The Best Call of the Season

If you’re like me, then, before Tuesday, you didn’t know the name Stu Scheurwater. We all know the names of some umpires, and maybe you know the names of most umpires, but it’s almost impossible to keep track of all of them. Scheurwater, previously, wasn’t anywhere on my radar. And honestly, that’s probably a good thing, since we get to know umpires in the first place because they do something that ticks us off. We don’t seize many opportunities to congratulate umpires for a job well done. In that way they’re kind of like closers — their success is almost assumed. They’re supposed to get it right. They can’t always do that. Every little mistake makes thousands of people upset.

I’d like to take this moment to applaud Scheurwater’s performance. One call in particular has placed him on my good side. Scheurwater didn’t do anything he wasn’t supposed to do. He simply followed the rule book, which is much of an umpire’s job. Yet many other umpires wouldn’t have made the same decision. When it comes to how baseball is played, I don’t have many strong opinions. I’m open to the pitch clock, I’m open to changing the mound, and I don’t care either way about the DH. With Brandon Nimmo at the plate Tuesday, Scheurwater called a ball. I strongly believe any such sequence should be called the same way.

In Tuesday’s top of the sixth, the Mets were losing. That’s not uncommon. The Mets already lost another game today. Yesterday, the score was just 1-0, and there was a runner on first. Nimmo was working with a 2-and-1 count, and then Jesse Biddle threw an inside breaking ball. The ball hit Nimmo on the elbow, and he started running to first. He didn’t get very far.

Scheurwater called Nimmo back. Instead of awarding the hit-by-pitch, Scheurwater said the count was 3-and-1. That happened because, according to his judgment, Nimmo didn’t try to avoid the pitch. In fact, he stuck his elbow out in the way. Nimmo, in other words, appeared to attempt to get hit on purpose, and that’s not allowed. You can see in this screenshot how Nimmo has struck an unusual pose:

Generally, when a player defensively turns his back, he’ll tuck in his arms, presumably due to an instinct to protect the ribs. Nimmo didn’t tuck his right arm. Nevertheless, Mickey Callaway emerged from the Mets’ dugout to argue, and he was shortly ejected. Callaway’s argument:

“They thought [Nimmo] kind of put his elbow out over the plate to get hit on purpose,” Callaway said after the game. “My argument was that the ball was in the batter’s box, kind of at our player and when you are in that position it is hard to get out of the way.”

I’m sympathetic to the position that pitches go fast, and it can be hard to avoid them sometimes. And based on Callaway and also Nimmo’s words, there seems to be some unwritten understanding that, when a pitch is inside the batter’s box, it shouldn’t really matter what the batter does. The pitch to Nimmo shown above, however, was slower than a fastball, and it was over the batter’s box chalk. It was also breaking away from Nimmo’s body. Allow me to share with you the letter of the law:

The batter becomes a runner and is entitled to first base without liability to be put out (provided he advances to and touches first base) when:
[…]
He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (A) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (B) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;

That’s official rule 5.05(b)(2). The pitch to Nimmo clearly wasn’t in the strike zone, but Nimmo also clearly didn’t make an attempt to avoid being touched. This isn’t some obscure rule buried deep in the text where no one is ever looking; this is one of those things that almost everyone knows. Many baseball fans know it from childhood. As a hitter, you’re supposed to make an effort. Failing that, you’re at least supposed to not get in the way on purpose. Just about everyone is familiar with the rule. Every professional player is familiar with the rule. The issue, though, as you know, is that the rule is seldom ever enforced. I’m given to understand you see this called far more often in college, but when it comes to the major leagues, umpires will typically just send any hit batter down the line. They see it as the path of least resistance.

Remember when Max Scherzer threw a no-hitter against the Pirates? There’s a reason that no-hitter wasn’t a perfect game.

Jose Tabata was awarded first base after dropping his elbow. Here’s Yadier Molina blatantly sticking his elbow out, and still getting the bag:

Derek Dietrich is a little more subtle, but this pitch easily could’ve been avoided:

Here’s Brandon Guyer making zero effort:

Here’s Corey Seager making zero effort, aside from an arm lift deliberately timed right after impact to throw the umpire off:

Here’s Anthony Rizzo just throwing his entire upper body in the way:

These aren’t all the best examples. These are just some examples, since this isn’t the easiest thing to search for. I remember Shane Victorino welcoming just about any HBP opportunity. I remember Prince Fielder dropping his elbow in the way. You all, I’m sure, have your own memories, because this is always so easy to notice. Much of the time, watching on television, you can see when a batter doesn’t try to get out of the way. You can see when a batter tries to get in the way. But we’ve all become accustomed to just shrugging it off, assuming the batter will be awarded a base. It’s just there as a mostly unenforced rule. Selectively enforced, perhaps, depending on your perspective on Don Drysdale‘s shutout streak.

To the umpires’ collective credit, the Scheurwater call doesn’t have *zero* recent precedent. This happens maybe, I don’t know, once a season. Possibly twice. Again, there’s no database of which I’m aware, but I was able to track down some clips. Here’s Joc Pederson looking like an idiot:

Here’s Ji-Man Choi pulling a Nimmo:

And here’s Josh Donaldson doing the same:

In those three cases, the hitters were called back. Donaldson didn’t even protest, although his manager did. But managers generally argue, and players only try to do this in the first place, because the call is so uncommon. Pederson shifted his leg in front of a knuckleball because he saw a cheap and easy opportunity to get on base. No part of his brain signaled that he’d be called on his bullshit. If he were any more subtle, he probably wouldn’t have been. That’s the major-league precedent, established over time.

It takes balls to call a hitter back. It’s always easier to just send him down — when pitchers hit batters, they didn’t execute well, anyway. So the pitcher will at least partially blame himself, and the hitter will be thrilled to reach. Calling a hitter back is the baseball equivalent of a hockey ref calling a penalty for a dive. It’s provocative, and almost sure to lead to a confrontation. I’d believe this as an explanation, too, but for the fact that so many umpires already seem to be confrontational people. Consider the Tabata hit-by-pitch. In that situation, the umpire could’ve gone by the book and kept Tabata in the box. Instead, precedent prevailed. The umpire believed so strongly in not enforcing the rule that he ended a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.

Scheurwater isn’t a hero, but he’s an umpire who deserves his time in the spotlight. He’s an umpire who saw a hitter try to get hit, and he called the hitter on it immediately. That’s how it’s supposed to be done, recent history be damned, and while I’ll grant that maybe sometimes making an effort to get out of the way isn’t the easiest thing to do, umpires need to at least enforce the rule when a hitter leans in. Such behavior should be discouraged at every level, and players like Nimmo should be made to feel shame when they try to opt out of an active at-bat.

Nimmo, incidentally, drew a walk on the following pitch. The next time he came up, the first pitch was inside:

For a split second, you can see Nimmo prepare to toss his bat away, trying to sell that he got grazed. Scheurwater wasn’t having it. Scheurwater wasn’t having any of it.

We hoped you liked reading The Best Call of the Season by Jeff Sullivan!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

newest oldest most voted
CharlieC
Member
CharlieC

I see you brought up facts and all, but I can’t support anything anti-Nimmo.

shortstop
Member
shortstop

Therein lies the double edged sword: anything Anti-Nimmo (bad) is also Anti-Mets (funny), so I’m conflicted.