Attempting to Explain the Unexplainable

“There’s just no excuse for that,” people wrongly often say of things. Truth be told, there’s pretty much always an excuse — it’s just a matter of whether or not the excuse is thought to be good enough. People don’t do the wrong things without reasons, and sometimes they even have the best intentions. There are, of course, deliberate rule-breakers. But there also are  rule-breakers who were just trying their best, with lousy results. That in itself is lousy and common.

Umpires are people and umpires get things wrong sometimes, even though they’re not trying to be wrong. Their very livelihood depends on not screwing up. What they get wrong most often are strike/ball calls, because they call so many dozens of pitches a game, some more important than others. It can be understandable when an umpire makes a questionable decision on a pitch on the edge. As much as we’d like to think of the zone as being black and white, it’s practically impossible for things to work that way. But sometimes umpires call balls on pitches more or less right down the middle. For this, people would say there’s no excuse. Myself, I’d like to know about the excuses. Because, after all, they have to exist. Umpires don’t try to make obviously wrong calls because that could jeopardize their careers.

What’s going to follow might infuriate you. You’re going to see seven pitches, all of them balls, all of them strikes over the middle of the plate. I looked at every single pitch thrown this season; I identified the center of the strike zone and I isolated the pitches called balls within three inches of the middle. Why three? Two inches would leave me with a sample of two pitches. Four inches would leave me with a sample of 21 pitches. Given that I intended to make .gifs — and given that I also wanted a decent range — three inches and seven pitches seemed appropriate. Here are seven should-be strikes that are called balls. What I want to do is try to explain why they might’ve been called incorrectly.

This is not a piece intended to rip umpires. This piece is not intended to be critical. I’m searching for answers. No umpire wants to call a pitch down the middle a ball. Yet, infrequently, it happens. How is it that this can take place? I’ll make my best guesses.

Pitcher: Jose Quintana
Batter: Albert Pujols
Location: 2.96 inches from center of zone

7QuintanaPujols.gif.opt

7quintanapujols

This was a first-pitch fastball. Nothing tricky. My best guess, as is yours, is that this was called a ball in large part because of the catcher’s glove behavior. The catcher dropped his glove as Quintana was in the middle of his delivery, and then he caught the ball awkwardly with his glove going in a circular motion. He didn’t quite catch this pitch in the webbing, and, perhaps tellingly, nobody argued. There was nothing about the catcher’s body language, or Quintana’s. Hawk Harrelson didn’t even interject. Nothing on the White Sox’s broadcast about a blown call. On the White Sox’s broadcast!

Pitcher: Carter Capps
Batter: Prince Fielder
Location: 2.88 inches from center of zone

6CappsFielder.gif.opt

6cappsfielder

This one seems to be simple. The catcher made an exaggerated stab at the pitch, instead of moving slowly with it, or even predicting it. And then, of course, the catcher didn’t even catch the ball. That suggests to the umpire that the pitch was even more wild, even more inside. This is simply a demonstration of bad technique.

Pitcher: Ronald Belisario
Batter: Troy Tulowitzki
Location: 2.79 inches from center of zone

5BelisarioTulowitzki.gif.opt

5belisariotulowitzki

This is really similar to the previous pitch, except the catcher actually caught the ball. But there’s the same sudden stabbing motion to the side, which says not only did the pitch miss the spot — it missed in a surprising way. The catcher had to react quickly. Everything about the catcher’s movement suggests the pitch was outside, instead of over the heart.

Pitcher: Yoervis Medina
Batter: Hector Gimenez
Location: 2.64 inches from center of zone

4MedinaGimenez.gif.opt

4medinagimenez

This is actually a double-bad call. Not only should the pitch have been a strike, but the slow-motion replays show Gimenez also offered at it. But you can see the catcher drop his body and his glove to receive the ball, suggesting it was lower than it actually was. To some extent, it might also have mattered that the umpire determined Gimenez pulled back. If a batter decides not to bunt a pitch, an umpire might be more likely to assume the pitch wasn’t in the zone. Not absolutely, not in every case, but everything here is a matter of percentages.

Pitcher: Derek Holland
Batter: Ryan Raburn
Location: 2.12 inches from center of zone

3HollandRaburn.gif.opt

3hollandraburn

Look at all of the catcher’s body movement as he catches the pitch. His right hand moved suddenly. His knees bent inward. His entire catching arm moved, and his glove flipped over to catch the ball instead of catching it in the conventional way. This pitch was made to look like it was a little low and a little in. And the count was already 0-and-1, when umpires tend to be a little less generous. This was a hittable pitch, made to look like a quality ball.

Pitcher: Stephen Pryor
Batter: Jeff Keppinger
Location: 1.31 inches from center of zone

2PryorKeppinger.gif.opt

2pryorkeppinger

This is a case of the catcher almost driving the ball into the ground in the act of catching. The pitch was dropping, because it was a breaking ball. But the catcher knew it was going to be a breaking ball, which means he should’ve been prepared for it. Instead, he followed the ball down with his glove, and he made it look like the pitch was at Keppinger’s shins. Jonathan Lucroy is the master of catching these pitches in these spots. Every other catcher is worse — some of them a lot worse. After this pitch, Hawk Harrelson complimented Keppinger on his good eye.

Pitcher: Edwin Jackson
Batter: Yadier Molina
Location: 1.13 inches from center of zone

1JacksonMolina.gif.opt

1jacksonmolina

The catcher stabbed at the ball, then immediately stood up to bluff a pick-off attempt. In so doing, not only did he not “bring the ball back” — he pushed the ball farther outside, in a split second. The behavior here indicated a fastball away off the plate, and it was called that way.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, but for all seven of the worst ball calls so far, we can identify problems with how the catchers caught the pitches. Some of them were received worse than others, but none of them were received well, or quietly. There’s no case here of a catcher catching a pitch cleanly down the middle, and just having the umpire space out. I can’t say for certain that these were called balls because of the catchers, but that’s what seems most likely to me.

So it’s another article about pitch-framing. Every time I look at a particularly bad call like these I say, “This stands as evidence that umpires are influenced by catchers.” We probably don’t need more evidence. We get it; we all get it. The numbers are too convincing — the correlations too strong — for framing not to be real. And if it’s real, it’s because catchers influence umpires. There’s no other reasonable explanation. Umpires make calls in part based on how catchers catch pitches. That much we can conclude.

It shouldn’t be that way, in theory. In theory, umpires should look only at the baseball in flight. In theory, it shouldn’t matter what the catcher does behind the front plane of the strike zone. The umpire should have his visual idea of the zone. If the ball passes through that zone, the pitch should be a strike, even if the catcher spontaneously combusts. In fact, most umpires would probably tell you they do just look at the ball when it’s in the air. That’s how you’re supposed to decide. But these umpires can’t completely ignore the guy crouching right in front of them. When the catcher’s body moves, it influences the umpire’s thought process, every so subtly, ever so accidentally. Umpires don’t want to be influenced by catcher behavior, but they are. They can’t erase catchers from their fields of vision. It’s an unavoidable consequence of having human eyes and a human brain. Things we don’t want to influence us influence us. Even if we don’t realize it. Especially if we don’t realize it.

This is the real argument in favor of automating the strike zone. It’s not that human umpires aren’t good enough. It’s that they can’t be good enough, because of what they are. It doesn’t matter how much they train, how many pitches they see. Umpires, as a group, seem to be getting better, but pitches are still missed all the time, and it frequently has something to do with the backstops. To a large degree, that can’t be helped. Human umpires can’t focus exclusively on the baseball’s flight, and they’ll never be able to. As long as they’re human, mistakes will be made. And some of those mistakes will be on pitches pretty much right down the middle.

If you throw a pitch down the heart of the zone, it shouldn’t be possible for the ball to be caught in such a way that the umpire thinks it’s not a strike. Yet, every so often, this happens. That captures the whole argument in a nutshell. If nothing else, at least we understand enough to know bad ball/strike calls aren’t completely independent of the players on the field. I don’t know if that’s consolation.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


97 Responses to “Attempting to Explain the Unexplainable”

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  1. Zach says:

    Depressing, and yet unsurprising, that three of the seven examples featured Mariners “catchers.”

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  2. Roger says:

    I take the opposite lesson from this.

    Every one of these articles convinces me more that we shouldn’t automate the strike zone. If pitch framing is that important of a skill, then I want to keep it in the game. I don’t care about the “human element” at all, but I do care about letting players showcase and influence the game through their skills. Unless there’s a compelling other reason (e.g. catcher collisions), skill-based elements of the game shouldn’t be removed.

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    • Televators says:

      I’m picking up what you’re putting down, but I think there are corollaries in other sports that prove the opposite point: a banked in 3-point shot, a goal on a puck deflecting off a skate, etc. There are many instances in sports where happenstance takes precedence over skill.

      I’m not disagreeing with you outright, but I do think a strike is a strike and a ball is a ball, even if they are ugly pitches. It’s also important—I think—to point out that in several of these examples it’s possible the pitcher showed a lack of skill by throwing an incorrect pitch. Does a curveball over the middle of the plate that was supposed to be a fastball up and in make a strike not a strike?

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      • Roger says:

        I agree that there’s randomness, there always is. That’s the nature of sports (and life) and there’s no need to cr over it.

        But all the evidence over the last couple of years points towards the conclusion that pitcher framing is an extremely important, difficult, and influential skill. Why take a huge part of the game away? Why compress skill-based outcomes?

        Of course, I feel no real attachment to the textbook strike zone or following it to the letter. I don’t really care that a strike is a strike or a ball is a ball. I would rather have players like Yadier Molina be able to influential the game by being better than other players, and automating the strike zone takes away from that.

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      • PSUALUM says:

        It doesn’t make it not a strike, but i don’t have much of a problem with the pitcher making a terrible pitch that accidentally goes over the plate, the catcher not having the skill/ability to make a smooth adjustment, and the umpire ultimately gifting a ball to the hitter. Should we take away all of Tom Glavine’s, Greg Maddux’s, et. all “on the black” strikes because they were a tad outside sometimes? No, thats the umpire rewarding a highly skilled pitcher/catcher tandem with a little leeway. I believe this is a part of what makes baseball great and should not be removed.. If you want everyone/thing to be perfect go down to Tennessee and watch a car get put together by robots.

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        • Jeremy says:

          While your overall point stands, as someone who works in the automotive service industry I can assure you that those cars are NOT put together perfectly.

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        • matt w says:

          Yes, the umpires should have taken away Maddux’s and Glavine’s strikes off the plate. No reason more established pitchers should get to play by different rules. How would a bigger strike zone for Maddux and Glavine be different from saying Barry Bonds gets four strikes before he’s out?

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        • ZenMadman says:

          Glavine and Maddux got ridiculous strike calls partly because of their reputation, but also because Bobby Cox was sitting in the dugout berating the umpires constantly. He would intimidate the umps into giving the Braves more strikes. That was absurd and I’d prefer if that weren’t part of the game.

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        • deadpool says:

          One thing I’ve never understood about those who would take away Maddux and Glavine’s strikes, how did they get the reputation that allowed them to get away with those pitches? They weren’t born with reputations like that. No, they worked the corners and edges and as time went on they got more leeway. That’s nothing different than any other pitcher of the time or any time, they were just better at it.

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    • Reptar says:

      I agree with your logic, but I will disagree with the idea that this sort of pitch framing (or poor receiving techniques) is a skill that I want to influence the outcome of games. I don’t watch games for the exciting pitch-framing.

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      • Roger says:

        In principle I’m against anything that compresses the overall skill distribution unless it’s really necessary. Evening the playing field for players makes the game less interesting.

        On a side note, I also love baseball for the analytic opportunities. And getting rid of probably the most interesting potential future research field would be sad.

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        • Hank G. says:

          In principle I’m against anything that compresses the overall skill distribution unless it’s really necessary. Evening the playing field for players makes the game less interesting.

          Conversely, a consistent automated strike zone would expand the skill distribution of batters’ ability to judge the strike zone and of pitchers’ ability to work the strike zone, both of
          which I think would be a lot more interesting than pitch framing.

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        • Roger says:

          I’m not particularly convinced that it would for batters. Mostly because the textbook strikezone favors hitters by an insane amount. Those generous corners and high strikes would give even batters with the best eyes nightmares. Without a change to the dimensions it would probably just move us to a more deadball-like era, which isn’t very interesting.

          And I don’t think it would reward pitchers any more either. As is, umpires reward both the catcher for good catching and the pitcher for hitting his targets. And it’s pretty common knowledge that pitchers with good control are rewarded with more generous strike zones. Automating the strike zone would certainly change the mechanisms that pitchers are rewarded through, but I don’t think it would expand the overall skill distribution.

          Batters with good eyes are already rewarded in a ton of wars and I think any increase from a standard strike zone would be minimal. Pitchers with good control are already rewarded in a ton of ways and I don’t think a standardized strike zone would increase that at all. Catchers with good framing skills are only rewarded in one.

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        • Roger says:

          Oops, sohuld say “favors pitchers by an insane amount”

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      • lewish says:

        Oddly enough,I do watch the game for exciting pitch-framing very often…other things too, but that in many games, that.

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    • Sparkles Peterson says:

      The just-concluded Phillies/Cardinals series has, I think, finally pushed me towards hoping for an automated strike zone. My team has an excellent pitch-framer behind the plate and my team benefited from the awful calls just as much as it hurt them, but three straight nights of inscrutable strike zones is just too much.

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      • Roger says:

        Yea, but there’s always random variance. That’s like saying that you want to get rid of BABIP because sometimes, even if you hit the ball hard, all the hits go right at guys and you lose the game.

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        • Roger says:

          Oops, I misread your comment. You can ignore this.

          Maybe we (as fans) just need to learn how to see good pitch framing. It’s like how most non-fans of baseball find the game incredibly boring until they gain some ability to read pitches.

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        • wally says:

          Isn’t good pitch framing just being fairly still while catching the ball? While it might partially be a catcher skill, it seems to that it would be more heavily influenced by the skill of the pitcher to hit the target, thus not requiring movement of the catcher. Certainly the catch has the chance to screw it up by unnecessary movements getting them in bad position (as we saw in some of the above gifs), but in general, I don’t think this is a catching skill, so much as a pitching skill.

          For example, a catcher is set up a foot of the plate, but doesn’t move a millimeter to catch the pitch, and it gets called a strike. Who’s skill was that really? I’d say the pitcher.

          Now, what’s the pitcher’s skill that allows for that and don’t you think that skill is already rewarded quite heavily outside of “framing”?

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      I like pitch-framing in the game, but if it remains, it should be rulebooked and not be based on blown calls.

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    • BMarkham says:

      But why should the way the catcher catches it be a skill that is even involved? The point is to throw it in the strike zone, not catch the ball smoothly. What skill would you rather reward? Throwing the ball in the strike zone or making a smooth catch? Or from the hitters perspective, how are you going to agree with a ball being incorrectly called a strike when the batter correctly deduced that the ball was outside, just because the catcher caught it in a deceiving manner?

      So sure, framing is a skill, but why should it be a skill rewarded in baseball to the detriment of the other skills the players are actually supposed to have like rewarding hitters with plate discipline and pitchers with good command? I mean, just because it’s a skill doesn’t mean it has a place in the game. I’m not saying catchers are wrong for framing, it’s just a consequence of human judgement. But the game would be better if every strike was called a strike and every ball was called a ball.

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    • Mcneildon says:

      I understand your point and you are absolutely right that automating the strikezone would eliminate the very real skill of pitch framing. My subjective preferences, however, are different. I would prefer that there be no room for interpretation when there are clearly defined parameters set forth in the rulebook. If it is a strike according to the agreed-upon strikezone, I want it called a strike.

      I know that this will eliminate a skill from the game, but many potential skills get eliminated from competitive endeavors when there are rules involved. The inherent nature of rules demands that some skills that could be employed in a competitive game are off-limits. For instance, if first basemen were allowed to grab and tackle a runner attempting to steal second base, there would be an additional skill in baseball that is not currently in use. There are many other skills that baseball players do not have the opportunity to put into practice in games because of the rules (Tripping runners rounding the bases, strategically throwing baseballs from the dugout to distract fielders, pitchers shining laser pointers in a batter’s eye while throwing pitches–that would require a lot of skill.) I have no problem with a skill being eliminated from the game if said skill interferes with proper application of the rules. However, I understand your preference and don’t begrudge you for it.

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    • Grst says:

      Not all skills are created equal or enhance the game of baseball. Being skill at manipulating officiators is not how I want sporting competition to be decided. It’s no different than soccer players pretending to be hurt in order to draw a card. That’s clearly a skill, but one which makes the sport unwatchable for many as it undermines the skills involved in competing directly against the other team.

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      • KW says:

        I wouldn’t call it manipulating the officiators so much as just knowing your “instrument”–like a race car driver or a musician, you have to adjust your inputs based on the known characteristics of your machine/instrument/officiator. That kind of ability is part of what separates the truly skilled from the marginal. I would hate to see that go away.

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  3. tz says:

    That pitch from Jackson to Molina was supposed to be on the inside corner. When it came over the heart of the plate and the catcher got into the throwing motion, it almost looked like a pitchout.

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  4. Hojam23 says:

    unwritten baseall rule #1, if a catcher doesn’t catch the ball, It’s NOT a strike. Just about ALL of these can be blamed on poor receiving from the catcher IMO. It’s hard to faulter umps when the cather can’t recieve the ball when the ball meets the glove. Yes they are all strikes, just hard to really blame an ump in most of these cases.

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    • chuckb says:

      The umpire’s supposed to call the strike zone, not determine the efficacy of the pitch based on whether or not the catcher was able to catch it. He may be fooled (a totally legitimate element of humanness) but it’s not excusable to say that he shouldn’t call a pitch a strike if the catcher doesn’t catch it.

      It should be a strike if the pitch is in the zone or the batter swings at it…period.

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  5. SiddFinch says:

    All of these points blame the catcher for poor form or confusion. Poor guys. Let’s at least consider a scenario where the catcher called one type of pitch and the pitcher threw another.

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    • cass says:

      The pitcher clearly missed his spot in most of these. But a good pitch framer, presumably, would react with much smoother and more controlled motion to catch the ball even if it ended up in a very different place than where he set up.

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    • Kevin says:

      I completely agree. Framing is one thing, but reacting to a pitch heading for a completely unexpected destination and incredibly high speeds and then receiving said pitch in seamless fashion would require otherworldly athleticism and reflexes. Sometimes the pitcher is to blame and it says nothing of the catcher’s skills.

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    • chuckb says:

      I agree. Several of these involved catchers setting up in one spot and the pitcher missing that spot by several inches. The umpires should have still called them strikes, but it’s understandable that they were fooled by the pitch’s location. That’s on the pitcher, not the catcher.

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  6. jfree says:

    Great article – and then…. The absolutely dumbest possible conclusion that anyone could possibly draw. Automate the freaking strike zone?!? Based on a cherry-picked sample of 7 pitches? How many pitches within 3 inches of the middle of the zone were called strikes? What is the actual “error” rate here?

    The REAL conclusion here is that catching is an actual skill and the elements of that skill aren’t necessarily quantifiable. Life’s a bitch ain’t it.

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    • That’s not the conclusion.

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    • Chcago Mark says:

      I read it to be the conclusion too Jeff. I like the article. But if not that conclusion, please clear this up for me….and jfree too please.

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      • I’m not pushing that argument. I’m saying that’s what the argument is. I haven’t decided what I would personally like to do with the strike zone in the future.

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        • Chcago Mark says:

          Thanks for the answer. Please understand, I’m expecting your opinion at some point. You know I/we want to hear it. And I will ask you this in a chat soon.
          As always, nice article.
          Have a great day and weekend

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        • I assume I’m in favor of automation but this seems like one of those things I’m going to over-think. The way things are now, catchers are rewarded for a talent. With automation, batters would be more rewarded for a talent, and perhaps pitchers too, although that much is unclear. Sooooo

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        • chuckb says:

          It’s so easy on the internet for people to act as though everything’s so simple, so black-and-white. “If you write an article that mentions the merits of automating the strike zone, you must be stating definitively that the strike zone should be automated.” The world isn’t as black-and-white as some people want to make it.

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        • Another molina says:

          Ok, if you write one article detailing the faults of umpires, you have a fair conclusion, chuckb. But the reason why people are confused by the motives behind this “research” is because readers intuitively understand that that to address a problem, everyone first has to agree there is one. And what better way to accomplish this than spending months and months finding and bringing to prominence umpire mistakes, as we’ve seen with these exhaustive articles (I haven’t seen one yet detailing umpires getting tough calls correct).

          But to your point about this being black-and-white–I have to agree. Even though these articles have illuminated how truly talented the umps MLB has–especially vis a vis other sports–and how important pitch framing is–they still aren’t perfect.

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    • SKob says:

      WOW, jfree, that was a pretty severe over-reaction! Are you an umpire? Getting a bit defensive on what was a really rough interpretation of the author’s message. Jeff never gave a real opinion or suggested that a change should be made, he simply made the point that this type of thing will never change because umps can’t isolate a pitch from a catcher. It’s a fairly interesting point and you chose to attack! Weird!

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      • jfree says:

        Over-reaction? The article itself, interpreted statistically, is a complete focus on a type I or II error (depending on how the null hypothesis of human umping is worded). Indeed, it is the entire universe of such errors (as the author states). The author states that – “what follows might infuriate you”. The only mistake I made is in interpreting that as meaning the author himself is infuriated by these errors. Because I know I wasn’t. Rather some other unnamed readers/bystanders are infuriated and the author is merely channeling their spirits and that should presumably be obvious. Well excuuuuuse me.

        The reality is that if this is intended to be a valid analytical article on a site with a very high level of statistical knowledge among readers; then the article should be very clear as to what the actual scope of the problem is here. As I said — what is the error rate here?

        # of pitches within 3″ of centerzone called balls
        ————————————- (divided by)
        # of pitches within 3″ of centerzone

        Is this article talking about a 10% error rate? 1% error rate? 0.2% error rate? a six sigma event? Statistically, I would think that the level of projected “infuriation” would have some correlation with the actual significance of the problem here. Assuming that “infuriation” is not merely manipulating emotions.

        Absent any knowledge of what that error rate actually is – what the actual scope of the problem is, an article that focuses entirely – 100% – on the lurid details of those errors and then leads the reader to the Promised Land (of “in theory” umpiring delivered via automated strike zone) can legitimately only be interpreted as “activism”. No matter how interesting it is (and interesting is exactly why I started my comment with “great article”)

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  7. I’m pretty sure that our eyes and brain can’t properly process an object moving that fast that close to us. The umpire’s brain sees the pitch clearly, say when it is 20 feet from them, but it gets lost between then and when it rests in the catcher’s glove, causing their brain to imagine what happened in between. So the umpire has information from earlier in the trajectory and where it ends, but not in between. If the ball moves enough, or the end result is unexpected, the umpire makes a mistake.

    I think that’s pretty cool, but I’m into nerdy brain stuff like that. Automated umps wouldn’t have this problem. You can decide for yourselves it that is important to you.

    Here’s a link to a quick news article referencing the science: http://www.upi.com/Science_News/2013/05/08/Brain-prediction-lets-baseball-players-put-bat-on-a-95-mph-fastball/UPI-17491368043190/

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    • jfree says:

      Automated strike zones and umps would have entirely different problems. One of which is that the strike zone actually varies for every single batter — and there is ZERO possibility that any automated system could adjust that without error. EVERYTHING built by humans or engineered by humans or adjusted by humans has the certainty (to some degree of probability) of error. Denial of that leads only to hubris – not to the elimination of error.

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      • Chcago Mark says:

        Dang jfree, you and me have some very similar thoughts. My guess is, where there’s a will there’s a way. I always wonder what the angle of the camera has to do with our perception of the call. What about the always changing heights of players in the box and during their swing, etc. What about the angle of the pitcher on the rubber. Or the angle of the pitch from a pitcher height standpoint. I guess cameras from center field wouldn’t be the answer. Probably on the ground for plate width. And then height would be another challenge.

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      • SKob says:

        I would rather have a consistent error of +/- .5 inches rather than have the randomly ridiculous error of whatever the hell the ump sees! Thats the beauty of autonomous systems, they’re not perfect, but they’re consistent. Consistency, in any form, is acceptable. Consistently unconsistent does not count!

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      • jg941 says:

        Well, you’re off-base on several fronts (maybe more :-).

        Do you actually think an automated strike zone – which can use currently-available scan technology to adjust to each batter’s unique stance, etc. instantly – would have a higher degree of error than the 75+ different human umps who might be working in the MLB today? How would you justify that assumption if that’s what you believe?

        Oneof the things you’re not getting about this article is that he’s talking only about the THREE INCHES around the CENTER of the strike zone…..and you see these kinds of egregiously bad calls.

        It’s not the pitcher’s or catcher’s fault – the human umpire’s job is to view the appropriate strike zone and watch the ball travelling through it, or near it, as the ball crosses the plate. What happens before that or after that shouldn’t matter at all if the umpire was doing his part of the job correctly.

        This good illustration aside – about pitches that are DEAD CENTER in the strike zone and still missed – the very real problem, if you look at the pitch/FX data now available to everyone, is that umpires now obviously miss thousands and thousands of calls every season across the ENTIRE strike zone.

        What percentage of those bad calls is acceptable to you? You sound like someone who just doesn’t want any new-fangled technology in the game. Is it OK to overturn calls in any sport becasue of instant-replay? Just curious as to your answer to that.

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        • jfree says:

          I can tell you exactly how an automated strike zone would be “gamed” in order to produce error. Any “system” would have to fix and freeze the strike zone (where is the midpoint between the batter’s shoulders and the top of his pants? where is the bottom of the kneecap?) for each batter at some specific point in time.

          If that point in time is before the pitcher releases the ball (the only way to ensure that the pitcher knows where the strike zone actually is); then the “game” is for the batter to hop or squat or stand on their toes or somesuch at that point in order to “set” a strike zone that is favorable to them. ie the strike zone becomes the result of a decision of the batter rather than a mere consequence of their body dimensions. And that changes the game.

          If that point in time is when the pitch crosses the plate, then the batter merely needs to hop or squat whenever the ball is running low/high and the batter has effectively altered the strike zone after the pitcher has released the ball. And that too changes the game.

          If that point in time is “flexible” (or if the strike zone is “flexible” to account for all the hopping and squatting), then a human is going to be the one judging that “flexibility”. And you have directly substituted one sort of human error with another sort – while loudly proclaiming that error is now eliminated. Which is, at core, lying/fraud.

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        • jfree says:

          And as for how much error I find “acceptable” in the game. As long as the umpire is not biased v a particular batter/pitcher/team; then that’s good enough. MLB should ALWAYS try to hire umps that are better than the ones they currently have and umps job should depend on their performance – so no tenure for umps. And if “instant replay” extends the time of a game (which it most certainly will if you want to double-check every single pitch); then that is a serious problem because the games are too long already.

          My opinion would be dramatically different if the consequences of a game were – say – the mandatory sacrifice of an unwilling virgin to wild animals.

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        • SKob says:

          @ jfree

          You’re biggest concern is a bad system where players can move around and fool the strikezone reader? I’m pretty sure we were past that technology before Mike Trout was born!

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        • wally says:

          Lets not make it more complicated than it is jfree.

          You might see 1000 different types of stances before the pitcher starts his windup, but once the ball is on the way, most batters have a very similar position. So, forget body scanners finding knees and nipples. Just take the batter’s height and adjust for the average stance of someone of that height. I’d bet for 99.9% of batters that will work just fine and certainly better than what we have now.

          Remember the wise words: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

          Or in this case, the better that joe-blow ump.

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      • Daniel says:

        You just put a little tag at the midpoint between a player’s shoulders and knees (top) and the the knees (bottom). The tag could be specific color, maybe even infrared. The moment the pitch is thrown (assuming this is the rule) the zone freezes in the 3D model, and the scanners pick up if the ball passed into the zone.

        Also, I’m sure there are hundreds of other possible solutions to these problems.

        Just because there is some error, it does not mean that it isn’t worth implementing. It would certainly be less error than human umpires make.

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        • jfree says:

          No it would NOT be “certainly less error than human umpires make”. That is ALWAYS the nonsense that is spouted by those who advocate for a technology fix by ignoring the new errors that will crop up with the change. Because change always – always – creates a new set of problems (and doesn’t necessarily even fix the old ones) and the only way to judge whether the change itself is useful is to be able to know that all up-front.

          Just because the bright shiny and new appeals to the limbic parts of our brain doesn’t mean we have to turn off the rest of our brain.

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        • BIP says:

          jfree–if that’s true, then you can’t rationally support any change in anything anywhere, as it’s impossible to “know that all up-front”.

          I’m pretty sure people who think automating the strike zone is worth investigating have more of a case than you. You’d need to show that automating the strike zone would be likely to increase error, and you know that’s a laughable position you can’t even begin to support, so you’re being intellectually dishonest, “which is, at core, lying/fraud.”

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      • chuckb says:

        An automated system could adjust, probably much more easily than a human can adjust. Let’s face it, there’s probably no more difficult determination for an umpire or referee to make than balls and strikes in a major league baseball game. Can an automated system do so without error? Of course not, but I’d suggest that the error rate would be much, much smaller with an automated strike zone than with a human strike zone.

        Arguments about instant replay or automated strike zones shouldn’t be about whether or not there will be “no error whatsoever.” Some people (not saying you did here, btw) are opposed to using technology in these circumstances unless there is no error whatsoever. That’s ridiculous. Nothing’s infallible. The decision should be made on the basis of whether or not the reduction in error would be worth the cost (monetary, time, whatever) of the use of technology.

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        • jfree says:

          The main problem I personally have with automating pitch calls is actually the “black box” of it. Having a human being standing there on the field – accountable for what they say/do – is one of those parts of baseball that teaches lessons that go way beyond the game itself. Life is not just about doing things – sometimes it is about judging what others do. In most other sports, the ref is mainly a cop – judging whether something is legal/illegal but not part of the flow of the game. In baseball, the ump is part of the flow of the game. That is the reason IMO why baseball is the only sport where managers regularly get themselves thrown out of a game by shoving/arguing with the ump. Not because the ump is actually making an “error” – but because the manager wants to change the flow of the game by scapegoating the ump. The offense in baseball is not a coordinated team sport. Nor is it ever a confusing situation with a big pile of people on the ground. The batter is alone in the box. Taking the accountability away from the ump doesn’t eliminate that part of the game. And focusing on “ump error” seems to really miss the entire function of those in-game arguments about “error”. The human ump will never disappear from baseball – and nothing would be more pointless than to have him just sit there behind a computer and blame it for “bad calls”.

          And I’d argue that it is very rare for people to oppose technology/change unless it is “perfect”. Far more common, it is the proponents of a technology change who overhype the change by painting it in gauzy optimism, neglect to mention any possible side-effects, and who fail to understand the “existing” as anything more than a sum of discrete errors/problems.

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        • vikedawg says:

          @jfree if your biggest concern is the “black box” aspect of automated computers, I can’t understand why Umps are better. The Human brain is solidly in the top 5 of “black boxes” known to science. How Umps make their decisions is orders of magnitude more complex than any automated pitch calling system.

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        • Paul Wilson says:

          Wow, jfree contributed more words to this article than Jeff did.

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        • jfree says:

          You’re right. But no matter how inscrutable the human brain is, it doesn’t have a problem being accountable and standing up for whatever it does decide. When you feel comfortable with watching a fiery manager arguing with and kicking dirt on a computer and getting ejected – and don’t just think that is silly; then I will probably become comfortable with having computer programmers make pitch call decisions. Until then – I want human umps on the receiving end of that tirade to make that call.

          Because fiery managers aren’t going to go away and they are going to find someone to yell at and get ejected. That’s how they motivate.

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        • vikedawg says:

          @jfree, I see that you are trolling and I have been caught on the bridge. I would salute you, but the whole kicking dirt on a computer idea gave you away as the nasty dirty troll you are.

          I don’t salute myself. You wouldn’t happen believe that Ben Grieve is a top 50 trade target would you?

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    • BenH says:

      I was recently thinking about this recently. Not necessarily about the strikezone, but say for baserunning, it seems like it’s much easier to judge plays at first base from a distance rather than close by, where the umpire has to divide his seeing and hearing between the action.

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  8. Dolemite says:

    Love this series
    Can we see some examples of Lucroy and Molina and other quality framers earning their pitchers extra strikes with the same commentary as to why what they did worked?

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  9. cass says:

    This is one of the most educational articles about pitch framing that I’ve seen. Perhaps we’ve been way too focused on seeing what the good pitch framers do right and not nearly focused enough on what the bad pitch framers do wrong. Instead of looking at Molina and Lucroy, maybe we should be looking at these guys.

    A number of these pitches look like balls to me. I don’t blame the umps.

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  10. RickG says:

    The article is compelling evidence that automating strike/ball calls should be considered. And it isn’t even showing the cases where clearly a ball is called a strike, which I would argue actually happens more often.

    For those not wanting to automate a “human element of the game”, the one thing to remember that it isn’t only about relieving the calls by the umpire, but also making it consistent. An automatic system wouldn’t make it necessary to know an umpire’s tendencies because it doesn’t have tendencies. A predictable strike zone is more important than a precise strike zone. If anything, this will give back a slight edge to the hitters that have recently lost ground to the pitchers.

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    • Paul says:

      The consistency argument is a good one except that the article doesn’t make it. What makes that argument is evidence of a huge number of missed calls by umpires over the course of the season in certain parts of the zone.

      But then there is a problem. Hitters adjust to how umpires are calling the zone, and you hear both hitters and pitchers all the time say all they want is consistency, not that all they want is the strike zone to be called literally the same by each ump. In other words, the players react to the “ump’s strike zone,” and so long as he is consistent in calling “his” strike zone, the players will adjust.

      That may not be as ideal as automation, but it certainly softens the perception that errors in calling balls and strikes is a huge problem crippling the game.

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  11. taprat says:

    I’d really like to hear from some professional umpires. I’d like to know if there are “unwritten” rules they’re adhering to that cause them to call a pitch one way or another. I’d like an explanation of the tendency to call 3-0 pitches strikes and 0-2 pitches balls. I’d like to know how much they notice good pitch framing vs. bad. I’d like to know what they think of the above, and similar articles, how they think they could get better, etc. For all the awesome articles featuring umpires, I think it’s time for some interviews.

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    • Kevin says:

      I’ve been umpiring for youth baseball for about 8 years now, and I can attest to the influence of catcher technique on my ball/strike calls. It IS something that I notice, but not really something that can be helped, as these calls are made more or less on instinct.

      If you took the time to think through all of the factors affecting your perception of the pitch before making the call, the delay would be awkward, and would give off the distinct impression that you were guessing at the call, or worse, intentionally giving it to one team or the other.

      That being said, I do this sort of analysis retrospectively all the time. I’ll bet that every single one of these umpires second-guessed themselves within 5 seconds of making these bad calls. But you just have to go with it :)

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    • chuckb says:

      I’ve umpired both high school and Little League baseball and I can tell you that it is a lot easier for an umpire to call a close pitch a ball when the catcher doesn’t catch it or when the pitcher misses his spot substantially. A lot of pitches are really close and the ones at the knees and at the outside corner can be really difficult to call. If the catcher doesn’t catch it or has to move his glove a foot or more to catch it, it gives the umpire an “out” to call the pitch a ball.

      I’m not saying it’s right but the pitches are coming in really quickly and the difference between it being a strike or a ball is an inch or 2. The umpire has a fraction of a second to make up his mind. It’s basically a coin flip and he’s likely to hear about it from half the fans/players/coaches regardless of whether he calls it a ball or a strike. He’s thinking (of the batter) “please swing; please swing; please swing…dammit…what is it????” If the catcher drops it or has to move a long way to catch it, it’s much easier to call it a ball.

      Calling balls and strikes is really hard when they’re throwing 45-50 mph. It’s more difficult at 75-85 mph. I can’t imagine what it’s like at 95 mph.

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      • Jason B says:

        Don’t go humanizing umpires now! It will get in the way of people saying “DAT BUM SHOULDN’T HAVE A JOB DERP DERP!”

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  12. Utah Dave says:

    I watch a lot of baseball and I continue to be amazed at how often the umpires make the correct call on close plays. There will be several times a game where the home plate ump calls something a ball or a strike and I’m dead certain he is wrong. Then when they show it on Fox Trax (or whatever) I’d say that 9 times out of 10 he is actually right. Same thing for plays at bases and fair/foul balls.

    And I agree 100% with Jeff that umpires are not trying to make the wrong calls. Something inlfuences them to make the calls they make. I think when a catcher stabs at a ball to catch it that is actually in the zone, there is a subconscious reaction in the umpire’s brain that says it can’t be a strike. Remember, he only has like a second to process all this information. If anyone out there ever read the book “Nudge” this is the kind of stuff that book describes. Things that make us make decisions that we are unaware of, yet have a strong influence on our decision making.

    As for the automated strike zone, none for me thanks. I’m a dinosaur. I don’t even like the DH. But I do like reading Jeff’s stuff.

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    • Paul says:

      But you’re not supposed to be rational about this! The argument is all about the infinitesimal number of “obvious” strikes called balls! Such an odd approach for an article on the “rigorous testing” baseball site.

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  13. Cybo says:

    I think the problem is too many umps are paying too much attention to the catchers in front of them instead of what they should be focusing on, picking up the baseball and making the right call. While there’s no debating that pitch framing is an art and a skill I would argue that its just a legal way to cheat the system in place. Umps need to pay more attention to the pitch that is thrown not the catcher’s reaction to said pitch.

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    • Kevin says:

      Believe me, most umps want to remove this bias, but you really can’t. try umping some time, then see what you think!

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  14. Record Keeper says:

    Jose Quintana facing Albert Pujols is a perfect example to me of how a young starter can get screwed out important strike calls.

    This was quick and dirty, but I took the top 20 qualified starters by zone percentage and I looked at their age and BB/9 and sorted them by BB/9 and into three even buckets.

    Name Zone% Age BB/9

    Bartolo Colon 51.3% 40 1.1
    Jordan Zimmermann 49.4% 27 1.3
    Cliff Lee 54.2% 34 1.4
    Hisashi Iwakuma 48.3% 32 1.4
    Bronson Arroyo 49.8% 36 1.6
    Matt Harvey 47.3% 24 1.8
    Average Age: 32.2

    CC Sabathia 49.0% 33 2.0
    AJ Griffin 50.0% 25 2.0
    Ervin Santana 47.9% 30 2.0
    Clayton Kershaw 48.1% 25 2.1
    Chris Sale 47.7% 24 2.1
    Shelby Miller 49.9% 22 2.4
    Phil Hughes 51.3% 27 2.4
    Average Age: 26.6

    Andrew Cashner 48.3% 26 2.6
    Derek Holland 47.9% 26 2.6
    Jhoulys Chacin 48.7% 25 2.7
    Wade Miley 48.0% 26 2.9
    Jeremy Guthrie 47.8% 34 3.1
    RA Dickey 47.3 % 38 3.2
    Jose Fernandez 48.9% 20 3.4
    Average Age: 27.9

    These are essentially the 20 pitchers that throw in the zone the most, and those that got the benefit of throwing the zone (in my estimation, a low walk rate) tended to be above the age of 30; those who did not get the benefit of throwing in the zone tending to be about the age of 26.

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  15. newsense says:

    Given that this is an article about pitch framing, wouldn’t it be reasonable TO IDENTIFY THE CATCHERS?

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  16. TKDC says:

    I agree that the catchers in six of these are not doing a very good job, but on the first bunt attempt one, I disagree. Though the catcher does jump up, beforehand he did a decent job (though far from perfect) receiving the ball and he pauses a moment before jumping up. Also, he must have thought it would be called a strike because the hitter obviously offers at it.

    On another note, someone once told me there is a difference between an excuse and an explanation (“I was drunk” is always the latter).

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  17. Kermit says:

    I say they implement my patented K-Zone Basket technology which has proved infallible during extensive Whiffleball testing in my backyard.

    I don’t want to reveal too many trade secrets but it’s essentially a laundry basket duct taped to a folding chair a couple feet behind the plate. Hit the basket and it’s a strike. Once per at-bat a hitter may declare “bullshit” on a pitch that clips the edge but is judged unhittable.

    The quality of the basket matters little so the cost to adopt this system into every ballpark will be more than offset by eliminating plate umpires and the necessity of catchers equipment.

    You have my number, Selig.

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  18. Homer says:

    I thought for sure this was going to end with O. Perez’s non-third strike call last night that would have ended the game. It appeared to be right down the middle and received well.

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  19. ZB says:

    I wonder if any of the umpires realized they made the wrong call immediately after making it?

    I wish the umpires and catchers were identified in the article as well as the batter and pitcher. Of the four people involved in each pitch it seems that the two most responsible for the calls were the catchers and umpires, at least in these seven cases.

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  20. isavage30 says:

    I still think these pitch-framing articles put too much burden on the catcher. For some of the low pitches, they definitely could have been received better, and weren’t the pitcher’s fault they weren’t called strikes. But the pitches where the catcher’s reaching across his body are cases where the pitcher missed badly. I’m sure receiving plays a part in it, but have to think pitcher command is the number one thing here. The reason Glavine and Maddux got calls was the catcher would set up a few inches (well, more than a few) outside, and wouldn’t have to move their glove. And I don’t know that this is an argument for automated strike calls, if a pitcher puts it right in the glove an inch off the plate, they have objectively done better than a guy who was aiming for the inside corner and missed by a foot but happened to sneak it across the outside edge of the plate.

    Primarily, with these pitch-framing articles, why do they ignore the pitcher when talking about framing, when the pitcher’s command is logically going to be the number one thing that influences calls? It would be pretty tough to separate pitching and catcher, since usually the same catcher will catch the same pitcher for at least a few years, but you can at least look at variance on staffs. I’ve never seen any in-depth look at these numbers, and looking at 7 pitches that were missed out of the many 1000s that are thrown doesn’t really tell us anything.

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    • Hank G. says:

      And I don’t know that this is an argument for automated strike calls, if a pitcher puts it right in the glove an inch off the plate, they have objectively done better than a guy who was aiming for the inside corner and missed by a foot but happened to sneak it across the outside edge of the plate.

      I think that is more subjective than objective. The goal is supposed to be to throw strikes, not hit the catcher’s mitt.

      You could claim that a batter who hits a screaming line drive directly at an outfielder has done better than a guy who hits a dribbler in the infield that no one can reach before the batter reaches first, but in that case who has actually done better? The guy who made an out, or the guy standing on first base?

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  21. Eric says:

    I know it’s been mentioned, but good lord…there was a bunch of terrible receiving by those catchers.

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    • Beasy Bee says:

      I agree. I wonder why Jeff chose not to include the catcher names along with pitcher/batter. For that matter, why not the umpires?

      I’m not criticizing, I enjoyed the hell out of this article. Just was wondering while reading.

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  22. pft says:

    I know this sounds unbelievable but some umpires often can not even see the ball (except as a blur or whizz), especially if they don’t know the location in advance. Catchers sometimes tip the ump off to location in advance, but if the pitcher misses location and the ball is still over the plate, the ump may not have seen it. These umps react to the sound, catchers glove and hitters reaction as well as the reputation of batter/hitter and the count.

    Some umps do have the physical skills (eyesight) to call a good game, but have lapses of concentration during the course of a game.

    I remember Tito seriously asking one ump on a day Lester had seriously nasty stuff if he could even see the ball. Not sure what the ump said but I think Tito watched the rest of the game in the clubhouse.

    Umpires should not be rotated. The best umps at calling a game behind the plate should be qualified as such and call all the games at a significantly higher salary. Those who can’t see the ball due to lack of necessary tools, age, whatever should not be permitted to get behind the plate. It would be like asking an OF to be a staring pitcher. Of course, it may be too difficult to call every game, so they at least have to have 2 members of a team who can do it. Those who are not qualified can ump at 1st, 2nd or 3rd.

    We can laugh at bad calls, but determining if that 95 mph FB with late movement or sweeping curve is within that “imaginary” square about 2-3 ft in front of you is more difficult than it looks, especially when you center yourself way off to one side or the other to avoid foul tips smacking you at 95 mph.

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  23. Paul says:

    This is really an illogical argument. On the hand, we are saying that because they are human, umpires are incapable of calling the regulation strike zone. But to buttress that argument, Jeff is using a bunch of examples of the “worst” strikes called balls examples.

    The argument for automation would be to point to error rates in the strike zone, period. But particularly high error rates in a certain part of the zone. If errors are the problem, why does it matter that they occurred in the middle of the strike zone versus the corners? As others have noted, “a strike is a strike,” yes?

    We already have this evidence. The problem we run into in making this argument is that the evidence also shows that umpires have used the Quest/PitchF/X technology to improve on their error rates, especially by keying on specific areas of the strike zone, or their own weak points. And we also know that there is a correlation between improved error rates by umpires and the now-4 year pitcher dominance trend.

    I don’t think the article intended to be misleading, but it winds up there by arguing against itself.

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  24. jdbolick says:

    What are those measurements based on? I ask because the images make several of the pitches appear to be substantially more than <three inches from the center of the strike zone. In fact, most of the pitches appear to be close to the bottom of the strike zone as defined by the rule book.

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    • Paul says:

      Not noted in the article is that there is inherent error in the measurements/projections. As with any sample where there is some error, there are going to be outliers. Sure looks like we have a lot of outliers here, because some of these don’t look like strikes much less a hair’s breath off of down the middle.

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    • MGL says:

      I agree. The very first pitch looks like it is near the bottom of the strike zone. Surely that cannot be within 3 inches of the dead center of the zone. Same with the Stephen Pryor pitch. Even though that was a breaking ball, it sure looks like it is near the very bottom of the zone. I suspect also that some of the locations on these pitches are wrong.

      I don’t think you can blame the umpire on most of these pitches. An umpire calls a ball or strike based on several cues or data inputs. He cannot physically (and psychologically I guess) isolate the pitch and the strike zone at the exclusion of everything else. Part of judging a ball or strike is the movement of the pitch, the position of the catcher before the pitch, the movement of the catcher when he catches the ball, the position and reaction of the batter, etc. For example, in the Edwin Jackson pitch, the catcher is set up so far inside, that I don’t think any umpire would call a strike on the outside corner, and even one a little to the outside of center is going to get called a ball some significant percentage of the time, as in the GIF above. In fact, I think that is an irresponsible position for the catcher to set up in. You see that occasionally in a game. It is usually off the outside corner. A catcher will set up so far outside that a pitch right to catcher’s mitt is not even close to a strike. That is not helpful to the pitcher. If he hits his target, he gets a ball. If the catcher has to move his mitt toward the plate, he gets a strike, but only because the pitch is dead down the middle. If he hits the insider corner of the plate, he usually won’t get a strike. So how is setting up so far outside helpful to the pitcher. I think that is bad catching. Some catcher like to set up there occasionally. Some catchers will never set up that far from the plate, outside or inside. On that Edwin Jackson pitch, I don’t know who the catcher is, but that was a ridiculous position to set up in, IMO…

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  25. bob81 says:

    Anyone remember Brett Lawrie last year? It was about a foot outside 2 in a row! The catcher had to dive to catch it. Sure, Brett exaggerated, but it missed

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  26. Careless says:

    Their very livelihood depends on not screwing up

    MLB umpires? Who never, ever, ever get fired for blowing calls? And I mean never as in “I was born during the Carter administration and it hasn’t happened in my lifetime”

    We’ve had a failed drug test ump get fired, we’ve had an ump fired for being gay (probably), and one for selling his MLB supplied plane tickets, but none for being Angel Hernandez.

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  27. DJLetz says:

    Might it be useful to get umpires something like Google Glass with a Pitchf/x app? You’d be able to still have a human calling the balls and strikes and wouldn’t be horning in on umpires’ autonomy, but you’d have a HUD to guide them and give them a nudge if they were about to make any egregiously bad calls.

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  28. MissingEdgar says:

    There is a really interesting article in Sports Illustrated this week titled “Why Pujols Can’t Hit Jennie Finch”. It’s about how elite athletes decide where thrown or hit balls will go.

    There seems to be a lot of research that other clues other than the ball flight itself that determine where the athlete thinks the ball will go (ant therefore where to swing). In the title case, it’s speculated that Pujols can’t hit Finch, even though he has about the same time to observe the ball as he does in normal at bats, because he has no familiar context from which to decide where to swing.

    It seems to me that this may also explain some of what umpires experience. This isn’t surprising, as that’s the hypothesis for most framing analysis. However, the methodology describe (“occlusion” tests) might be useful here. Learning how elite athletes (or umpires) guessed ball/strike calls by just seeing the pitcher’s release action and catcher’s receiving action might isolate the affects.

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  29. Brian Snyder says:

    I dont understand any argument at all towards having umpires on the field AT ALL anymore. Balls and strikes called by a red/green light on post behind the catcher.

    Other calls are radio’ed down from a booth.

    We live in an era where technology gives us the ability to call the rules precisely as they were meant to be called. Hitters no longer would need to ask an umpire where the strike zone is, and no longer can umpires like Eric Gregg decide who wins a NLCS because he’s too fat and tired to squat behind a plate all day. No hitters could no longer be lost due to idiots that have “brain farts”. Bring baseball into the 21st century and get rid of the umpires.

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