Angry batters chirping at umpires over a called strike can be seen across baseball night after night, but as it turns out it’s the guys on the mound who have the most reason to beef with the men in black behind the plate.
A study of the strike zone over the past 2½ seasons conducted by sportsnet.ca and Bloomberg Sports’ Logan MacPhail using PITCHf/x data shows that this year, a stunning 18.2 per cent of pitches called balls were actually in the strike zone, while 6.2 per cent of pitches called strikes should have gone the other way (all 2013 data is to the all-star break).
Those numbers actually represent a slight improvement over the previous two years, as the rate of pitches inside the zone called balls was 19.8 per cent in 2011, and 19 per cent in 2012, while the called strikes outside the zone were at 6.8 per cent in ‘11, and 6.6 per cent in ’12.
While Major League Baseball uses a proprietary system modifying PITCHf/x data to evaluate umpire calls and claims that on average 95 per cent of pitches are judged correctly (we’ll explain in a bit), the raw objective numbers gathered by sportsnet.ca and Bloomberg Sports tell a different story.
The disparity suggests pitchers are getting, as put by Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, “screwed.”
“I swear I would not have thought that,” he adds after being presented with the data.
Others would, underlining just how different subjective perceptions of the strike zone can be.
When shown the numbers, Toronto Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker wasn’t surprised because of “the reaction of the pitchers, talking to pitchers after innings, talking to J.P. (Arencibia) or Josh (Thole). Certainly you notice the ones that aren’t called strikes that you need or you’re hoping for. They’re more noticeable.”
Still, Blue Jays pitchers in 2013 as a whole are doing better than the league average, as their rate for balls in the zone is 16.9 per cent while their called strikes outside the zone is 7.3 per cent.
For Blue Jays hitters on the other hand, the opposite is true, as their rate of balls in the zone is 17 per cent, while their called strikes outside the zone is 7.2 per cent.
Every team in the majors can point to some grievance.
“I let them know the umpires are human, and the way to earn their respect and earn their trust is by going out and having a conversation with them, not by showing them up, and communicating to them that you know the zone,” says Blue Jays hitting coach Chad Mottola. “A lot of hitters come back and say they asked the umpire if that was in or out, and I say, ‘No, you’ve got to tell them where it’s at.’
“Now, the umpire may tell them where they think it’s at, but at least you put in their mind that you know the zone. If you constantly ask is that as far as you can go, is that in, was that a strike, you’re creating doubt and they know there’s doubt.
“If you continuously show them up, there’s the human side that comes out and they’ll test you.”
The PITCHf/x service, developed by a company called Sportvision, digitally tracks and records the trajectory and location of every pitch thrown in the big-leagues, and is typically what you see on various game broadcasts. Using three tracking cameras and a central tracking system installed at each ballpark, the company claims it places pitches within an inch of accuracy.
MLB’s Zone Evaluation System, used to grade the performance of umpires, begins with the raw PITCHf/x data, but becomes a touch more subjective from there. Overnight, a team of analysts at MLB Advanced Media reviews every pitch thrown, but rather than judging pitches strictly through a flat square, a three-dimensional box based on the batters’ stride is created over the plate.
At that point, some objective strikes are subjectively weeded out – for instance, a ball that ends up in the dirt but may clip the zone on its way down, or a high breaking ball that may just grab a corner – because they normally wouldn’t be considered strikes.
Typically, the edges of the plate end up the same as PITCHf/x, but there’s adjustment up and down.
By the next morning, all the data is uploaded into a system umpires can access to see their previous night of work displayed on a spray chart, with video of the specific pitch embedded into every dot on the screen. Umpires are encouraged to look at the charts, but not mandated to.
Over the course of a season, the accuracy rate under MLB’s system ranges from less than 90 per cent in a given contest to a handful of perfect games, with the modified average settling in at 95 per cent. More specific information, however, is tightly held within MLB, and the lack of transparency only underlines the confusion between the objective, rule-book strike zone, the adjusted zone for evaluation purposes, and the actual zone called in games.
A handful of players spoken to privately about the PITCHf/x numbers still believed baseball was using the old Umpire Information System developed by QuesTec to judge the zone, and did not realize where things have moved.
While the subjective nature of the zone frustrated some, a consistent theme from players was that in-game consistency mattered most, a sentiment five time all-star and Sportsnet broadcaster Jack Morris echoed.
“I would always assume umpires, because they’re all human, are going to miss five pitches per game. If they missed significantly more than that it was going to be a rough night,” he says. “The ones I was most concerned with were the ones later in the game once I had figured out their zone, whether it was small or big. If they went out of that, that’s when I got annoyed, because late in the game is when you really need them, you’re counting on it because you know what the strike zone is, and then they change their mind. Other than that, it is what it is.”
This season, according to the numbers in the sportsnet.ca and Bloomberg Sports study, the area where pitchers are most likely to lose a strike is low and away (23.4 per cent of called balls inside the zone), while the spot where they have the best chance of stealing a strike is middle away (43.97 per cent of called strikes outside the zone).
Both make sense.
On the ball low and away, the home plate umpire sets up between the batter and the catcher and gets a diagonal view of that pitch, making it tougher to gauge.
As for the pitch middle away, the catcher can set up an inch or two off the plate and if the pitcher can hit the glove with minimal movement, he’s likely to get the call.
“Good catchers take advantage of accurate pitchers, and pitchers that execute pitches consistently,” says Walker. “They will expand the zone and see what they can get, as opposed to a guy who’s wild in the strike zone, you’re trying to get in the zone, the catcher will be more on the plate so there might be more movement away, and you might lose that call. That’s a huge part of it.”
On the flip side, missing a spot can cost the pitcher a strike, even if the ball ends up in the zone.
“There are a lot of umpires that have an old-school mentality, which is the way they were brought up and brought into the game, where if you’re sitting on one side of the plate, and the pitcher throws it to the other side, it doesn’t matter if it crosses the plate or not, the pitcher didn’t hit his target, it’s going to be a ball,” says Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis. “More times than not, these guys are really good on the edges; really good on the corners, so they know when a ball is just on or just off.
“But some of these guys, they’ll make the pitcher throw the ball to the spot they intended to.”
Other factors that can affect calls are reputation, both good and bad, score, late movement on a pitch and an umpire’s own interpretation of the strike zone.
“I believe pitchers should get each side when they earn it, off the plate,” says Mottola. “I’m old-school baseball. I think certain pitchers have earned certain pitches, just like certain hitters should have a different strike zone. It’s just the way baseball is.”
In certain cases the numbers back that up.
Take for instance Blue Jays pitchers Casey Janssen and Mark Buehrle, who are both known for their exceptional command.
Janssen’s percentage of pitches in the strike zone called for balls is 10.9 per cent, nearly half the big-league average, while his ratio for strikes outside the zone is 15.4 percent, more than double the average. Buehrle’s rates are 12.1 for strikes called balls, and 8.4 per cent for balls called strikes, both above average.
“A big part of that is not only reputation, it’s more command,” says Walker. “Guys who routinely hit their spots get a little more and I think that’s a big part of it. When you’ve got guys that scatter the ball a little bit, they’re not going to get those calls, but Casey Janssen and Mark Buehrle, who are notorious for executing pitches, those guys are going to get those calls more consistently because the umpires are going to see them in the zone on a more consistent basis.”
From an offensive perspective, those trends don’t necessarily transfer the way you might expect.
The top three batters for percentage of pitches in the zone called balls (all categories minimum 200 pitches in the zone) are Matt Joyce of the Tampa Bay Rays (29.4 per cent), B.J. Upton of the Atlanta Braves (28.9 per cent), and Jed Lowrie of the Oakland Athletics (27.3 per cent).
Good players, all, but they aren’t exactly Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera and Joe Mauer.
Mauer, in fact, gets the fifth fewest ball calls on pitches in the zone at 11.96 per cent. Oddly, Blue Jays slugger Adam Lind, widely credited for his discipline this season, gets the least calls in this category at 10.24 per cent.
“Adam Lind is a guy that’s quiet no matter what,” says Mottola. “The human side comes out, and the umpire feels like if he’s not going to get any flak, maybe he’s saying I’ll go ahead and call this.”
The hitters who get the fewest called strikes on pitches outside the zone are somewhat surprising, too, with Josh Donaldson of the Oakland Athletics first (1.59 per cent), Torii Hunter of the Detroit Tigers second (2.18 per cent) and Chris Iannetta of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim third at (2.19 per cent).
Eric Chavez of the Arizona Diamondbacks gets the most called strikes on pitches out of the zone (13.53 per cent), while the Blue Jays had two representatives within the top 10, Munenori Kawasaki in third (12.78 per cent), and Maicer Izturis (11.48 per cent).
An interesting trend is that when batter advantage is calculated (called balls in the strike zone minus called strikes out of the zone, minimum 500 pitches), half of the top 10 beneficiaries are catchers, including the first three: Russ Martin of the Pittsburgh Pirates (8.42 per cent), Ellis of the Dodgers (7.40 per cent), and John Buck of the New York Mets (7.13 per cent).
That would suggest that taking care of umpires has its benefits.
“Absolutely,” Ellis says when asked if he works on building good relationships with umpires. “You’re going to be back there with those guys for nine innings. It’s really important to have a good rapport.
“You always have to remind yourself, too, that the guys behind us are professionals just like we are. They’re going to go through slumps, they’re going to have good days and bad days, just like us. They have stuff at home and might not have their total focus on the game. They’re part of the show, just like the players, and you’ve got to respect that, and understand they’re doing their best, they’re trying hard.
“If egregious things happen, things that are a little out of control, things that need to be addressed, then you might need to speak up, but for the most part try to be very cordial, very professional with these guys.”
In a system where the even the objective becomes subjective, rightly or wrongly those may very well be words to live by.