We'll answer the obvious question first. Yes... Bryce Harper swung. That's besides the point, though. In the seventh inning of a 5-5 game Wednesday, Harper attempted to check his swing on a 2-2 slider from Oliver Perez. He probably did go just a bit too far, but it certainly wasn't egregious. Home plate umpire Rob Drake decided to ignore the option of checking with his third base umpire and called it a swing.
Let's start with explaining why Drake should have asked for help there. First off, the home plate umpire has an incredibly difficult job calling the strike zone. We've seen more than our fair share of umpires who seem incapable of calling the zone as it's written in the rule book, so that should be the home plate umpire's sole focus. Adding attempting to discern (on close calls) whether or not a hitter swung or not simply isn't something that a home plate umpire is going to be do very effectively while keeping his eye on where the pitch is crossing the plate. To be fair, Drake's strike zone was actually pretty good last night......
Were there a few missed calls within the zone? Sure.... There were two pitches that were clear strikes that weren't called and four more that were right at the edge of the zone that weren't called. There were only about three pitches that were outside of the zone that Drake called strikes all night. Drake's absolute worst call came in Jayson Werth's ninth inning at bat right in front of Michael Taylor's game-winning grand slam...
Do you see pitch four? That one that was pretty much right down the middle? Yeah... That took the count to 3-1 in Werth's favor, and may have had a significant impact on the result of the game. The Diamondbacks were a double play away from winning 6-5, and Werth would likely have had to expand his zone a bit if the count was 2-2 instead of 3-1. If you were watching the MASN broadcast, Bob & F.P. blamed it on Jordan Pacheco setting up inside and having to move quite a bit to get to the ball.
Hey... I don't know if that's really the reason that Drake missed calling a fastball down the middle a strike, but if it was, doesn't that only drive the point home a bit? If he's focused on watching the catcher and how much he had to move rather than the pitch's location, wouldn't the same apply if he's focusing on how far a hitter goes when he's trying to check his swing? Home plate umpires should call balls and strikes. They have the first and third base umpires watching the hitters for a reason. They're there to help.
Beyond the fact that the home plate umpire should be, well, calling balls and strikes, the first and third base umpires are also supposed to be there to help because they have a better angle to see how far a batter's swing goes through the zone. Those umpires (with the left-handed Harper up, the third base umpire) are lined up so that they have a side view of home plate in front of the batter. Unlike the home plate umpire, who is looking over a catcher and doesn't have a very good view of just how far forward a hitter's bat is travelling, the third base umpire has a perfect view in that scenario.
Was Harper's reaction justified?
F.P. Santangelo got behind him, which... well... Yeah. He's a homer and he's almost always going to take the side of the Nats' player regardless of whether they were right or wrong. I do think that Harper should have expressed a little anger here, but he skipped anger and went right to full on rage. Of course, everything happened so quickly that I'm not sure I can say that said "full on rage" didn't happen until after he was ejected. I wish that I could embed this video, but it's not giving me the option. Let's just link to it again so that you can see what I see.....
- At five seconds of the video, Drake points to Harper and calls it a swing, wringing him up
- Harper walks toward Drake shouting and pointing (bat in hand) towards third base... obviously saying (something) get help
- He proceeds to get in Drake's face. Yeah. This is a no-no. He's pretty much face to face with Drake at seven seconds
- At eight seconds of the video, Drake has ejected Harper
- At this point, Harper decides he's going to get his money's worth, screaming at the umpire from about a foot away and continually pointing towards third base for the next ten seconds
- Then Matt Williams gets there. He's animated, but he actually looks relatively calm. We can't know what was said, but he does gesture towards third base about three times in the thirty seconds. He never really seems to be screaming quite emphatically as Harper was, but Drake eventually tosses Williams as well.
While it won't let me embed the video of the actual ejection, it will let me embed what Williams had to say about it after the game. Here goes......
I've had my problems with Williams. You know what some of those problems are if you've read me regularly here at Federal Baseball. In this case, he was absolutely right. He went out there to get his player's back and to keep the situation from escalating any more than it already had. Regarding Williams' statements towards the end of the interview, I do like that Harper is a passionate player. It seems to help drive him on the field and it makes him a really fun player to root for.
I don't want to go all "narrative," but Harp seems to play every game like it's his last game. He plays his butt off and he wants to win. I'd like to think all players do (and feel that most of them do), but Harper is one of those players who you can see leaves everything he has on the field every time he plays. Fans of teams other than the Nationals use his attitude to make him out to be an arrogant (hmm) jerk, but they'd probably view him differently if he played for their team. I love the way Harper plays and I love the emotion he displays on the field... I think most Nats fans do.
I'm actually interested to see how the national media jumps on this in the next few days. Will they try and vilify Harper for getting in Drake's face? Probably. Will they try and point out how wrong Drake was in how he handled the call in the first place? I'm guessing that will be more of an afterthought. If this had happened to a player who didn't have the undeserved reputation Harper has around the league, we'd probably hear more about the umpire's poor decision to not ask for help and less about the player's reaction. But hey... It's Bryce Harper. He's a lightning rod, so the media may milk this for all it's worth.
That said, this blowup at Drake wasn't a particularly smart thing for Harper to do. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Asdrubal Cabrera getting ejected in Game 2 of the NLDS against the Giants last season. The stakes weren't nearly as high, but Harper has to know that as soon as he gets up in Drake's face arguing balls and strikes, he's going to get tossed. Harper getting in Drake's face was almost assured to remove the Nats' best hitter from a tie game in the late innings.... and it did. Again, I love the passion, but he's got to think before blowing up like that. It can be difficult in the heat of the moment.
Michael Taylor served Drake up a dish of karmic justice in the ninth inning. Batting in Harper's spot, Taylor crushed a 1-0 fastball over the batter's eye in center field for a grand slam as the Nats went on to win 9-6.