May 30, 2009

Tracer: The Pitch-Calling Ump

In the May 25, 2009 issue of Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci wrote (my emphasis):
So dominant was [pitcher Randy] Johnson that before a game in 1993, the home plate umpire told Mariners catcher Dave Valle, "They don't even need you with Randy pitching."

"What are you talking about?" replied Valle, who would not name the ump.

"He's so good they don't need you. Let me call the pitches tonight."

"I let him call every pitch." recalls Valle, to whom the umpire whispered pitches under his breath.

An overpowering Johnson went the distance in a Mariners victory.
I have not thumbed through the rule book recently, but I'm pretty sure that the home plate umpire is forbidden to call pitches during a game he is officiating.

Assuming Valle is telling the truth, this brings up a lot of questions: Did Johnson know about this arrangement? Did the umpire really call every single pitch? Couldn't the batters have heard something? Might this umpire have given favourable calls to Johnson in future games?

Verducci presents this as an amusing anecdote of how dominant Johnson was in his prime -- and if this was about Walter Johnson during the Deadball Era, I'm sure we'd all get a chuckle out of it, just like we do of tales of cheaters from the good old days. But this was only 15 years ago -- and the pitcher is still active. Maybe the umpire -- whose behaviour is out there on the continuum between "doing his job" and "conspiring to throw a game" -- is too.

How many "overpowering" complete game wins did Johnson have in 1993 with Valle as his battery mate -- and who was behind the dish for those games?

Johnson pitched 10 complete games that season. We don't need to look at all 10, though, because Valle did not play in all of them and three of them were losses. I have also decided that Johnson had to allow fewer than three runs for an "overpowering" performance. So what does that leave us?

Six games:
Apr 21 vs Bos - 5-0 - 9-4-0-1- 8, 129 - Jim McKean
May 16 at Oak - 7-0 - 9-1-0-3-14, 123 - Dale Scott
Aug 20 at Tor - 4-1 - 9-3-1-1-11, 130 - Ken Kaiser
Sep 5 vs Mil - 3-2 - 9-5-2-1-13, 128 - Joe Brinkman
Sep 21 vs Tex - 8-0 - 9-3-0-1-11, 143 - Ed Hickox
Oct 1 at Min - 8-2 - 9-9-2-2- 7, 150 - Drew Coble
And, annoyingly, six different umps!

Of the six, these are the four most dominant:
May 16 at Oak - 7-0 - 9-1-0-3-14, 123 - Dale Scott
Sep 21 vs Tex - 8-0 - 9-3-0-1-11, 143 - Ed Hickox
Aug 20 at Tor - 4-1 - 9-3-1-1-11, 130 - Ken Kaiser
Apr 21 vs Bos - 5-0 - 9-4-0-1- 8, 129 - Jim McKean
There are two shutouts with high strikeout totals -- I'd say Dale Scott or Ed Hickox is our mystery umpire. They are both working in major league baseball in 2009.


richard said...

Wow, Allan, I bow before your patience and skill in digging all this up. I kind of expect MLB to look into it as well.

There are some problems with that story, chief among them is that the opposition, surely, would have caught on and that the umpire doesn't have his head close to the catcher's (in prime whispering position) until after the signals are given.

That being said think this is one of those stories that make Baseball the enjoyable pastime (not merely sport) that it is. It is the kind of game in which that kind of thing could happen. It is a leisurely, friendly, communal, relational game in ways that the other sports are not. There is a level of camaraderie between opponents, umpires and even fans in Baseball that is just not possible in the other sports.

BTW, when I first read the story (in the dead-tree version of SI) I misunderstood and thought "Well, isn't it the umpire's job to call the pitches?"

SoSock said...

Great story - thanks for the time it took to investigate it, although I feel certain you did that as much for your own satisfaction as anyting :)
We need a non-loss today. I've not been able to sit down for any games this weekend and probably won't be able to today, but - DAMN, it sure would be nice to come home and see a few "dirty water" comments at the end of the thread for a change.

allan said...

it, although I feel certain you did that as much for your own satisfaction as anyting :)

That's pretty much why I do everything here.

Yes, a non-loss would be nice.


There are problems with it, for sure. L and I were talking about it and I couldn't figure out why Valle would make up a story like that. If he was going to lie, have him tell the batters what was coming -- and say they still swung and missed all day.

If we could get a couple more clues ... home or away would help a lot.

tim said...

Off to Toronto for today's game! Go Sox!

Jere said...

If it's true, my money's on a very late season game. Randy was great back then but look at his stats through '92. He wasn't dominant enough for this to have happened early the next season. He had a dominant '93, so I'd guess it'd be toward the end. The 10/1 game, between two teams totally out of it, seems like the winner to me. (9/21 had their opponent still in the race so I'd eliminate that one.)