“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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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