Fairly or not, a commonly held perception about the Toronto Blue Jays is that they have a bad reputation among umpires – Jose Bautista’s ejection Sunday against the Houston Astros perhaps a case in point – and that costs them on calls as a result.
Buck Martinez, a catcher for 17 big-league season and current Sportsnet announcer, believes it’s easy for misconceptions to develop these days, in part because umpires are no longer league exclusive and instead rotate throughout all 30 teams in the majors, making it harder to build better relationships.
“Nobody knows anybody, you make up opinions on one play,” he says. “Rob Drake has an ingrained opinion of Brett Lawrie from throwing his helmet (at Bill Miller) when he charges back to first base to argue in Tampa Bay (with Drake last year).
“Everybody has an ingrained impression of Jose Bautista. Umpires come in, they see replays and they say, ‘Well Bautista, I’m going to screw him every chance I get.’
“Umpires in my era would have said, ‘Shut up and get in the box. I’ll give it a better look next time,’ man-to-man confrontation, with a relationship that’s developed over the years.”
Impressions aside, are the Blue Jays actually getting screwed?
According to a study of balls and strikes by sportsnet.ca and Bloomberg Sports’ Logan MacPhail using PITCHf/x data, the answer is both yes and no, and the players you’d think have it coming aren’t necessarily getting the worst of it.
Collectively, Blue Jays hitters have had pitches outside the zone called for strikes 7.2 per cent of the time this season, which is above the big-league rate of 6.2 per cent, while 17 per cent of the ball calls they get are actually in the zone, which is under the big-league rate of 18.2 per cent (all numbers in games to the all-star break).
That’s not good, but not so out of whack that it demonstrates a vendetta from umpires.
And Blue Jays pitchers actually do better than league average on both fronts, as their rate for called strikes outside the zone is 7.3 per cent while their balls in the zone rate is 16.9 per cent.
Broken down individually, the rates offer some intriguing food for thought.
Let’s start with Bautista, who has taken criticism for his occasional high-octane outbursts at umpires and was ejected for the second time this season Sunday for criticizing umpire Sam Holbrook’s strike zone.
Bautista was upset by a 1-1 pitch that went for a called strike two, even though a look at the PITCHf/x chart shows Josh Fields missed inside. Frustrated, the slugger chased a pitch outside the zone for strike three and when he complained to Holbrook that he has “the biggest bleep strike zone that I’ve seen all year,’ that was it, I was out of the game.”
Asked afterwards if he thought umpires were targeting him because of his previous actions, Bautista said it was “impossible” to know. But, he added, he must to maintain better control of his emotions.
“What I need to do is stay in the games and realize that unfortunately even though I would love for right calls to be made consistently, that’s just not going to happen and I’ve got to deal with it,” Bautista says. “I’ve been trying to control myself as much as I can. But it is something that I’m not as good at as other players. I struggle with it. I play with a lot of heart and emotion and I try to always come through for us. When I don’t, it upsets me. If I fail on my own, it upsets me, and if I feel like some opportunities are being taken away from me, it upsets me even more.”
Bautista’s rate for ball calls inside the strike zone is 15.2 per cent (57 pitches), exactly three per cent lower than the league average, although his percentage of called strikes outside the zone is slightly below average at 5.5 per cent (35 pitches), so he is getting some respect with a net gain of 22 calls.
Still, a hitter of Bautista’s discipline deserves better and it’s worth noting that his rate of called balls in the zone is down from 20 per cent in 2012, and is about half that of big-league leader Matt Joyce (29.24 per cent).
Furthermore, a four-time all-star with a pair of hundred walk seasons on his resume probably deserves the benefit of the doubt on a pitch like the called second strike that so upset him, particularly when it comes against a rookie pitcher like Fields.
The timing of the call is also pivotal, as it swung control of the at-bat from Bautista to Fields. So it’s not only the volume of pitches that can hurt Bautista, but also when they happen.
Lawrie, on the other hand (albeit in a much smaller sample in 2013) has benefited from a 22.6 per cent (28 pitches) rate for called balls in the strike zone, four per cent higher than the league average, while the six per cent of called strikes outside the zone (12 pitches) against him is essentially league average.
Put together, he’s won 16 pitches, suggesting that if umpires do have it out for him, they aren’t necessarily showing it in the way they call balls and strikes.
Strangely, the player on the Blue Jays who almost never noticeably argues with umpires, Adam Lind, has the lowest percentage of balls called in the strike zone in the majors at 10.2 per cent, while his rate of called strikes outside the zone is above league average at 8.9 per cent, leaving him at a net loss of 14 pitches.
“He sees a lot of pitches and takes the borderline pitch,” Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola says of Lind, “whereas some guys on our team, they swing every time at the borderline pitch so there’s no opportunity, the ball’s got to bounce for them to take it, it’s an obvious ball, so there’s no debate for the umpire.”
Being known as a good guy appears to help, as Mark DeRosa, renowned around the game for his character in a part-time role is well above league average in pitches in the zone called balls at 29.2 per cent, while his strikes outside the zone rate of 4.7 per cent is below average. He’s up a net of 22 calls this season.
The always smiling Jose Reyes gets a bump on ball calls in the zone at 23.3 per cent, but oddly is also well above the average in strike calls outside the zone at 12 per cent (although his sample size is more limited).
One thing to consider is that the data does not take into account when missed calls are made, and depending on what the count is at a given time, or what the situation is, one call can dramatically alter the course of an at-bat, an inning, even a game.
That’s why there are times, when done subtly and respectfully, a comment to the umpire can make a difference down the road.
“What I learned, and it took me a long time to learn, is that the less you say the better off you are,” says Jack Morris, a five-time all-star and current Sportsnet broadcaster. “If you feel like you’re getting squeezed, the best way to handle it (as a pitcher) is to try and have your catcher say something. The catcher is there with him all the time, and can say, ‘Hey man, come on, that’s a strike.’
“(Longtime Tigers catcher) Lance Parrish, it took him years, because he didn’t want to get pitches taken away from him at the plate. He didn’t want to be that guy to argue, but he learned you got to do it.”
A look the numbers for Blue Jays pitchers, meanwhile, suggests there’s a distinct benefit for those who are consistently in the strike zone.
Their three pitchers best known for their command – Casey Janssen, Mark Buehrle and Darren Oliver – each win more calls than they lose, and their reputation for executing pitches may very well gain them an inch or two off the plate.
Janssen leads the way with just 10.9 per cent of called balls in the strike zone while a whopping 15.4 per cent of his strikes are actually outside the zone. Buehrle’s rates are 12.1 per cent and 8.4 per cent, while Oliver is at 11.1 and 9.8.
On the other end of the spectrum is Brandon Morrow with 24.8 per cent of his called balls in the strike zone, although he made up some of that with nine per cent of his called strikes being out of the zone, and Steve Delabar, whose percentages are 20.7 per cent and 5.7 per cent.
One explanation is that the life and late movement on their pitches can occasionally cost them a call because it strays from the target, even if it stays over the plate.
Ricky Romero was certainly a candidate for that explanation the past two seasons, as his percentage of called balls in the strike zone in 2011 was 24.2 per cent and in 2012 was 26.3 per cent. Combined with only getting 4.2 and 4.4 per cent called strikes out of the zone, he was at a net loss of 99 and 98 pitches during the two seasons (the first of which he was an all-star, the second he struggled mightily).
No matter the case, certain pitchers may need to learn how to manage frustrations over missed calls more than certain hitters.
“Pitchers are always going to be upset at not getting the calls they feel are strikes, I haven’t noticed anything different this year,” says pitching coach Pete Walker. “There are always situations when calls haven’t gone the pitchers’ way, and I still firmly believe you have to find a way to get through it and make the next pitch.
“The pitchers that really let it bother them and interfere with what they’re trying to do on the mound, it can affect the outcome of the game. For our guys, we’ll talk about it, we’ll make our feelings known, but for the most part, they need to stay with their game, and look to get the next call.”
While a hitter can look down and discreetly make his feelings known to an umpire, a pitcher has far more trouble expressing his displeasure over a call without everyone seeing because of how much of a focal point the mound is.
Hurlers who want to make a point must tread carefully.
“A pitcher can maybe mention something as he’s exiting the field, but if you do it on the field in front of everybody when you have 40,000 people there, the umpires definitely don’t appreciate that, and it’s not going to help you, it’s not going to get the call back,” says Walker.
“There’s a way to do it subtly, but if it’s a stare, a flip of the hand, those aren’t things that are going to help you and they’re going to remember that.
“You can give a glance, like pretty close, but as you’re exiting the field after the inning is maybe the best way to get your point across to get the call the next time. Like, ‘Hey, that’s a pitch I need right there, that’s a pretty good pitch, make sure you get that one right.’”