Fans say umpires are at their best when they are not noticed. Most umpires don’t like to inject themselves into the game. The goal is to let the players decide the outcome.
Washington fans wishes the umpire would have injected himself more into Max Scherzer’s game over the weekend. For people that missed it, Scherzer was perfect through 8 2/3rds. He was one strike away from history when this happened:
Here is the rule that covers this (old format):
6.08 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—
(b) He is touched by a pitched ball which he is not attempting to hit unless (1) The ball is in the strike zone when it touches the batter, or (2) The batter makes no attempt to avoid being touched by the ball;
What happens when the umpire rules the batter made no attempt to avoid the ball. The ball is dead, the pitch is called a strike or ball depending on where it is in relation to the strike zone, and then the game is moved on to the next pitch.
Was this the right call? Well, I think it certainly was a tough call. I think this in situation I would have also given the batter first.
A couple of points to consider:
- The ball comes at the batter very fast. Most movement is actually just reaction and not attempts to take a pitch. Sure, some guys lean in but I think this is more rare than people think
- The elbow does not move laterally. A lot of batters have elbow movement up and down at the plate
- The pitcher goofed up. The catcher wanted it low and away. The pitch was a cement mixer that was well inside. The batter (and ball) was no where near the zone when it hit him.
My rule of thumb on this (and I remember I am no where near the quality of a MLB umpire) – unless it is blatant by the batter, he gets the benefit of the doubt and the base. To put a number on it, I would say I am giving the base 97% of the time.
The announcers were quick to ask the question “did the batter attempt to get out of the way?” followed by the statement “well, that never gets called”.
While not calling this is a way for the umpire to not needlessly inject himself into a game, there is some precedent for making this call in significant situations.
Check out this box score from May 31, 1968. In the 9th inning, the Giants had the bases loaded and no outs. The box score shows Dick Dietz flew out to left field. But, this is only part of the story.
Dietz was actually hit with a pitch earlier in the at bat. This would have scored a run, pulled the game closer, and ruined Don Drysdale chance for a 5th straight shutout. None of this happened because Harry Wendelstedt ruled Dietz did not attempt to avoid the pitch. The Giants manager was eventually tossed from the game. The Giants got no runs in the inning and Drysdale went on to set a record for consecutive scoreless innings.
As fate would have it when Orel Hershiser was attempting to break Drysdale’s record, he would benefit from an unique call. On September 23, 1988 the Giants had runners on 1st and 3rd and only 1 out. The next ball was an attempted double play that the Dodgers could not turn. Hershiser’s streak appeared to be over.
But, umpires (and I say umpires because some sources say 2B umpire Bob Engel while others say 3B Paul Runge) called interference. This changed the outcome to a double play with no run scoring. Hershiser would go on to break the record.
What does this all mean? Well, I think it means that umpires while trying to be anonymous on the field realize they have a job to do. If the play warrants a call, they will make the call regardless of the historical implications.
Scherzer (for his part knew he messed up and did not argue the call) still gets his name in the record books with a dazzling no hitter.
Hit by pitch is covered on page 41 of RuleGraphics.