibanez, who walked to load the bases, then forced in a run by walking Howie Kendrick on five pitches.
The PITCHf/x data from BrooksBaseball.net, which I've linked to for those three batters, shows that none of the calls for those three hitters were egregious; if anything, the strike zone plots show that Kelley got the benefit of the doubt on the borderline pitches. Still, issuing three walks in an inning and forcing in the go-ahead run will test the patience of anyone, and the 30-year-old righty jawed with Diaz as he made his way off the field. The umpire would have done well to turn his back and ignore Kelley, but instead he made an elaborate show out of shooing him off the field and then ejecting him:
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After the game, Kelley took the blame for his part of the situation, telling reporters, "I'm not going to say anything about the strike zone… I made a lot of bad pitches. It's on me." Girardi was still incensed, however. He recalled a clash earlier in the game involving a called strike three to Kelly Johnson that was above the zone where he felt Diaz intentionally provoked him and his squad. Via MLB.com's Bryan Hoch:
Girardi revealed that there had been an incident during Kelly Johnson's second-inning strikeout in which Diaz waggled his finger at Girardi, as if to say no more, a gesture that Girardi called "the Mutumbo," in reference to former NBA star Dikembe Mutumbo's dismissive wave.
"I don't appreciate that. I'm not a little kid," Girardi said. "I don't need to be scolded. Obviously we're trying to work together and I just thought there were a lot of inconsistencies tonight.
"No one is coming [to the game] to see Laz, I can tell you that."
In getting ejected by Diaz, Girardi became the umpire's first repeat customer; he was ejected for arguing balls and strikes during a 2008 game against the Red Sox. A more bizarre incident during his Yankee tenure came in 2012 when Diaz wouldn't let Yankee catcher Russell Martin throw new baseballs to the pitcher, telling him he hadn't "earned" the right — actions that Martin thought were an attempt to bait him into getting ejected, though both he and Girardi steered clear of further confrontation. No fines were issued to either the umpire or the catcher after the league reviewed the incident.
Diaz has found himself at the center of other controversies before. While a 2012 Deadspin series cited data that his ejection rate was less than two-thirds of the MLB average, data at BaseballSavant.com shows that he's consistently among the majors' leaders in both percentage of pitches out of the zone called strikes and percentage in the zone called balls; he's the worst in the majors at both this year, in fact. Similarly, writer Jason Collette cited TruMedia data showing that this season, Diaz has the lowest percentage of correct ball/strike calls:
According to Collette, Diaz is the majors' third-worst since 2012 as well.
Given the combination of his poor strike zone calls and his ostentatious displays of authority, Diaz ranks among the game's most notorious umpires, though he doesn't pop up on the annual player polls identifying the worst the way that Cowboy Joe West, Angel Hernandez, CB Bucknor or Balkin' Bob Davidson consistently do. He wasn't the only one in the wrong on Monday night, but if Major League Baseball is going to discipline Girardi further via a fine or suspension, the league ought to mete out some punishment for Diaz's unprofessional behavior as well.