Sam Fuld and Scouting the Umpire

Sam Fuld had played 575 games without an ejection going into Monday’s game with the Orioles. Behind the plate, though, was umpire Brian Knight, one of the league’s most prolific ejectors. When that unstoppable force met that immovable object, we know who won. The player was sent to the showers early.

Fuld’s ejection for arguing the call can’t be undone, but the moment still offers plenty to unpack. He was called out for running out of the basepath and obstructing the throw to first base, so at issue are the mechanics of a bunt out in front of home plate.

But maybe more important is that Fuld — admittedly — may have failed to scout the guy behind home plate as well as he could have.

The Play

There is room for debate on the play, which is obvious from the minute you watch the clip. The announcers agree with the umpire right away: “Fuld all in the field there, pretty easy call.”

But watch it again. From where Fuld bunts the ball, he runs directly to first base. He may be on the field to begin with, but that’s just a function of where he was during the bunt. By the time he gets to first base, he’s on the chalk.

“I just ran in a straight line,” Fuld said Tuesday before the Athletics’ next game. “I was bunting, so I was running from the front of the box.”

Fuld’s catcher may not be unbiased, but he agreed. “If they’re running on the grass, you just pelt them and they are out,” A’s catcher Josh Phegley laughed. “He was running on the chalk. I would have just thrown it to the first baseman and he would have been out.”

And then watch the moment when the ball arrives. It arrives to Fuld’s left, to the first baseman, who is standing at the bag. “The ball never hit me — I don’t understand how I could have been in the way,” Fuld said. “The ball went over the first base bag and missed him to his left,” Phegley said.

This can devolve easily into a ‘he said, he said’ argument, but we’re still left with the question that got Fuld tossed. “What am I supposed to do?” Fuld asked Knight twice from first, with expletives. But when he asked the question again, this time “civilly” as Fuld put it, he was tossed. “You should be allowed a civil conversation with an umpire,” the player thought.

The question lingers. What was Sam Fuld supposed to do? He ran straight for the bag.

The Umpire

Perhaps what Fuld should have done is know the umpire better.

“This guy leads the league in ejections,” said Fuld of Knight, and though that’s not necessarily technically true, there’s enough truth there that Fuld was right to consider the umpire’s history when appraising what happened that night.

For his career, Knight has thrown out 31 players in 15 years, and that actually makes him 49th out of 77 umpires in ejections per year. Thanks to research from Reggie Yinger, we know that Knight’s career work is also slightly below the 2.67 ejections per year those 77 active regular umpires have averaged.

But that doesn’t mean that Knight hasn’t been more prickly recently. Check out the top of the leaderboard for ejections per year since 2011.

Name Career Ejections MLB Years 11-15 total 11-15 ave
Marty Foster 96 20 25 5.0
Dan Bellino 28 8 24 4.8
Joe West 165 38 23 4.6
Bob Davidson 163 29 22 4.4
Sam Holbrook 63 17 22 4.4
Vic Carapazza 22 6 22 4.4
Greg Gibson 73 19 20 4.0
Brian Knight 31 15 20 4.0
Jeff Nelson 53 19 19 3.8
Tim Timmons 73 17 18 3.6

Only seven umpires have thrown more people out since the start of the 2011 season. Brian Knight is now averaging four ejections a year, which is basically double his career average. It’s also interesting to see that some of the younger umpires are atop this leaderboard (and Joe West, whose reputation precedes him).

This table isn’t the only way to scout umpires. The sheer amount of information that is available about the men in black is impressive .

You can see their strike zone tendencies, broken down by pitch. Knight is more likely to call the pitch down low than most of his contemporaries, for example. The heat map below, created at BaseballHeatMaps.com, shows that he’s about 10% above average on strike calls at the knees against lefties.

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You can even see additional information on each umpire, or as Fuld put it “fun facts from their bios”. For Knight, the 2015 Umpire Media Guide lists that he was born in Montana, attended William Jewel College in Missouri, and enjoys golf and playing the guitar. Fodder for between-pitch conversations at the plate, maybe. Butter.

This was just one play, sure. Maybe even one where the player should have been called out, depending on your perspective and how you think the player should have acted.

But hidden in that one play is also a new need for today’s game: scouting the umpire. It could have helped Sam Fuld that day, and he knows it. “I need to pay attention to that information more often now,” he muttered as he shook his head.

We hoped you liked reading Sam Fuld and Scouting the Umpire by Eno Sarris!

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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