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On Tuesday night, the Rays beat the Blue Jays 4-3. All of the scoring was over by the seventh, but the real action occurred in the bottom of the ninth, when Brett Lawrie was ejected by umpire Bill Miller after arguing balls and strikes, first with loud body language, then with loud words, and finally by transforming his helmet into flying suspension bait. Lawrie probably brushes his teeth more intensely than you’ve ever done anything, so you can only imagine what he looks like when he’s called out on borderline pitches in a close game against a division rival. Actually, that’s not true—imagining it isn’t the only thing you can do. You can also watch this video:

Batting against Rays closer Fernando Rodney, Lawrie went up 3-1, then struck out on consecutive called strikes, the first of which (a 95-mph two-seamer) appeared to be out of the strike zone by a lot and the second of which (an 83-mph changeup) appeared to be out of the strike zone by a little. The second made him snap and say something not nice to Miller, which made Miller eject him, which in turn inspired Lawrie to toss the helmet that hit Miller.*

*Assuming my lip-reading skills are up to par (note: they’re not), Miller reacted to the impact with the words, “What the fuck?”—which, if you think about it, is probably how most people would react to being struck from behind by a helmet—followed by general observations on the theme of Lawrie being a lousy person. After the game, he summed up his initial comments in the more reserved statement, “That’s a bit extreme.”

On his way off the field, Miller was hit by a beer cup thrown by a Blue Jays fan, bringing the grand total of things he was hit by in or around that half-inning to two and his personal tally of f-bombs dropped in or around that half-inning (again, subject to my suspect lip-reading skills) to four.

Lawrie later called the helmet’s fateful trajectory an “unlucky bounce.” Given that Miller is a fairly large man and the helmet hit the ground about a foot from him…

…that seems like a stretch, not to mention a disappointment to Cole Hamels, who’d hoped Lawrie was trying to bring back some old-school-baseball aggression toward umpires. As the ghost of Branch Rickey reminds us, “luck is the residue of opportunity and design,” and Lawrie's design was definitely to throw his helmet too close to Miller for comfort. Regardless of where the pitches were, the helmet toss was ill-advised and will probably lead to a lengthy suspension.* That said: Where were the pitches?

*Bumping and spittle-spraying got Yadier Molina five games last August. “Hitting with a helmet” seems even higher on the hierarchy of things not to do to an umpire.

*Update* Or not. Lawrie got four games.

According to Blue Jays manager John Farrell, who was also ejected, “The bat was taken completely out of Brett’s hands, not only the 3-1 pitch but the 3-2 pitch as well. Those are not strikes.”  

So, were Lawrie and Farrell right to be upset? The short answer is “yes.” So is the long answer, actually, but the long answer is a little more interesting, if you care to keep reading. Here’s how the 3-1 pitch looked from above:

On a pitch that clearly outside, we hardly have to look at any data from Brooks Baseball to be sure it was a ball, but let’s look at some anyway. This is the fifth pitch on the plot below. According to Harry Pavlidis, it was 1.2 feet from the center of the plate. A pitch that just nicks the outside of the black is 0.83 feet from center, which means this one was about five inches outside. Lawrie was right not to see it the same way Miller did.

Here’s where Molina’s glove was when he caught it.

Yeah, that looks a lot like a ball. Note the glove’s location in relation to Molina's right knee. Also note the frown on the face of the Blue Jays fan in the top left corner. His team is down by a run with two outs remaining and hasn’t put anyone on against Rodney.

Here’s where the ball was a split second later, when Miller called it a strike.

The Blue Jays fan is no longer frowning. He thinks he’s just seen Rodney put the tying run on. Now look where Molina’s glove is—instead of obscuring his knee, it’s all the way to the side of it. But Molina’s leg hasn’t moved! What witchcraft is this?

Actually, this isn’t that unusual. Molina does it almost every day. In fact, he did it to a lesser degree on the very next pitch. Refer to our strike zone plot again. This time we’re talking about pitch number six.

This one is over the plate, but it comes in a little on the high side. According to Harry, it crossed the plate 3.6 feet above the ground. The top of Lawrie’s zone, based on a Mike Fast methodology, is 3.37 feet off the ground. That means it was roughly three inches high: it should have been a ball, though it was probably a little too close to take on 3-2, especially with Miller already miffed at him for his reaction to the previous call. The top of Molina’s glove was about even with his nose when he caught it.

Flash forward very slightly, and suddenly the top of Molina’s glove is about even with his shoulder.

There, ladies and gentlemen, are your phantom few inches.

Molina played for the Blue Jays last season, so they should know as well as anyone what to expect when he’s behind the plate. Molina is a pitch-framing fool. Moving the glove into the strike zone is only part of his prowess. As Mike Fast noticed last year, Molina doesn’t drop his head when he receives pitches, and he makes only subtle movements, keeping his body stable so as not to distract the umpire. According to estimates by Mike and Max Marchi, Molina saved the Jays 10-13 runs through framing last season despite spending fewer than 400 innings behind the plate. Pitches like the ones that made Lawrie so mad explain why the Rays are paying him $1.5 million to hit under .200 and are probably getting a bargain, even aside from the benefit of his indirectly depriving the Jays of their soon-to-be-suspended third baseman. Lawrie was probably right to offer an impromptu prayer that he wouldn't have to hit again this season with Molina behind the plate.

There’s one more side note to this story. The 3-1 pitch to Lawrie wasn’t the worst strike call in this game. A worse one went against the Rays in the top of the ninth, with no outs, no one on, and a 1-2 count. This one was a full inch farther outside than the first blown call, 1.3 feet from the center of the plate. And the batter? Who else? Jose Molina.

Maybe the second outside strike in the ninth was Miller’s attempt to make amends for the first. More likely, the two calls were unrelated. If there’s such a thing as karma, the 3-1 pitch to Lawrie is what it looks like. But my money’s on Molina.

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gdragon1977
5/16
Whether Molina framed anything or not it seemed to me watching that the 3-2 pitch was going to be called a strike as long as it didn't touch the ground or fly to the backstop. It didn't look to me like "make up" for anything earlier, it looked like a message was being sent about Lawrie's "showing up" the plate ump on the 3-1 pitch, especially since his reaction to the first "ball four" was a little theatrical. And he certainly wouldn't be the first umpire (or game official of any kind) to get personal like that.
bornyank1
5/16
Yeah, I alluded to that in the article. Certainly could've been a factor.
gareth31
5/16
In an era when we can review every pitch, it isn't the batter showing up the umpire, it's his inept calling of balls and strikes that does that.
gdragon1977
5/16
Oh I certainly don't disagree with you about that. But in a world where I still have to watch hockey referees toss 3-4 guys out on every faceoff to let them know who's boss before they can bless us all by dropping the puck I don't imagine that the officials are standing on "our" side of this one.
zasxcdfv
5/16
I agree with you but I find it offensive that an umpire would expand their strike zone because a player showed them up. They are supposed to be impartial and, if this is the case the umpire should be immediately fired. Of course, after calling a pitch that was a foot outside a strike, a pitch that was borderline is right down the middle in comparison. Either way, good job Jose Molina.
gdragon1977
5/16
Sure, I find that offensive too. I figured I didn't have to say that, I thought "we" would all take offense to that. I wasn't justifying it, just attempting to explain it
zasxcdfv
5/16
I think we agree then. Yay baseball!
tcfatone
5/16
Anyone who has watched baseball for long enough knows the ump was teaching the young player a lesson with the ridiculous strike three call and that directly led to the blow up and will also cost that player a good 5-10 games of the season. The umpire should have to explain himself.
jhardman
5/16
Great article! I have no dog in this particular hunt, so I'm neutral to both teams. After seeing this played multiple times today, I don't see how the umpire can get away with no repercussions. Your detail of the pitch to Molina confirms that the umpire did an extremely poor job with the strike zone. Any umpire should know that if they do a poor job calling balls and strikes, then all sorts of negativity is bound to happen as the game progresses. Miller gets an F for performance.
rawagman
5/16
So Ben, what's the sabermetric take on the appropriate vacation time (and destination) for Lawrie?
sportspopery
5/16
Based upon precedent, the data suggests w/ 99.7% confidence that he gone.
LeeGibbons
5/16
I love the research regarding Molina and his framing abilities.. I do wonder if he's over-rated in these circles. His framing skills has got to be at least partially off-set by the fact he can't throw anymore (9 of 11 in steals against this year), is horrible at blocking pitches and can't run or hit.
kddean
5/16
I'll say one thing, on that called third strike, Molina dropping his knee is genius. It was a changeup with movement, Molina knows it's up in the zone. Dropping you knee is showing that the pitch is moving, wow, it's moving so much that you the catcher, that called the pitch and has caught Rodney before, thought it had so much movement downward that it's fooling you even. That's my high school catcher take on it.
mhmosher
5/16
That's good stuff, Ben.
ThreeSix
5/16
Lawrie had every right to be upset. I don't blame him for flipping out either, I might have done the same. But he'll rightfully get his suspension, apologize and then go back to playing after it's over. That's what a professional does anyway, moves on. Great article.
eas9898
5/16
Great article.
trentryan07
5/16
Ben, you're quickly becoming my favorite writer at BP. Keep up the good work!
Schere
5/16
Though the last pitch is borderline in the box, it's in an area that's rarely called a strike (doesn't brooks have that kind of data?). And, framed or not, you rarely get the called strike three on a borderline pitch that misses the catcher's target so badly.
tombores99
5/16
It's true - pitches that badly miss the catcher's target don't generally get called a strike - however that is a function of the catcher's physical movement more than the pre-set glove position. An umpire is not looking at the catcher's glove during the pitch, but he is crouched right behind the catcher like a human shield, such that the ump's perspective changes based on the foot position of the catcher. It's an intimate relationship - if the catcher has to shift his body to catch the ball or if he stabs at a pitch, the umpire is going to sense this movement, which is typically associated with a missed target, and call "ball." Molina is a rock behind the plate but he catches the ball with a pillow, and from the ump's perspective even missed pitches look like they found their scheduled destination with minimal turbulence. It boils down to pitch framing, which involves the body as well as the glove, as Ben noted in reference to the work of Mike Fast.
Schere
5/16
very interesting....thanks.
eighteen
5/16
Fascinating analysis, Ben. Thanks. How accurate has Miller been historically behind the plate?
lichtman
5/17
Miller is one of the, if not the, most extreme pitchers' umpires in baseball, which basically means that he calls all sorts of pitches out of the zone, or at least those that most umpires think are out of the zone, strikes.
SaberTJ
5/17
Great stuff Ben, but I've been thinking. Why are umpires influenced at all by the catcher's framing or movement behind the plate? The umpire is supposed to determine if the pitch was a ball or strike while it is crossing the plate. It would seem to me that umpire's should be ignoring what the catcher does, because the catcher is trying to deceive him. One might say that pitchers are thrown hard and it's difficult for umpires to determine close pitches and sometimes rely on how the catcher is set up to help make a call. That however lends the umpires to be manipulated. I am not sure what the solution is to this, but it certainly seems to be putting the hitters at a disadvantage.
bornyank1
5/17
I think you answered your own question in the first sentence of your second paragraph. When people complain about "the human element," this is one of the reasons why.
SaberTJ
5/17
Good point. It seems I am part of that crowd.
canada
5/17
My biggest question about Molina now is, how do the umps react? The umps as a whole should be aware of his framing abilities. Personally, if I were an ump, and if Molina was behind the dish, knowing all this would make me less likely to call a strike on a close pitch, but I feel like they are having the opposite approach. I would view Molina's framing skills as trying to pull one over on me, but doubt most of them see it that way.
Lastblues
5/17
I didn't even care about this incident but found the article and analysis really interesting. Great stuff Ben.
mblthd
5/17
So, were Lawrie and Farrell right to be upset? The short answer is “yes.” Lawrie and Farrell should remember what their little league coaches tried to teach them - protect the plate when you have two strikes, if it's anywhere close then swing at it, etc. If you get caught looking at strike three, then it's your own fault, even if the pitch didn't cross the plate. An inch or two is close enough.