Tuesday, June 4, 2019

NCAA Louisville Ejection - Lessons Learned

Every so often a college baseball ejection causes a national stir. Such was the case with Indiana and Louisville during Sunday's NCAA regional that ended with a bench-clearing event after HP Umpire Ken Langford ejected Cardinals pitcher Michael McAvene and IU batter Ryan Fineman. What can umpires learn from this sequence? Our ejection report is as follows.

Coach McDonnell questions the ejection.
HP Umpire Ken Langford ejected Louisville pitcher Michael McAvene (ball three call; QOCU) and Indiana catcher Ryan Fineman (strike three call; QOCU) in the top of the 9th inning of Sunday's Hoosiers-Cardinals game. With two out and one on, Fineman took a 2-2 pitch from McAvene for a called third ball, upon which McAvene was ejected for unsporting conduct in disputing the ball/strike call as Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell questioned the umpires.

After replacement pitcher Michael Kiaran entered the game and threw the carry-over 3-2 pitch for a called third strike for the third out of the ninth inning, Fineman was ejected in a post-participation capacity as he pursued Langford to argue the call after the game was over, as did Indiana base coach Casey Dykes. Shortly after IU's post-game argument began, a benches-clearing incident occurred as both teams entered the playing field, at which time the umpires left the field and both teams had to be separated by a cadre of police officers.

IU-LOU benches cleared after the final out.
At the time of McAvene's ejection, Louisville was leading 9-7. At the time of Fineman's post-participation ejection, Louisville had won the contest and eliminated Indiana, 9-7.

Here's our analysis of what transpired: First, pitcher McAvene's 2-2 pitch is caught by the Louisville catcher, who moves his mitt as if to frame or sell the pitch, which the umpire rules ball three. McAvene appears to disagree and turns to his left; his jaw appears to move, as if saying something; McAvene then turns to face home plate. Umpire Langford gestures to indicate the pitch was inside. We would thus surmise McAvene sought clarification for the pitch's location, which the umpire provided. McAvene, who after turning back toward the umpire and having appeared to observe Langford's indication that the pitch missed inside, responds, "that's horrible." Langford in turn moves to eject McAvene from the game.

McAvene then stands in disbelief before offering, "I didn't say anything to you." If nothing else, we can confidently declare that this statement is disputed by video evidence, which clearly indicates the pitcher verbally addressed the umpire prior to ejection. Two words too many?

One thing we do know: The pitcher did talk.
NCAA Rule 2-26-d states, "Whenever a pitcher is ejected for disputing an umpire's decision or for unsportsmanlike conduct or language directed at an opponent or umpire (including a post-participation ejection), the suspension will be for a total of four (4) games."

The first step is to recall this isn't professional baseball—scholastic ball treats unsporting conduct with greater stringency than does pro ball, and has a Code of Ethics for players and coaches that professional baseball generally does not. For instance, police rarely, if ever, will get involved in a Major League bench-clearing brawl.

When Langford ejected McAvene, he did not eject the pitcher strictly for arguing balls and strikes, though that is where the dispute originated.

Police broke up the post-game fracas.
He did have the option to warn the pitcher, but that is an option, not a requirement. The umpire does have the ability to eject without warning. This is a judgment call.

Recall that the umpire provided an explanation for the ball three call (the "it was inside" gesture). When the pitcher subsequently responded, "that's horrible," his response was no longer about the initial call itself, but additionally referred to the umpire's explanation for the call ("it was inside").

Thus, the pitcher not only disputed the umpire's decision, but additionally was adjudged to have employed an instance of unsportsmanlike conduct directed at the umpire in rejecting the umpire's explanation for his call; perhaps the umpire deemed this post-explanation conduct was too severe for a warning.

After the game, Louisville head coach McDonnell stated he didn't know whether the call was correct or not, nor did he really care all that much about the pitch call; instead, he lamented McAvene's ejection while admitting he didn't know what exactly transpired: "It's really hard. You've got to be really careful...it's hard to tell from our side. I don't know [what was said]. I would have liked a warning. I just think the magnitude of this time of year—you know, I got a warning. Which is fair. I ran out there, I stuck up for my guy, I got a warning. I toned it down after that...It's just disappointing that Michael didn't get a warning...So, disappointing, but it happened."

The feed returned just in time for trash-talk.
McDonnell's Hoosiers counterpart—Jeff Mercer—wasn't as diplomatic: "[Umpires] have a job to do; they get paid to do it. I get paid to do my job. And you have to be able to execute, and everyone is held to that same standard...I'll handle it. I'll talk to the tournament. I'll talk to the site directors. I'll talk to the umpires. It'll be handled in a professional way. Just like if I had something unprofessional or unbecoming, they have ways to hold me accountable."

Mercer concluded, "I'm a subued guy, pretty level headed. And both of our base coaches are very level-headed guys. I mean, the pitch just bounced. You can look at the video."

Umpires walking toward mounds look angry.
Actually...you can't. The ESPN feed lost its signal shortly before the 3-2 pitch in question, and the broadcast went back on the air shortly after the teams were separated from their benches-clearing incident.

Gil's Call: Was this penalty too harsh or just desserts for a violation of NCAA rules? One of the comments made by the broadcasters was that the umpire should have warned the pitcher by walking toward the mound to make it clear to the entire stadium that the pitcher has been warned.

Whether this should have been a warning or ejection is, again, a judgment call. If "that's horrible" is deemed ejection-worthy, then by all means eject the pitcher. If not, then keep him in the game for the 3-2, two-out pitch. Warn if necessary.

The problem, of course, is that the umpire comes off as the aggressor anytime such a showy warning takes place. It usually brings the catcher out to "restrain" or "intercept" the umpire, and often brings the manager out of the dugout as well. See Andy Fletcher/Jon Lester in 2015, or Eric Cooper/AJ Burnett in 2013.
Related PostReview of Bullet Down the Line, Fletcher Gets Upset (6/29/15).
Related PostFleeing the Coop: When an Umpire is Burned by AJ Pitcher (8/1/13).

Cuzzi admonishes Vogelsong to stop arguing.
Instead, consider Phil Cuzzi's reaction to Ryan Vogelsong in 2015 in removing his mask, and loudly declaring his warning toward the Giants pitcher with an accompanying "stop sign" hand gesture. An umpire who walks toward the mound nearly always looks overly aggressive, while an umpire who remains behind the plate and gives a "long distance" warning generally appears more in control.

Nonetheless, broadcaster Curt Schilling used the opportunity to bash Cuzzi for his "bad night." Schilling, who never appeared to be a person who sought to associate himself with facts, accused Cuzzi of suffering from a "bad night" during a game in which Cuzzi was 100% accurate in calling 43 balls for Giants pitchers (39/41 strikes = 97.6% overall accuracy for Giants pitching).
Related PostMLB Ejections 116-117: Phil Cuzzi (3-4; Vogelsong, Bochy) (7/5/15).

Optics: Ump ejects pitcher with back turned.
Back to our NCAA ejection, the accompanying still image shows an umpire walking toward the mound and ejecting a pitcher, whose back is turned.

Yes, sometimes, a player commits an egregious and ejectable offense and then turns to walk away such that the umpire's reaction—which will always necessarily be at least a fraction of a second following the unsporting act—will look over-the-top.

For optics' sake, how should an umpire respond to an offense deemed ejection-able that looks more authoritative and less authoritarian?

For one, in general, it shouldn't be incumbent upon an on-field official to consider the ramifications of an ejection. Superstar closer or freshman pinch runner, four-game suspension in the postseason or not, if a team member commits an act on the field that merits an ejection, such violative personnel should be ejected accordingly. For an umpire, it is, as is said, "above our pay grade" to consider suspensions and the like: that's a job for the governing body—in this case, the NCAA. Umpires govern what happens during their jurisdiction on the playing field—not afterward.

Does this mean the NCAA should consider modifying its rules, including the mandatory four-game suspension for such a pitcher ejection? Possibly, but that's not an umpire's call to make—that's NCAA leadership through its rules committee, which is comprised of administrators and coaches.

Video as follows:

Alternate Link: Langford ejects McAvene after a contested 2-2 pitch in Louisville (ESPN)


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