Ejection Overruled: Evaluating MLB’s attempt to eliminate in-game dissent

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Following up on its poorly received press release in support of federal legislation designed to exempt minor league players from minimum-wage regulations, MLB has issued an edict to managers stating that manager arguments with umpires during games constitutes “highly inappropriate conduct” that “is detrimental to the game and must stop immediately. . . . Although disagreements over ball and strike calls are natural, the prevalence of manager ejections simply cannot continue. This conduct not only delays the game, but it also has the propensity to undermine the integrity of the umpires on the field.” MLB Chief Baseball Officer Joe Torre, who circulated the memorandum in question, added that the behavior in question constitutes “an express violation of the Replay Regulations, which state that ‘on-field personnel in the dugout may not discuss any issue with individuals in their video review room using the dugout phone other than whether to challenge a play subject to video replay review.'”

This pronounced proscription (or, at least, curtailing) of in-game arguments between managers and umpires invokes a number of related baseball issues including the i) length of games; ii) pace of games; and iii) scope and nature of instant replay review, to include potential review of ball/strike calls.  

Manager reaction to The Torre Memo, as it undoubtedly and infamously will come to be known in the popular history of baseball, mostly was guarded and accepting. Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle called it “a very, very good reminder — a very strong reminder — that you’re going to get fined or whatever’s going to happen if you choose that route. That’s fair.” St. Louis’ Mike Matheny acknowledged that “Joe’s the boss, so I guess we’d better cool it,” but he didn’t shut the door all the way: “There’s just some days you can’t stand over there and not say something. They’re always making additions, and I get speeding the game up and sometimes that sort of thing slows it down, so it’ll take a little while to walk through that and see exactly how to play it. But you can’t take the emotion out of the game. Joe knows that as well as everybody, but I understand where he’s coming from.” Detroit’s Brad Ausmus, the star of the season’s most colorful manager ejection, was less deferential and less equivocal in his response: “I’m still going to react to what I see in front of me.”

Others were less circumspect. In fact, a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Baseball Claims* promptly rejected The Torre Memo. Claire McNear, writing for the court, fully endorsed manager-umpire spats: “G–d—–t, baseball, this shit is great, OK? Leave it alone. Manager tantrums are not only an old tradition — they’re a great one.”

In their separate concurrence, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller endorsed McNear’s opinion that these disputes entertain fans and therefore should remain a part of the game. Lindbergh and Miller also stated that they can understand the length-of-game concern, but deemed it minimal, and Lindbergh, addressing pace, observed that these fights likely provide more action per minute than typical baseball activity.  Miller went on to analyze the technical underpinnings of today’s balls-and-strikes-based manager-umpire squabbles, finding that managers are aware of electronic pitch-location data (i.e., PITCHf/x) during games and rely on that data in their arguments with umpires, and concluding that the managers, as well as the umpires and even the fans should be deprived of such data because possessing it is unfair to everyone because the strike zone merely is a social construct and we’re all going to die anyway.

I agree with the McNear opinion, and I agree with Lindbergh and Miller to the extent they concur in the McNear opinion. I agree with Lindbergh’s pace and length observations. I also agree, in part, with Miller’s opinion on strike-zone-monitoring technology and access thereto.

1. There is no doubt that manager tantrums are fun for fans. McNear incorporates video of some good examples, including selections from Lou Piniella, that Braves’ minor-league manager, and Lloyd McClendon. I have two comments here. First, she should’ve at least mentioned Bobby Cox, the Hall of Fame former manager of the Atlanta Braves, who holds the career record for manager ejections. Second, she should have included this recent ejection, in which McClendon, now managing the Toledo Mud Hens, exhibits one of the all-time manager post-ejection moves by ejecting the ejecting umpire (and, depending upon your interpretation, another one as well):

In addition to the pure entertainment factor, these manager fits also allow the manager to become the avatar of the frustrated fans and bring their anger with a perceived injustice directly to the umpires, something to which Miller alluded. Baseball fans really aren’t in the habit of throwing things on the field when an umpire’s decision upsets them, and I think the manager’s ability to vent this irritation on the fans’ behalf helps avoid that scenario.

2. MLB already has substantially improved game length and pace by limiting the length of commercial breaks. This having been accomplished, I am far less concerned about these two related issues going forward. Of further note, it seems that any additional changes in this area (e.g., eliminating manager arguments, pitch clocks) would necessitate changes to the game itself, a general proposition undesirable for many.

Eliminating manager-umpire arguments may not even serve the league’s game pace and length goals, because it’s unlikely to curb– and may even extend– player-umpire arguments, which often serve as the initiating catalyst for manager-umpire arguments.

3. I have been a member of #TeamRobotUmps for as long as I’ve known about PITCHf/x. We’re as close as we’ve ever been, obviously, and the live-action test of the system in a Pacific Association (the same independent league in which the Sonoma Stompers play) game shows we’re close indeed.

One of the primary arguments against the adoption of an automated strike zone is that the Major League Umpires Association would oppose it on the basis that it would reduce the number of umpiring jobs. In fact, the opposite is true: using PITCHf/x to call balls and strikes would necessitate the increase of umpire jobs. A home plate umpire still would be needed to rule on multiple events, including foul tips, checked swings, foul balls, hit batsmen, balks, and tags on runners coming home. An additional umpire also will be needed to calibrate and operate the PITCHf/x system. If job retention is the umpire union’s sole concern in this area, it should favor this change.

Practical hurdles remain, however. For example, the “rulebook strike zone” is reasonably but contingently defined:

The STRIKE ZONE is that area over home plate the upper limit of which is a horizontal line at the midpoint between the top of the shoulders and the top of the uniform pants, and the lower level is a line at the hollow beneath the kneecap. The Strike Zone shall be determined from the batter’s stance as the batter is prepared to swing at a pitched ball.

MLB Rule 2.00. The rules thus define the zone in part with reference to static horizontal bounds and variable vertical bounds. The strike zone that PITCHf/x measures is, to my understanding, entirely static, however, meaning that it does not adjust the vertical bounds to each individual batter’s body. Granted, this inter-batter variance won’t make much of a difference in many cases, but it certainly will in some. (Consider, for example, a matchup between the Astros and Tigers that features 5’6″ Jose Altuve and 6’7″ Steven Moya.)

Less concerning to this analysis but still noteworthy are non-technological obstacles to the adoption of an automated system. Chief among these is the apparent fact that there are no stakeholders within baseball likely to push for this change. Last year, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he was “interested,” but he also said that he doesn’t think automation is on the immediate horizon. “Interested” seems to be more than can be said for the players, who tend to strike a more resistant posture. Even if the umpires– among the most entrenched and power-hungry humans on the planet– come around on the basis of job creation, nothing’s going to happen in this area absent buy-in from the Commissioner and the MLBPA.

As Miller pointed out (though not in so many words), the status quo strike zone is a sort of common law strike zone, the result of years of adversarial negotiations between umpires and catchers, with troves of amicus briefs filed by pitchers and batters. Removing umpires’ authority to call balls and strikes thus removes players’ ability to influence  ball/strike calls. Pitch framing, a catcher skill outside observers only recently have been able to measure.

While I like the abstract notion of a common law strike zone and have enjoyed the insights Baseball Prospectus’ advanced framing metrics have provided, I remain unconvinced that framing is a skill baseball should reward. This is not the “human element” in the game we should be celebrating.

(I agree that managers should not have in-game access, whether directly or indirectly, to PITCHf/x data and was surprised to learn that they had such access. I disagree with Miller’s view that fans watching on television should not have such access, however. My guess is that most fans view Mr. Fox Trax as a mere curiosity and not, as Miller suggests, an insurmountable source of agitation from which they must be protected.)

4. I am writing separately because I am surprised that the provided opinions of McNear, Lindbergh, and Miller focused almost exclusively on the benefit of manager-umpire fights to fans, including no mention of the effect of these events on players. My sense is that, when a manager is making the decision to leave the dugout and have a row with an umpire, he is thinking primarily about his players.

In this respect, I think there are two primary motivators. First, when managers interject themselves into a brewing dispute between a batter and an umpire over a called third strike, for example, we think of the manager as “protecting” his player, the idea being that, if the exchange is going to lead to an ejection, better the manager be tossed than the player. This scenario quickly runs into the second, broader motivation. When a managers enters the field with the intent to argue with an umpire until the umpire ejects him, his players are likely to see him as “standing up for them” and “having their back.” A manager can deepen his connection to his players and send a (hopefully well-timed) spark of energy into his team– something inevitably necessary at different moments during baseball’s long grind of a season– by getting himself ejected as the result of a public tantrum he threw on their behalf.

There’s evidence of the effectiveness of this technique. Of course, it’s difficult to measure a manager’s influence on baseball outcomes. One recent study concluded that the vast majority of managers are “relentless[ly] mediocr[e].” It also found, however, that, at the extremes, the positive impact of certain, excellent managers was detectable, and that former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox was one of the best:

It turns out that Cox is one of the few managers of all time who could lead his players to unexpected performances year after year. Over the course of his career, Cox’s teams outperformed expectations by 3.1 wins per 162 games on average, sometimes exceeding their projected talent level by as much as 10 wins.

Cox is one of only six managers since 1986 — Russ Nixon, Tony LaRussa, Davey Johnson, Billy Martin and Earl Weaver — who we can say with confidence actually affected the performance of the players he was managing more than the average manager.

BP’s Russell Carleton has written about “the grind,” the idea that baseball’s long season inevitably wears players down. Even for professional athletes, it’s difficult to stay focused, energized, and physically and emotionally healthy for 162 games. Good managers help their players fight the grind, and, in his first, narrow look at the issue, Carleton found that Cox was the second-best manager in that regard.

Some of the smartest baseball analysts independently concluded that Cox was one of the game’s best managers (and the curmudgeons in Cooperstown agree), but they can’t yet tell us exactly why Cox was so successful.

One possibility: his umpire argument skills. Cox currently holds the MLB record for manager ejections, and his total number– 161– likely is as untouchable as Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six-game hitting streak. LaRussa, whose name came up in both studies cited above, is number five on the all-time ejection list (87), and Weaver, whose name appeared in one of the studies, is number three (94). (Hurdle, who’s quoted above, is the only active manager to make the top fifteen (50).)

Certainly, a manager has to be good enough to keep his job long enough to aggregate ejections, and no one is suggesting that high ejectability, alone, makes a good manager, but this is not no evidence, and it’s good enough for me.

_____________________

The umpire-argument ejection is one of the most important tools at a manager’s disposal, and, for that reason alone, MLB’s attempt to eradicate these from its game should be rejected. That they’re entertaining to fans and have a nominal effect on game pace/length simply are added bonuses.

* Not a real court.

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