Is this baseball's most unbreakable record?

May 2nd, 2023

One of the most durable and enjoyable baseball debates involves unbreakable records. Which is the most unbreakable?

Some prefer Cy Young’s 511 wins, a pretty solid bet, considering no one who has pitched in the last 50 years has come within even 140 of him. The way that baseball -- and, really, all sports -- are played in an era of load management, it’s tough to imagine surpassing Cal Ripken’s streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. Even with the bigger bases, can you fathom anyone approaching Rickey Henderson’s 1,406 stolen bases?

But I have a sleeper candidate that we are not considering, one that, because of the increasing use of instant replay, will only become more sturdy as the years go along. That record? Bobby Cox’s 162 all-time ejections.

Before we get into why Cox’s record is increasingly unbreakable, let’s mull on that for a second. One-hundred sixty-two ejections! That is literally getting thrown out of every single game for a full season. Cox managed 29 seasons in the Majors. Though when you account for all the ejections, I suppose he only actually managed 28.

Most frequently ejected

  1. Bobby Cox, 162
  2. John McGraw, 121
  3. Leo Durocher, 100
  4. Earl Weaver, 96
  5. Tony La Russa, 93

Second place on the list is John McGraw, who managed four more seasons but had 41 fewer ejections. The only living manager (other than Cox) in the top five is Tony La Russa, who retired after last season but, for as hot as his temper might have run from time to time, was still 69 ejections behind Cox. The active leader is Bruce Bochy, who has 78 ejections, less than half of Cox’s total. Cox, even for his era, was a truly elite ejectee.

But that’s the key, though: For his era. Because every aspect of baseball culture right now -- from the job of manager to the technology ruling the era to what we actually expect from our umpires -- is turning away from ejections. And it may well be about to change even further.

In a terrific, comprehensive study for Retrosheet, Dave Smith looked into ejections throughout the decades (through the 2021 season) that analyzed just about every aspect of ejections you can imagine. What managers got ejected the most? What players got ejected the most? What umpire ejected the most people? What were the primary reasons for ejections? It’s a fascinating document on its own that you should absolutely read, but for our purposes, what matters most are two different factors:

A. How ejections have declined.

B. The primary reasons for ejections.

First off, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: There are fewer ejections than there used to be. That started around 2000. In the 1950s, there was an ejection roughly every nine games played, and in the ‘90s, it was about one every 10 games. (I wonder how much Cox is personally responsible for the number being that high.) At the turn of the century, it continued to fall to one every 13 games in 2021, and not just because Cox retired after the 2010 season.

Why has there been a huge drop? The answer (unless it’s just Cox) can be found in the reasons for the ejections. The most common reason for ejections, throughout baseball history, is for arguing balls and strikes. This is especially true because MLB has a rule saying that arguing balls and strikes is grounds for immediate ejection. Second place throughout history is arguing calls on bases, followed by “bench jockeying,” fighting and “intentionally throwing at batter.”

But remember: It’s not just arguing balls and strikes that will lead to an immediate ejection. It’s also arguing a replay decision that will do so. And that leads to the second-most dramatic change in ejections: The complete collapse of ejections for calls on bases in the age of replay.

In 2019, according to Smith, there were 150 ejections for arguing balls and strikes and ... exactly one (1) for arguing calls on the bases. One! This makes sense, of course: At a certain level, it is impossible, or at least pointless, to argue with a replay decision. The umpire, the guy you’re yelling at, isn’t even the guy who made the call! (Someday I’d love to see a manager just yell at the sky and hope the person in the replay room in New York hears him.) Introducing replay to calls on the bases essentially eliminated the utility, the need, even the desire, to argue a call out there.

This has led to an uptick in ejections because of balls and strikes arguments, as you might expect. But the uptick has been more as a percentage of total ejections than total ejections entirely. This year, there have been exactly 13 managerial ejections, which, with 342 total games played, comes out to a total of one ejection every 26 games -- historically very, very low. You might have your own theory about why this is: Mine is that everyone’s still getting used to the pitch timer, and also that games are flying by too fast to even have time to get ejected.

But of those ejections, almost all of them have been related to strike calls. Now, like all ejections, they don’t come out of nowhere; often the strike call is what breaks the proverbial camel’s back. But the real reason the ejections are coming from the strike calls is that, in an age of replay -- and especially in an age where we’ve all gotten used to replay and how the process all works -- there really isn’t anything else to argue about. It’s sort of inefficient to argue with umpires much anymore. And if we know anything about how teams operate, they won’t do much that isn’t inefficient.

It is also worth noting that of those 13 managerial ejections, no manager has more than one. (That 13 number also means half the managers haven’t gotten ejected at all yet.) That is no way to catch up with Bobby Cox!

And if you think ejections are collapsing now, well ... we are all aware that the Minor Leagues have experimented with automatic balls and strike calls, the so-called “robot umps.” If ever implemented at the Major League level, this will lead to a situation where managers have one less thing to yell at a human about.

If ejections collapse with automated strike zones the way they did with calls on the bases, it would not just keep Cox’s record safe forever: It could theoretically make the whole notion of arguing with the umpire beside the point. For good.

There is a sadness to this: Grand umpire-manager fights are part of baseball lore, from old Saturday Evening Post paintings to Earl Weaver yelling at Ron Luciano. But then again, I remember a great quote from the late Luciano: “If they create a robot umpire that calls every strike exactly right,” Luciano said, “hitters will never let it survive. Whenever it makes a call against them, they will beat it to death with a bat.” Sometimes, we just need someone, or something, to be mad at. Just ask Bobby Cox about that.