Ben Zobrist

Cubs call for action from MLB/umpires as frustration continues to bubble up

Cubs call for action from MLB/umpires as frustration continues to bubble up

It took until the 13th year of Ben Zobrist's major-league career to get thrown out of a game.

His postgame comments Tuesday revealed that the magic words for getting tossed were to tell home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi that his called third strike in the sixth inning was a part of the reason why baseball needs an electronic strike zone.

Joe Maddon was eventually relieved of his duties for the day as well and it marked another tally in the back-and-forth between the Cubs and umpires this season. And, naturally, Zobrist's comments added to the ongoing debate over whether or not MLB should use a strike zone called by computers instead of people.

"That’s a sensitive subject," Ian Happ said prior to Wednesday's game. "I think the umpires have a tough job, and they’re part of the game — they always have been. So I would love for there to be more understanding where if the players are very sure that the guy is missing calls, that he goes back and looks at it."

Happ went on to say his hope would be that umpires were more willing to be open about when they've missed a call, even in hindsight. This does happen on occasion, like when Angel Hernandez admitted that the game-ending called third strike against Anthony Rizzo on Aug. 5 was wrong.

That's all Zobrist is asking for, too.

"When you have good quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for. It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that."

What players ultimately crave, Happ said, is consistency. When calls fluctuate, it makes the process for hitters especially difficult.

"You can’t expand just because of what an umpire is calling. If it’s that day, and you know there’s one call that he’s missing over and over, you get in a situation where you have to put the ball in play, and then it’s possible," Happ said. "But I think that it’s so dangerous to adjust your zone day-to-day because you lose all feel, all concept of what the actual strike zone is."

The frustration for the Cubs has boiled over a lot recently.

On July 21, Javy Baez was ejected in the fifth inning of the second game of a doubleheader for throwing his bat and helmet to the ground in frustration. This meant that Zobrist, who was supposed to be getting rest that night after playing in the day game, had to come in and finish the game. Maddon was also ejected that day, and afterward both he and Baez expressed their frustration.

Baez said "we're not animals" while sharing his thoughts on the situation, and Maddon made clear that a player like Baez should not, in his opinion, be thrown out of a game for that kind of action. In both cases, the remarks spoke to the need for players to be allowed to be human on the field and express their emotions, even when they're frustration.

When a call is made like the one Tuesday against Zobrist, it changes the tempo for the rest of the hitters in the lineup. It makes their job harder, too.

"That’s one of the most frustrating things in the game because you are so confident in your strike zone, and you work your whole life to build that strike zone," Happ said of Tuesday's strike three call against Zobrist. "It’s really frustrating when you put together a good at bat, you’re grinding, you think you’ve beat the pitcher, and something happens like that to kind of flip the script, especially in that situation."

Hitting is always difficult, and Happ said it makes batters especially aggravated when they feel like they have to contend with an additional variable like spotty balls and strikes calls from behind the plate. 

"We’re the ones who our numbers are dictated by what somebody else does. Hitting is a completely defensive and reactionary thing. The pitcher has control, and we’re adjusting to him. The umpire has control, and we’re adjusting to him," Happ said. "It’s all reacting, so for us to not only be reacting to the guy we’re competing against but also somebody else, that makes it really difficult."

Zobrist is the kind of hitter who should garner respect from umpires around the league, not only because he has never been thrown out and rarely protests a call, but because he is a veteran with the track record to know where a strike call should be. Maddon said Wednesday when he went out to speak to Cuzzi following Zobrist's initial argument, it wasn't in anger. He was mostly surprised that Cuzzi would be in a situation where he had to argue with someone like Zobrist.

"My biggest point was, 'you realize Ben Zobrist is arguing with you right now?' That’s got to be a bad feeling," Maddon said. "I tried to get that across to him, and he could not focus on that thought, he could just focus arguing balls and strikes, which I wasn’t."

These kinds of moments are bound to happen somewhat often given the sheer volume of games played across the league and when they affect players like Zobrist and Rizzo, they can seem especially egregious.

Happ pointed out players are called upon almost daily to answer for their performance, and it is difficult when that is impacted by an added element outside of their control. That's a point Rizzo made, too, in response to Hernandez' call 10 days ago:

"Things like that can't happen and it happened all game," Rizzo said then. "And nothing happens. And I have to answer questions to you guys — why can't you hit? Why are you striking out? Why can't you hit in the clutch in the ninth inning? All these questions. Right there was literally Ball 4."

Happ said he believes umpires need to focus on improvement to reflect the work their player counterparts are doing.

"I think the accountability, and that we’re always trying to get better day-to-day, so I think everybody needs to be trying to get better," Happ said. "Everybody needs to be trying to perfect their craft and there needs to be some kind of measure for how good or bad guys are being."

Maddon said that, despite the frustration of some of the calls this season and yesterday's in particular, he believes that umpiring is actually better than it was 20 or so years ago. 

"Scrutiny was different [back then]. The level of accountability was different. The guys at that time truly did have some juice. And I think it’s a different world right now. It’s better," Maddon said. "I think ours is the best officiated game there is regarding just the pure ability of the umpires combined with the way replay works. There’s no doubt in my mind, we do the best job regarding officiating.

"You’re still going to have your moments like [Tuesday], and that’s going to happen, but I think our level of accountability and the method in place is a good one."

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Ben Zobrist earned his first career ejection thanks to one hell of a zinger

Two days after David Bote turned in the best moment of the Cubs' season, Ben Zobrist delivered the best line of the Cubs' season.

As the top of the ninth inning was getting underway, the 37-year-old mild-mannered veteran was seen talking with home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi.

As Jorge De La Rosa finished his warm-up pitches and the inning was about to start, suddenly Zobrist and Cuzzi got animated and the next thing anybody knew, Zobrist was slapped with his first-ever ejection.

"When you have good, quality at-bats as a hitter and you feel like it's kinda taken away from you, you want some sort of an answer," Zobrist said. "Or you want to be assured that they're gonna go back and make an adjustment and that's what I asked for.

"It was met with, basically, he didn't want to talk about that. He didn't want me to tell him that. I just basically said, 'Well that's why we want an electronic strike zone.'"

MIC. DROP.

This came after a passionate discussion between the two men in the bottom of the sixth inning when Zobrist was called out on strikes on a full count pitch he thought was clearly off the plate. On that play, Joe Maddon came out to intercede and was ejected, but Zobrist walked back to the dugout to collect himself and remained in the game.

So before his next at-bat, Zobrist wanted to say his piece. A calm discussion transformed into something more and while Zobrist didn't apologize for what he said, he was willing to admit his pride played a factor.

"It is what it is," he said. "I'm not gonna lie. When you're dealing with that and you're trying to have good, quality at-bats and you feel like it gets taken away from you, sometimes your pride gets in your way and you say things that are going to upset them. Obviously that upset him and he tossed me."

Zobrist's strikeout wasn't an altogether huge moment in the game, but the pitch — a breaking ball off from Jhoulys Chacin that started off the plate and remained off the plate — should've been Ball 4 and would've given the Cubs runners at first and second with nobody out for Jason Heyward. Sure, it was a 7-0 ballgame, but with the wind blowing out and the Cubs had 12 outs left, crazier things have happened (which Bote just proved).

The Cubs never went on to record another hit, but they didn't blame Cuzzi for that.

"Whenever Zo argues, as a manager, you better get your butt out there," Maddon said. "He's rare to be that way and eventually to get ejected, that's unfortunate. But regardless, there was a couple bad calls, but we gotta do a better job offensively. My god."

Zobrist said he's been more animated and riled up at other points in his career compared to Tuesday afternoon, but obviously that zinger was enough to get the job done to notch his first-ever ejection.

Almost a year ago to the day, Zobrist was very nearly tossed in a game against the Reds, but Maddon once again got in the middle.

This is the latest chapter in what has become a surprising trend of the Cubs vs. umpire debacle. 

For the third straight homestand, the Cubs have had an issue with the umpiring crew — from Javy Baez getting tossed against the Cardinals last month to Anthony Rizzo getting heated with Angel Hernandez two weekends ago to Maddon getting the boot a few days ago against the Nationals.

Only Rizzo's was related to balls and strikes, but between him and Zobrist — two guys who rarely argue — getting heated in the span of 9 days, it begs the question: Does Major League Baseball need an electronic strike zone?

"I'm just gonna leave it at that," Zobrist said. "I think that discussion will happen eventually. But I'm just gonna leave right now at the fact that I said that today. That's it."

Will Dave Martinez's inside knowledge on Cubs impact this weekend's series?

Will Dave Martinez's inside knowledge on Cubs impact this weekend's series?

When the Arizona Diamondbacks were in town last month, a couple Cubs players pointed out how well veteran catcher Alex Avila knew the lineup.

Avila played in just two games in that series and he only spent two months with the Cubs late last season, but that was apparently enough for the 31-year-old to build up a cache of important scouting intel.

The Cubs rallied to split that series with the NL West leaders thanks to ninth inning heroics from David Bote and Anthony Rizzo, but the Avila angle was still something that stuck with me after the D-Backs left town.

With all the advanced scouting, camera angles and info at teams' disposals nowadays, how much can one guy like Avila really impact the gameplan?

The Cubs are about to truly find out this weekend at Wrigley with Davey Martinez in town, though Game 1 went in favor of the North Siders 3-2 in yet another come-from-behind victory.

Martinez spent the last three years as the Cubs bench coach before graduating on to this managerial gig with the Washington Nationals. He has spent a ton of time in the clubhouse and coaching this Cubs roster — 18 of the 25 players active Friday played under Martinez.

Going beyond just the players on the field, Martinez has been working alongside Joe Maddon for over a decade, dating back to their days with the Tampa Bay Rays.

"Obviously he knows us pretty well," Maddon said. "Not just me, he knows eveybody in that room pretty well. But at the end of the day, really what it comes down to is Kyle [Hendricks] pitching well, us hitting the ball when we can and catching it on defense.

"It really is about the players themselves. There might be a moment now and then, but it's just that he would know personalities really well. ... It's about your guys and once you get over it and realize it's about your players, that's really what it is.

"I just think it's a great experience for him to come back to Wrigley and managing in this ballpark and managing against the group that he had been a part of. That's the part that's different."

Martinez mostly brushed aside any notion that he could have an inside edge on scouting his former team, but he did allow a moment to be coy.

"They're still gonna compete and try to beat us," Martinez said. "Yeah, I do know them, but we gotta execute. The biggest thing is execution. We can see a lot of things during scouting, but if you don't execute, it doesn't matter. 

"It's nice to have some tidbits and know these guys and we want to win at the end of the day. We might exploit some things that I know, but we'll see."

Martinez's first season as a manager has had his fair share of adversity, as the uber-talented Nationals roster came into the weekend series with just a 58-56 record and a 5.5 game deficit in the NL East.

Still, he said managing has been everything he thought it would be and more and enjoyed catching up with former players and colleagues that he won a championship with.

"He's been a big part of my career, because of being around in the Tampa Bay days and everything," Ben Zobrist said. "He did a lot of teaching. When I was young in my career, he was the guy when I would come off the field and I knew I made a mistake, he helped me kinda figure out what could've been done differently and how to continue to grow as a player.

"All those teaching moments for me, he was right in the middle of them and I'm grateful for that. He always had a smile on his face, he always had that bubbly laugh around the clubhouse and everything. 

"So great teacher, great coach, but I think everybody was happy for him to finally get an opportunity to manage. I'm glad to see he's getting to do what he's always been wanting to do."