I've Seen Fire and I've Seen Whine

Caught lookin', and grumblin'. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

You may have noticed Ike Davis has hit a bit of a rough patch lately. He's hit a respectable 3 home runs in the season's first three weeks, but he also struck out a dreadful 20 times going into Tuesday night. He has looked lost at the plate at times, to the point where he was pinch hit for in a lefty-lefty situation during the Marlins series opener--with Justin Turner, no less. That's gotta sting.

As often seems to happen to slumping hitters, his bad approach has been compounded by some bad luck. Witness Monday's doubleheader. In game one, with the bases loaded and Tim Lincecum on the ropes, he scorched a ball up the middle, only to see Emmanuel Burris turn an amazing double play. After sitting for most of game two, he pinch hit in the eighth inning, again with the bases loaded, and watched two balls that were barely in the same ballpark as him get called strikes two and three by home plate umpire Dana DeMuth.

After the game, I saw many fans online suggest that Ike brought this last hardship on himself because he perpetually complains about called strikes. In just his third big league season, Davis already has a firmly entrenched rep as a hitter who grumbles when strike calls don't go his way. Conventional wisdom says umps dislike players who do this, and so it becomes an exponentially worse problem over time: The more Ike grouses, the less likely it is he gets borderline calls. Or, in the case of his backwards K on Monday night, calls not even in the same zip code as the borderline.

Ike Davis is not the first baseball player ever to make a habit of taking called strikes personally. This practice is as old as screams of KILL THE UMP! Knowingly or not, though, we tend to make distinctions among the players who moan in the batter's box. Some are Whiners. Some are Warriors. The former are crybabies who can't deal with adversity. The latter are never-say-die types who just wanna win so bad, dammit. How does one get labeled one and not the other?

Whiners tend to be young whippersnappers, guys who haven't earned "it" yet. Warriors are grizzled veterans whose objections to strike calls show they've got some fight left in the tank. Winning also helps; get a World Series ring or two and your petulant complaints suddenly transform into Raging Against The Dying Of The Light.

Ike Davis is still very young. Though we've seen him sacrifice his body by leaping into dugouts for foul balls, he has not played a single meaningful game in September, or August, even. This is what makes him a Whiner.

Who are the Warriors? There is of course the Edge-y Derek Jeter, who greets every called strike with a roll of the eyes and a smirk in the umpire's general direction, an unvoiced Okay, whatever you say, pal. Chipper Jones does much the same thing, though he will often step out of the batter's box and laugh out loud, adding just a soupcon of redneck orneriness to the routine. Chase Utley managed to attain Warrior status at a relatively young age by reacting to called strikes in a similar fashion.

Obviously, all of these player did many other things to attain Warrior status, chief among them winning at least one championship. But when it comes to taking strikes, their behavior is nigh indistinguishable from players who are labeled Whiners. The vast majority of us just see it differently.

The quintessential Warrior of the last 25 years has to be Paul O'Neill. Apart from being vital part of their lineup, O'Neill was often considered the spiritual backbone of the Yankee Dynasty teams of the late 1990s/early 2000s, embodying a certain ineffable something that those teams possessed. When you hear Mike Francesa refer to da gritty, gutty Yankees, he is obliquely referring to O'Neill--or at least something that O'Neill represented. When he retired after the 2001 season, it was said he took a bit of the Yankees' soul with him. That's why it took them a whole eight seasons to win another World Series. (The horror!)

O'Neill also complained about called strikes for longer and more loudly than any batter I've ever seen. No matter the count, no matter the game situation, no matter the opponent, O'Neill would react to any called strike as if it said something awful about his mother. Buster Olney's The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty devotes many pages to chronicling O'Neill's leadership qualities and is generally favorable to him. It also contains many descriptions of O'Neill's epic, infamous post-strikeout tantrums.

Olney's book paints these tantrums as a sign of fire, of the fierce desire to win that burns within a True Champion. This was the mainstream take on O'Neill during his playing days, and that has not changed in the decade since his retirement; if anything, it's been cemented further now that he's something of an Elder Statesman as part of YES's broadcast crew. (Keith Hernandez's work on SNY has similarly sanded down his rougher edges in our memories of his playing days; Keith could yell at an ump with the best of them, too.)

Of course, O'Neill was a seasoned veteran who won five championships, so he had a lot of collateral on which to draw. But at some point, he was a rookie who was, presumably, reacting to called strikes in much the same way. How did O'Neill's reputation evolve? At what point did he acquire Warrior status? Or was he always afforded such a stature? Did he emerge from the womb seen as a fiery veteran who hates to lose?

Even if fans and media types make distinctions between Whiners and Warriors, that doesn't necessarily mean umpires do. Truly gauging if the guys we label Whiners suffer disproportionately from bad strike calls would involve a massive, multiseason pitch tracking project that is beyond my capabilities. However, there are a few stats that lie around the contours of what I'm looking for.

Thus far in his career, Ike Davis has looked at 31 percent of all strikes in his plate appearances. The league average over that time is 28 percent, which suggests he is not victimized that much worse than the average batter. The picture changes slightly, however, when it comes to strikeouts. 32 percent of Ike Davis' career K's have come looking, a full 8 points higher than league average. One could surmise from this that Davis' gripes may result in him not getting the benefit of the doubt in a two-strike count (though you wouldn't know for sure without examining a pitch chart of each of those at bats).

But what of the Warrior? Over his 14-year career, 25 percent of Paul O'Neill's strikes came looking, during a period when the league average was 26 percent. However, 36 percent of his strikeouts came on called strike three's, 9 points higher than league average. So despite his Warrior rep with the press and fans, perhaps O'Neill too was the target of revenge from umps who tired of his antics.

Take heart, Ike, in the knowledge that it rains on the just and unjust, and that called strike three's will inevitably find the Warrior and the Whiner in roughly equal (if perhaps unfair) measure.

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