It is an irrefutable fact that nothing that happens at the beginning of April can cost a team an entire baseball season. That is, short of a disaster or otherwise some act of God. You know what there’s a lot left of? Regular-season baseball. There is so much regular-season baseball left to be played. Things are going to happen, and seasons are going to change course. At this point we’re practically still in extended spring training.
But it is likewise an irrefutable fact that every single game of a regular season matters. Which is why we turn our attention to a game between the Rays and Rangers in Texas on Monday night. A year ago, the Rays finished within a few games of a playoff spot. The Rangers lost the division on the season’s last day, and then they were eliminated in the one-game wild-card playoff. The Rays and Rangers both project to contend in 2013. Things are going to be tight, most likely, making everything matter more, and on Monday, the Rangers closed out the Rays thanks to what we might charitably label a controversial call.
Quick setup: it’s 5-4 Texas with two outs in the top of the ninth. Joe Nathan is pitching to Ben Zobrist with a runner on first, and Nathan gets to a full count. Evan Longoria‘s on deck. Nathan throws a curveball and locks down career save No. 300. Way to go, Joe Nathan!
Zobrist can’t believe it, and neither can Joe Maddon, who comes rushing out of the dugout. Neither, it seems, can Joe Nathan, though he manages to play it cool. A Rays opportunity goes by the wayside, and the Rangers improve to 5-2.
It’s important to note, of course, that this call didn’t cost the Rays the game. It ended the game, but even if you give Zobrist a walk, the Rays’ win expectancy would’ve stood around 15%. It would’ve still been up to Longoria to deliver against a good and same-handed reliever, and maybe that’s where it all ends. Or maybe Longoria comes up with a big hit and the Rays complete the rally. This call cost the Rays a fraction of a win, which, in turn, costs the Rays a fraction of their playoff odds. That’s the big picture. This didn’t destroy the Rays’ season, but it dealt real damage. You can say that without overstating it.
Watching that .gif, it’s almost inexplicable. Why that call? Why that delay in making that call? Visually, it seems like one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen, in a most unfortunate spot. Now we chip away. Let’s turn first to Brooks Baseball to examine the night’s strike zones. What do we find?
That’s an exceptional strike call, to lefties. But look over to righties and you see that the Rays got a few generous calls, notably with Jose Molina behind the plate. This was not quite a tight zone, and two of those Rays strikes seem comparable to the final Rangers strike in terms of distance from the effective strike zone. It’s something, is all I’m saying.
And we can look at Marty Foster’s tendencies. From Baseball Heat Maps, here’s how Foster’s strike zone compares to the league-average strike zone with lefties in the box:
Would you look at that? There’s something of a hot spot right where Nathan’s curveball wound up. Make as much or as little of this as you want, but Foster’s made this call before, it looks like. It wasn’t unprecedented.
And maybe most importantly, let’s revisit the video. The same .gif embedded again:
That looks really bad, but you might notice that A.J. Pierzynski didn’t handle the pitch particularly well after it crossed the front of the plate. How many of you have wished that umpires wouldn’t be so easily influenced by the behavior of the catchers in front of them? Marty Foster said afterward he thought the pitch was better than it looked, because Pierzynski didn’t catch it well. He isn’t wrong, and let’s eliminate Pierzynski’s glove work from the equation:
Now it isn’t godawful. Giving it the screenshot treatment, it still doesn’t seem to be godawful:
A.J. Pierzynski made this pitch look worse. A.J. Pierzynski made this pitch look like it was practically in the dirt. In truth, it was a little off the outer edge, somewhere around the level of the knees. You remember that terrible call from the World Baseball Classic, where the pitch was made to look worse because it wasn’t received well? Yeah. You can see how a catcher’s pitch-receiving can be distracting, and you almost want to applaud Foster for making his call independent of Pierzynski’s actions.
So there are explanations. Yet here’s the big problem: they aren’t good enough. They’re enough to keep this from being literally the worst strike call ever, in a high-leverage situation. But they aren’t good enough to keep this from being a really bad call anyway. I asked for some PITCHf/x help from Matthew Carruth, and he came through for me in the clutch, just like Ben Zobrist didn’t. Maybe I shouldn’t make that joke in this article.
On the PITCHf/x axes, this final curveball was located around -1.4 horizontally, and 1.6 vertically. I asked Carruth to go to his database and spit out all pitches between -1.5 and -1.3 horizontally and 1.5 and 1.7 vertically. Selecting only for pitches thrown to left-handed batters, of course. There were nearly 3,000 such pitches taken, and 2% of them were called strikes. There were nearly 300 such curveballs taken, and 0.7% of them — two of them — were called strikes. There were 76 such full-count pitches taken, and 3.9% of them — three of them — were called strikes. This call hadn’t never happened before in the PITCHf/x era, but almost every single time, this pitch has been a ball. Which is the right judgment, because the pitch is not in the zone, and in the zone is where the strikes are, or are supposed to be.
Marty Foster didn’t make the worst call ever. He just made a bad call, bad enough to be just about unforgivable. That’s probably too strong a word, since Marty Foster is human and calling pitches on or near the border is hard work. Foster can be forgiven. But like Joe Maddon said, this can’t happen in a major-league game, and certainly not at the very end of a game between two presumed playoff contenders. Calls like this take the game partially out of the players’ hands, and it’s the players we watch to see perform.
HP ump Marty Foster on call to end #Rays game: “Had I had a chance to do it again I wouldn’t call that pitch a strike.”
— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) April 9, 2013
When Foster reviewed the pitch on video, he recognized his error in judgment. By that point there was no going back, and in the heat of the moment, for whatever reason or reasons, Foster signaled strike when he absolutely should’ve signaled ball. The outcome of an at-bat and the outcome of a baseball game was determined. Given that calls like this are relatively infrequent, this isn’t a problem that’s out of control. But this is a problem that, under the game’s current system, we have no choice but to accept. Sometimes it’ll work in your favor. Other times, they’ll be other times.
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