Balls Right Down the Middle, Already

This is an image, from Baseball Savant:

savantmap

You’ll recognize that as the strike zone (1-9) and areas around the strike zone (11-14). What we have in Zone 5 is a zone that’s middle-middle — that is, that’s the heart. As a pitcher, that’s a good place to avoid. As a pitcher, you’re presumably incapable of avoiding it entirely. Now, in theory, there should never be a called ball on a pitch in Zone 5. You can kind of understand balls on pitches in the zone but near the edges. Umpires don’t have perfect vision. But, in theory, pitches taken in Zone 5 are unmistakable strikes. They’re pitches literally right down the middle. In practice, those pitches aren’t strikes 100% of the time, and I like to keep track of when things go awry in order to examine how it might have happened.

Let’s look at some strike rates through the years. Here are strike rates on all pitches taken within Zone 5, according to Baseball Savant:

2009: 99.0%
2010: 99.6%
2011: 99.7%
2012: 99.7%
2013: 99.7%

Maybe that’s about as close to perfect as humans can get. And within this data set there are probably a few PITCHf/x errors that mistakenly suggest that the umpire screwed up. I’m not going to check them all on video. But, the numbers are either good or bad, depending on your mood. They’re almost 100%, which is great! They’re not 100%, even though they should be, which is not great! Last season, in the regular season and the playoffs combined, there were 29 called balls within Zone 5.

And already we’ve had two called balls within Zone 5 in 2014. I’ve confirmed that in the video. That puts baseball on pace for more than 100 over the course of the summer, and while it’s silly to calculate an on-pace-for statistic based on two data points, I’m the guy who chronicles this stuff, so I have an obligation to chronicle. What was the deal with these two called balls? What might’ve gone wrong that allowed them to be called balls instead of strikes?

Called Ball No. 1

Pitcher: Cliff Lee
Batter: Alex Rios
Catcher: Carlos Ruiz
Umpire: Jim Joyce
Date: March 31

LeeRios.gif.opt

Unfortunately it’s a terrible camera angle. Unfortunately there’s no getting around that, as far as the .gif is concerned. A couple screenshots might help you make heads or tails of this:

leerios_033114

leerios_033114_2

Pretty unambiguous. Lee opened the bottom of the fifth with a fastball to Rios, who has one of the tallest strike zones in the league. The fastball crossed over the middle of the plate, even with the middle of Rios’ thighs. Not only was the pitch called a ball — neither broadcast even made anything of it. To one of them, it was an ordinary ball. To the other, they didn’t even refer to the pitch as a ball in the first place. The game had just come back from commercial, so there was some catching up to do, but anyway. Lee didn’t act annoyed on the mound. The game carried on as usual, and a few pitches later, Rios grounded out.

At issue is that Lee missed his target, throwing the ball over the plate instead of in, on the edge. Seldom does Lee miss his target by more than a handful of inches. But I’m not prepared to put this on Lee completely, because Ruiz gave that pitch away. He shifted his entire upper body and dragged the ball out of the zone away with his catching arm. Lee reduced his own odds of getting a strike, but then Ruiz dropped those odds pretty much all the way to zero. At the end of the day, calls are up to the umpires, but if we grant that umpires are hopelessly vulnerable to influence from the catcher, you can see how this happened without thinking Joyce an idiot. It’s the usual story with these things — missed target, awful, lazy reception.

Called Ball No. 2

Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez
Batter: Josh Satin
Catcher: Jose Lobaton
Umpire: Clint Fagan
Date: April 2

GonzalezSatin1.gif.opt

It’s a better camera angle. It’s still not a perfect camera angle, but thankfully, we have screenshots, and a replay from an even better angle than the one above:

gonzalezsatin_040214

gonzalezsatin_040214_2

Gonzalez was at 1-and-1 on Satin, with a runner in scoring position. He put a fastball right by Satin to get ahead, but he didn’t get ahead, despite having thrown the pitch right over the middle and below the belt. Gonzalez responded poorly and within a short while Lobaton went out to the mound to try to calm Gonzalez down. The Mets broadcast picked up on this immediately, asking what was wrong with the pitch and speculating about how players felt about Fagan’s strike zone. They went over the replays and agreed that the pitch should’ve been a strike, without question.

Again, Gonzalez didn’t hit the spot right on. And Lobaton didn’t receive this pitch as poorly as Ruiz received the first pitch. But Lobaton does stab, here, with a straight arm, which might have suggested to Fagan that the pitch was more up than it was, or maybe more away than it was. Lobaton’s arm makes it look like more of a ball in the screenshot, if you just ignore the plate and the hitter and everything. This seems like more of an umpire mistake, but Lobaton wasn’t without fault.

Balancing things out — here’s how the at-bat ended:

GonzalezSatin2.gif.opt

Gonzalez had a strike taken from him, and then he had a more valuable strike given to him. And so the inning was over, and the Mets didn’t score, and the Mets were sad, and that’s probably going to be a season theme. This was a better-looking receiving job by Lobaton, and it stands to reason he might’ve learned a thing or two playing alongside Jose Molina. It isn’t easy to frame a low fastball, but some guys are better at it than others.

Right now we live in a world in which it’s possible for fastballs right down the middle to be taken for non-strikes. It happens infrequently, but it doesn’t happen infrequently enough to escape my attention, and this shouldn’t really happen ever at all. But you can either be mad about it, or you can be interested by it. Or, I suppose, both, but I personally find it more interesting than infuriating that the theoretically impossible isn’t impossible in reality. This is a part of the game that we watch. Expect to see a post much like this one many more times before the season is over. This sort of thing doesn’t deserve to go unacknowledged.




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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.


48 Responses to “Balls Right Down the Middle, Already”

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  1. Aaron (UK) says:

    Nats fan here – Fagin had a notably low zone (as well as a pretty erratic one) all night. So the strikeout pitch GIFfed above wasn’t that surprising.

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    • Holy crap, you’re not kidding. What on earth?

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      • Wil says:

        CB Bucknor special?

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      • John C. says:

        He was calling low pitches strikes, but several pitches that were up in the zone were not called strikes. That pitch by Gio was clearly the worst, but there were several other “high” pitches by both teams that sure looked like they were in the zone.

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      • Jg941 says:

        Jeff – you should showcase Bob Davidson’s hilariously bad strike zone from the Bucs-Cubs game on Wednesday. Wow – some of the strike calls were 6 inches off the plate, per both the pitch tracker and the dead-center camera angle at PNC Park

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        • Utah Dave says:

          100% agree. I watched the game. For a long while the plate was extra wide. But then later in the game – maybe about the 7th or so – the plate became skinny. Russell Martin almost got the heave ho after one particular AB. I would say that it didn’t really work in one team’s favor or the other. But if you’re a batter or a pitcher it made it really hard to know what would and wouldn’t be a strike.

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  2. Jonny Dollar says:

    Any chance of shutting off video ads on the right sidebar that play automatically? Not sure if mods were aware.

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  3. Ruki Motomiya says:

    Wow, the first one’s camera angle compared to how it’s received honestly makes it look like a ball even though it is right down the middle. Craziness! Why is the camera at like a 90 degree angle?

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  4. algionfriddo says:

    Is there any hope that a laser strikezone might be tried in A ball, just to see if it is feasible? Umpires do the best they can but I hate to see good catcher framing screw a batter, or bad framing hurt a good pitch. There is no real strike zone, just an ‘umpire zone’ with occasional wild, sometimes laughable, variations. I could give a crap about the human element.

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    • Spit Ball says:

      I really hope not. I’m usually for technological advancements in all sports and life in general. Perhaps I’m biased as a high school and college catcher who fancied himself splendid (however biased) at framing pitches and “duping” the Umpire. I also like the home plate umps who do the theatrical called strike 3. To me it’s part of the game.

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      • Slacker George says:

        Have the laser system communicate the correct call to the home plate ump’s earpiece and let them act it up anyway they want. Kind of like a politician using a teleprompter. Someone else wrote the words anyway.

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    • Iron says:

      Making the calls right can be done with whatever method is most effective as far as I am concerned. The human element should be the players.

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      • Bill says:

        Framing is a repeatable skill. I think catchers should be rewarded for it. Pitch FX should provide the league with an objective pool of data that they can use to determine their worst umpires. If they demote the bottom 10% each year and promote the top AAA umpires, the quality would improve without removing an element of a catcher’s game.

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        • Reptar says:

          I know I have never sat down to watch a baseball game thinking “Man, I hope I get to see some exciting pitch framing and strike stealing today!”.

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        • Eric R says:

          ” If they demote the bottom 10% each year and promote the top AAA umpires, the quality would improve without removing an element of a catcher’s game.”

          How about the same for players? If you are rated as a bottom 10% player yo can be sent to the minors without consent and get paid on a minor league scale not what is in your MLB contract.

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        • Tony says:

          Pretending to be hit by a pitch is a repeatable skill, but I don’t think batters should be rewarded for it. I’m not saying that pitch framing is the moral equivalent–they have to play the game the way that it is umpired. But we shouldn’t tolerate unnecessary bad calls simply because fooling an umpire is a repeatable skill.

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        • Baltar says:

          Reptar, I do exactly that. I record a game with a good pitch framer, watch the catcher throughout the game, replay whenever I want and have a great time.

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        • Iron says:

          Pitching into the strike zone is a repeatable skill. I think pitchers should be rewarded for it.

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  5. Spit Ball says:

    It should never be wrong in the place you are examining but I’m mostly pleased with umpires calling balls and strikes.

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  6. Mario Peppercorn says:

    This just happened for a third time this season. Bottom 5th in the A’s-Mariners game. Nick Punto batting. Right down the middle and it was called a ball.

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  7. Stu says:

    It seems like often the umpires actually just check to see if the pitcher hits the target. If he doesn’t, it’s a ball–even if the target mitt is low and inside and the pitcher “misses” with a fat one right down the middle of the plate.

    This seems to be even more important if the pitcher misses his mark by a lot. You can see both catchers in these videos jerking their gloves back over the plate to catch the ball, which I guess convinces the ump the pitch was way off.

    And the reverse is true. If the catcher sets his mitt out of the strike zone (usually it’s only a little) the pitcher will most likely get a strike call by hitting it.

    I’d really like to see an analysis of how often the pitcher gets a strike when the catcher doesn’t move his glove at all vs. how often the exact same location is called a ball (even in the same game with the same ump) when the catcher moves his mitt.

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  8. sumfears says:

    It would be interesting to get a list of the pitchers and catchers who did not get these calls. Wonder if any of the heralded pitch framers show up?

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  9. Hurtlockertwo says:

    In college I missed a pitch out signal and threw the ball right down the middle. The catcher missed it completely, hit the ump and bounced back to me, the runner was going, I threw him out at second. The pitch was also called a strike. Never saw that happen in the majors.

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    • Jim Price says:

      I saw Aurelio Lopez do almost same thing once. He was not the brightest light in the park and threw like 5 pitches so he often mixed up signals. The pitch was middle-middle, nailed the ump, “ball”. I don’t recall if the runner went….

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  10. Kevin says:

    “Hey, it’s Enrico Palazzo!”

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  11. jim fetterolf says:

    First one the catcher moved his whole body and was still moving away when it popped, second one the glove went outside the catcher’s knees. In both cases the pitcher missed his spot and was probably lucky the ball didn’t end up in the cheap seats.

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    • Brian Snyder says:

      Its a good thing then that the strike zone is based on where the catcher is and has nothing to do with the plate or batter.

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  12. Johnston says:

    MLB umpiring remains disgraceful. The umpires need to be replaced by sensors.

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  13. Robert says:

    Many years ago, maybe in one of Roger Angell’s New Yorker articles on MLB, I remember reading about a study which seemed to show that major league pitches simply travel too fast to be tracked from the release point to the plate. At some point, the hitter (or umpire) loses the ball and has to pick it up again at the plate – or guess where it is likely to end up based on release, arm action, initial angle, etc. The umpire would very likely be highly influenced by the action of the catcher, if this is correct.
    Sorry I don’t have a reference to share, I’ll return with it later if I can dig it up.

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    • Robert says:

      I can’t seem to embed the link from my phone, but here’s an even older Sports Illustrated article on the subject: You Can’t Keep Your Eye on the Ball, from 1954. Umpires would likely be most affected by pitches with significant horizontal motion.

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  14. sopcod says:

    I’m actually surprised this doesn’t happen a little more often. The first thing that came to my mind was big 12 to 6 curves that cross over the middle of the plate but end up low in the catcher’s mitt. I guess not too many pitchers throw that pitch.

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