Courting the umpires pays off for MLB players

A.J. Ellis talks with home plate umpire Ron Kulpa. (Getty/Harry How)

Catchers have more opportunity to interact with umpires than any other players on the baseball diamond, and the relationships they build may very well help not only their pitchers on the mound, but also themselves at the plate.

Research of the strike zone conducted by and Logan MacPhail of Bloomberg Sports shows that five of the top 10 players gaining the most calls in 2013 (called balls in the zone versus called strikes outside the zone) are backstops, and people around the game don’t think that’s a coincidence.

Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, second on the list at 7.40 per cent, is a firm believer in earning the respect of umpires and to that end, he has a rule of thumb in dealing with them – never tell a lie.

“That’s most important thing that I’ve learned, because they can go back and watch the game the next day, they know what’s going on, and they know whether you’re telling the truth or not,” he explains. “Say he rings up an opposing hitter on a pitch that’s a couple of inches off the plate, and the guy complains about the pitch, and (the umpire) fights back.

“While the hitter walks back to the dugout, the umpire looks at me and says, ‘Hey, what did you think of that pitch?’ And even though it helped my team and we got a strikeout, I need to tell him, ‘Yeah, I think it’s a little bit outside.’

“And they appreciate that a lot more because if I lie they’re going to go back and check it the next day anyway. They’re going to know Ellis is lying to me, too, so any time he does speak to me, how do I know he’s telling the truth? Just be honest with them.”

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While in some ways Ellis’s approach may seem like common sense, in the heat of competition when athletes are searching for any little edge they can find, complete candour with an official isn’t always the most obvious course of action.

But there’s no doubt his honesty earns him the trust and respect of the umpires behind him, which in turn likely gives him more leeway when championing the cause of his pitchers when calls don’t go their way.

Even on that front, Ellis makes a point to take the feelings of umpires into account.

“I usually don’t do it when the hitter is still there, I wait until they leave and then if there’s a quiet moment between the umpire and I, I might say, ‘Hey Mike, what have you got on that 2-1 pitch? Because I think it was pretty good,’” he says. “More times than not they like that a little bit better, you’re not embarrassing them in front of the other person, just the two of you having a conversation.”

Such an approach doesn’t work for all players, especially those furthest away from umpires, the outfielders.

They tend to have the least contact with umps, which is why during a game in the 1980’s, former Toronto Blue Jays right-fielder Jesse Barfield came up with a creative way to try and curry some favour.

“I remember Durwood Merrill was getting a rock out of his show toward right field, and I was running back to the position after they made the third out, and I pretended like I was going to give him a hand,” the all-star recalled to’s Ben Nicholson-Smith. “Durwood was big into wrestling, so I said, you know what, I’m going to get Durwood on our side. I said, ‘Durwood can I help you?’ He reached up, ‘Thanks, Jess.’

“He was vulnerable so I snuck my hand underneath there and I put him in a half-nelson, one, two three pinned him, the crowd went crazy, and Durwood was laughing so hard. I got some calls after that. It was great.”

Buck Martinez, a catcher for 17 big-league seasons and now Sportsnet’s play-by-play announcer, also made a point of having a positive relationship with umpires, although he wasn’t afraid to fight for what he thought was right.

The key for catchers, he believes, is never turning around to argue directly with the umpire.

“One of my best arguments was with Marty Springstead, and Marty used to have this habit of saying, ‘Strike, ummmm.’ He wasn’t sure,” Martinez remembers. “I said, ‘Marty, not sure on that one, huh?’ He goes, ‘Shut up and throw the ball back.’

“He had this real raspy New York accent. So I said again, ‘Marty, not sure about that one, huh?’ And he got his broom out, went around the front of the plate, and he went, ‘Listen. You do the catching, I’ll do the (expletive) umpiring here, and you just shut up.’ I said, ‘See Marty, that’s my point, you’re a red ass, you can’t even talk to me.’ We’re having this conversation over the course of two or three batters right at the end of the season.

“Next spring training, he comes back to me and says, ‘You were right, I worry about every little thing. I’m going to relax, call balls and strikes.’ We ended up having a great relationship.”

Five-time all-star right-hander Jack Morris wasn’t quite as even-handed in his dealings with umpires, his feelings over a given call often emerging unfiltered. But he believes even a harsh comment delivered at the right time can be effective in getting them to consider a point.

“I was very animated, I wasn’t good at hiding my emotions, everybody saw what I did,” says Morris. “But when I was young, I remember the really good veteran players would get pitches, and I understood the thinking, I was a rookie, earn your stripes.

“As I got older and more established, when a rookie would come in and get calls, that’s when I would tear into an umpire. It might not even be the same one that stuck it to me when I was younger, but I’d do it just to pull rank, this is the way it’s supposed to be.

“I remember when Wade Boggs started getting all the calls, I went, ‘Hey, I’ve been in the game 10 years longer than this guy, what are you doing?’ And they just laughed at me, but at least I let it be known, you know? I put it in the back of their mind.”

Regardless of the approach, players would be wise to always keep in mind this simple piece of advice from Barfield: “If you respect them, they’re going to respect you.”

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