Here's the full video if you haven't seen it yet.
I've been reading many baseball message boards, blogs and the twitterverse's reaction this incident. In general, people's reactions have been something like this:
1 - It was an awful call, but Lawrie's reaction was inexcusable
2 - Lawrie didn't mean to hit the Umpire with the helmet - but still deserves a suspension due to #1
3 - the Umpire in question should also be reprimanded for making such bad calls
A few Blue Jay fans have gone as far as saying the Umpire deserved it, and there should be no suspension because his bad calls are what incited the incident.
I want to break this issue down into 2 issues which should be TOTALLY unrelated.
a) Lawrie's reaction and what his punishment should be
b) The Umpire's call
Let's talk about Brett Lawrie's reaction first. In the interest of full disclosure, let me point out that he is a fellow Canadian, and as an active member of Canada's baseball industry, it is in my best interest to root for the Blue Jays. However, I will try to give an unbiased view of the incident.
On the 3-1 pitch was it ok for him to start running to first base before waiting for the Umpire to make a ball four call? Looking at the replay, I can't fault him too much for this. When a batter is sure it is ball four, there is no need to wait for a call, and this is part of Mr. Lawrie's aggressive personality. Sure, we Umpires do not like to be shown up and prefer for the batter to wait until we make our call, so that he's not effectively telling everybody in the stands and the TV audience - "Hey - I obviously thought it was a ball - the Umpire missed that call!". But I will give him the benefit of the doubt here. (There are also situations where a player will try to sell a call on a real borderline pitch. I've seen batters take off to first to try and influence the ball call. I've also seen catchers catch a borderline pitch with 2 strikes on the batter, and fire the ball to 3rd base, in effect announcing to everyone that it was strike 3 and they're throwing it around the horn. More than once I've called those pitches balls. Sorry, it it's an obvious strike that's fine, but on a borderline pitch, you should wait for the call). But I do believe in this instance, Lawrie assumed it was ball four and started running to 1st base. What he should not have done, however, is prolong it by stopping so dramatically and then walking back slowly while staring at the Umpire. THAT is showing up the Umpire, and there is no need for it.
What about his reaction on being struck out on another call he felt was bad? His reaction was COMPLETELY INEXCUSABLE. Whether the pitch was right down the middle, or if it bounced twice on the way to the plate, Bill Miller is doing his best at calling balls and strikes. Baseball players make errors all the time, and nobody (Billy Martin excluded) gets physical with them because of it. Was he trying to hit the umpire with the helmet? I don't know. But he definitely lost his temper, and threw the helmet in his general direction. Regardless of the circumstances this should never be tolerated. I hope MLB sets an example and sends a clear message that it will protect its Umpires by giving him a lengthy suspension for this.
Now, this does not necessarily mean that the Umpire is without fault. Maybe he made a bad call. Maybe he should be reprimanded for that from his employer. Maybe he should be made to take some remedial Umpire training, and prove he can do his job competently in the minor leagues before being allowed to officiate in the MLB again. Maybe. I have more to say on this in the next part of this post. But somebody not doing their job 100% correctly NEVER is reason to physically assault them. Back to my initial point that correctness of the call, and Lawrie's reaction should be unrelated.
Ok, so what about the call? Was it that bad? Was the Umpire trying to teach Mr. Lawrie a lesson? Should he have some repercussions too? Let's take a look at the data:
Here's a Pitch/Fx view of Brett Lawrie's at bat:
The 3-1 pitch (#5) was a few inches outside, and that's the one Lawrie started walking to 1st on. (Do look at the video and at about the :20 second mark check out the job Jose Molina does of framing it. There's a whole article on Baseball Prospectus on what a job he did framing the pitches). However, pitch #6 where he lost his cool was at the very least a borderline strike. In fact, the 2-1 pitch (#4) that was called a ball, could have also been called a strike. I think it's fair to say that there was absolutely no reason to argue about the last pitch he got rung up on. Any baseball player knows to protect the zone with 2 strikes, and Lawrie had to know that after showing up the umpire on the previous pitch the strike zone would be slightly expanded. Regardless... even if that was the first pitch thrown in the at bat, I don't think there should have been much of a complain over calling it a strike.
Did Bill Miller expand the strike zone because he was angry at Lawrie showing him up? Again, we can't read people's minds, so let's look at some data.
Here are the called balls and strikes for the whole game:
It looks like Miller was fairly consistent about calling strikes a couple of inches outside the plate. In fact, I count at least 15 pitches outside the strike zone that were called strikes (plus 4 within it called balls). This evidence supports the fact that Miller was not out to get Lawrie.
Ok, so you're thinking, maybe that just shows that Bill Miller is an awful umpire and he is consistently bad. So I pulled up another random game from the same day.
The reality is that most umpire's strike zones are oval rather than rectangular. That is a pitch that is right down the middle but a little high or low will be called a strike, and a pitch that is mid height and a bit inside or outside will also be a strike, while pitches on the corners tend to be balls. This happens at every level. From Little League to MLB. Here's a heat map that shows this at the MLB level from an article in the Hardball Times :
So, Bill Miller is no different or worse than any other Umpire, and it does not look like he changed the size of his zone in the bottom of the 9th to screw the Blue Jays or Brett Lawrie. No repercussions are necessary, he was just doing the same job that he and his colleagues always do.
Now let's hope Lawrie gets traded south of the border, and becomes an American citizen so I no longer have to root for him.
ADDENDUM: Wow, I just heard that his suspension was only 4 games. I am very disappointed in this.