Excuses, Excuses…

If there’s one thing the Atlanta Braves and their fans are good at, it’s whining. At Bleacher Report, a Braves fan posted a screed aimed at umpire Bill Hohn, citing several examples of poor umpiring and a supposed obsession with screwing over the Braves. I’m going to go through and refute these claims.

It started at Fenway back in June when Hohn called a ball on a 2-2 pitch that was right down the middle to J.D. Drew. The next pitch Drew hit an RBI double.

Here is J.D. Drew’s batting game log at Baseball Reference. In only one game did he have a double against the Braves, and he did not drive in a run. Drew has driven in one run in two games against the Braves this season, but in neither did he have any extra-base hits even.

Based on the context of the article, it appears the author is talking about this game.

A few innings later, when Braves reliever Eric O’Flaherty was squeezed on a similar pitch, Hohn tossed O’Flaherty, Bobby Cox, and Chipper Jones. Yes, on the same play.

The Braves lost the game as a direct result of the idiotic ball call.

I think it’s clear that this Braves fan is not recollecting the game accurately. Drew hit his RBI single off of Eric O’Flaherty, as it’s the only game in which Drew had an RBI against the Braves at Fenway.

Here’s the Pitch F/X visualization of the pitch sequence between Drew and O’Flaherty. Click to enhance and enlarge the image.

Yes, the author is correct: Hohn made a poor decision in calling the third pitch a ball. And yes, Drew did follow up with a hit. However, all umpires are not perfect.

Further, O’Flaherty didn’t have to throw a cookie to Drew. How do we know that Drew wasn’t going to hit O’Flaherty anyway? After all, Drew did have a triple and an RBI against him heading into that at-bat.

There’s a lot of assumptions made in blaming the umpire for not only missing the call, but essentially giving Drew an RBI base hit. It was a 1-2 count after what should have been strike three; the count still favored O’Flaherty in a lefty-on-lefty match-up.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to justify the umps’ mistakes, it’s just that they should only be blamed for what they can control. Bill Hohn did not throw the pitch that J.D. Drew hit for an RBI single.

The Braves lost the game for a number of reasons: a poor start from Jair Jurrjens, a poor approach to the at-bat against Drew by O’Flaherty, and a Braves offense that hit only .250 with runners in scoring position that game.

Last night the Braves met up with Hohn’s crew again. This time the home plate umpire was Jerry Meals. Hohn was at first.

Meals would cost the Braves the game in the bottom of the ninth by not calling pitches that were right down the middle for strikes.

This time, the author is stretching — the pitches were not “right down the middle”.

The pitches were on the edges, and Meals even called what was a ball a strike. We can say that his strike zone was inconsistent, but we can’t say that it was biased towards the Marlins. And we certainly can’t say that Meals’ umpiring caused Soriano to serve up a cookie to Ross Gload. When Ross Gload hits a game-winning home run off of you, you have no one to blame but yourself.

Then came tonight. Hohn was in rare form yet again, calling strikes against the Braves that were literally a foot off the plate.

Yet when the Marlins were at bat, no such luck for Atlanta pitchers.

How often were the Marlins and Braves pitching outside? Looking at Brooks Baseball’s normalized strike zone maps, it looks like the Marlins’ pitchers were working outside a lot more frequently than Braves pitchers, so of course they’re going to get calls on the outside corner.

Every umpire has some variation on the standard strike zone. Some call the high strike more often; some have a postage stamp-sized strike zone. As a pitcher and as a hitter, you are supposed to pick up on that during the game, if not know it beforehand. When the umpire is giving Jamie Moyer a little extra on the outside corner, the catcher’s glove is going to stay on the outside corner nearly all night.

Apparently, Marlins pitchers realized this and Braves pitchers did not.

On Wednesday night Hohn called a strike on Brian McCann that was literally in the right-handed batter’s box.

When McCann said something, Hohn took off his mask to try to pick a fight…

Yes, the author is right: the umpire did make a poor call. But again, umpires are fallible. I’m sure a Marlins fan could make similar arguments about poor ball-strike calling.

The author is also right that Hohn shouldn’t be acting aggressively towards the players. “Trying to pick a fight” might be taking it a bit far, but Hohn has acted similarly in Phillies games he’s umpired. He’s certainly not a great umpire. They say that the great umpires are the ones you hardly notice during the course of a game, and you tend to notice Hohn quite frequently.

Hohn called timeout and walked over to the Braves dugout. He then called Cox to him. They argued a little. Bobby was clearly seen asking Hohn to “just call the game.”

Hohn stood there and then inexplicably took out his lineup card and started fiddling with it to incite Bobby’s wrath.

He got his wish. Bobby said the magic word, and Hohn tossed him after clearly baiting him.

I can definitely see how Hohn played a part in escalating the incident, but it’s not like Bobby Cox never does anything to deserve an ejection. There’s the reason he holds the all-time record in ejections. Cox getting ejected is indicative of nothing.

In perhaps the most maddening moment of the game tonight, rogue umpire Bill Hohn fist-bumped the Marlins catcher after the game was over.

I empathize with Braves fans who are upset about this. If it happened in a game in which the Phillies lost, I’d probably be just as irate. Here’s the fist-bump, with a hat tip to Baseball Think Factory:

However, I’d like to quote a salient post by someone at BBTF that puts this in perspective.

This seems like an overreaction. When I umpired I’d sometimes get a “good game” from players at the end of a game, and it could come from either side, winners or losers. If the catcher turns and extends a handshake (or fist-bump), yeah, the absolutely correct thing to do is not take it, for appearance’s sake. But I could easily see myself reflexively reaching out my hand if the [catcher] extended his. It doesn’t look great, and he should probably train himself to resist it, but in itself I don’t think it means he was playing favorites. I’ve seen plenty of pitchers, including [Curt] Schilling, give a nod or a touch of the cap to the plate ump as they’re being removed or at the end of a game. I’ve always interpreted it as more of a professional courtesy thing than anything.

In contrast to baseball, football, and basketball officials, who leave the field/court immediately when the game ends, soccer refs and linesmen stand together at midfield and accept handshakes from players on both sides after the game. Nobody thinks anything of it, it’s just part of the culture in that sport.

Should Hohn have fist-bumped the Marlins’ catcher? Absolutely not, especially not in a game as controversial as that one. But, as with most of the other examples of “evidence” in this article, you really have to stretch and make a lot of assumptions to assume that Hohn had it in for the Braves and/or had a thing for the Marlins.

No, he’s not a good umpire, but he is not solely responsible for the Braves’ woes.

If you can blame one person or one event for your troubles, it’s a sign that the team could have played better.

UPDATE: Chipper Jones chimes in.

“Shocking,” Jones said of the Hohn-Baker fist bump after Nate McLouth struck out to end the game. “But it kind of makes sense, [considering] how the ebb and flow of the game went, the way the game was called.”

[…]

Jones was asked if he thought Hohn had it in for the Braves.

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt,” replied the veteran third baseman, who said the Braves were also upset by Jerry Meals’ strike zone in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss. “The last two games’ performance by the officials is something that makes you sit back and wonder. And as a player, it makes you not want to play when that stuff happens. Because you don’t have a chance.”

Jones’ comments are not exactly sugar-coated. If this story picks up steam in the next day or two, Major League Baseball will likely have to address this publicly in some way, and would not be surprised to see Hohn suspended or, yes, fired.

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3 comments

  1. Jay Ballz

    July 31, 2009 11:00 AM

    Hey yo. Good stuff. I linked to you guys today.

  2. doubleh

    July 31, 2009 12:07 PM

    Chipper Jones whining to the press??? Noooooo…I don’t believe it.

  3. RZ

    August 01, 2009 12:21 PM

    Don’t let the sweet stache fool you, Hohn is one the worse umpires in the Majors. He already had a bad rap with Bobby Cox.

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