Explain a Strike

What follows is coverage of a pitch thrown by a Tampa Bay Ray, a pitch that was taken and therefore not swung at. It was taken for a strike, and it was sufficiently unusual to end up sparking this post, but this isn’t really about pitch framing. Jose Molina didn’t even play, and while we’re here, just for the record, relative to Jonathan Lucroy, Molina gets too much framing love. It’s not that Molina isn’t outstanding. It’s that Lucroy is, quietly, similarly outstanding, but people forget about him. But this isn’t about Jose Molina or pitch framing.

The Rays hosted the Indians on Sunday afternoon, and however many people were watching at the start, far fewer people were watching in the top of the ninth, when the Indians held an 11-run lead. And of those watching, fewer still were paying close attention, so few noticed Fernando Rodney‘s first pitch to Mark Reynolds leading off the ninth inning. The pitch was a fastball for a called strike, and you can see the pitch embedded below:

RodneyReynolds1.gif.opt

Good velocity, visible tail. Curious judgment, and you can see that Reynolds was caught a little off guard, not that he was going to make a big stink in the last inning of a blowout. And anyway, a few pitches later, Reynolds doubled. A few pitches after that, Carlos Santana homered, and the Indians ultimately won 13-0. Nobody cares about Rodney’s first pitch to Reynolds in the top of the ninth, except for me, and now possibly you. I’d like to hone in on this to search for a possible explanation.

Explanation: the pitch was a legitimate strike

Well, no, that is demonstrably wrong.

rodneyreynolds

Let’s make this even easier:

rodneyreynolds2

Sometimes the top and the bottom of the strike zone can get a little blurry. We’re not dealing with a pitch that was either too high or too low. Sometimes the camera angle can make the sides of the strike zone a little blurry. This camera angle is perfect, coming from right behind the mound. This pitch flew over the right-handed batter’s box. It didn’t graze the plate. The strike zone is more or less the width of the plate. There’s no question here: any umpire, looking only at this screenshot, would rule this pitch a ball. And you don’t need more than the screenshot.

Explanation: the count was such that the zone was bigger than normal

Fascinating research has found that the strike zone is significantly larger in 3-and-0 counts than in 0-and-2 counts. Those aren’t the only two counts where the zones are different, and there’s a strong correlation between zone size and pitcher- or hitter-friendliness. But we already said this was the first pitch of the at-bat. The count was nothing and nothing, so.

Explanation: the umpire was giving this pitch all game

From Brooks Baseball:

rodneyreynolds3

Spot the outlier. So far these have been some pretty bad potential explanations.

Explanation: the pitch was expertly received

Behind the plate for Tampa Bay was not Jose Molina, but Jose Lobaton, who is a Jose, but who is not a Molina. Lobaton seems to be a good receiver of his own right, based on a limited amount of playing time, but he’s certainly not Molina-esque, or Lucroy-esque in keeping with my own advice. Let’s look at how Lobaton received this fastball. Did he get his pitcher an extra strike he didn’t necessarily deserve?

RodneyReynolds2.gif.opt

I’m not going to pretend to be able to see what the umpire might’ve seen, but Lobaton caught this ball in front of his bicep, and not in front of his chest. He had to move his target quite a bit, and his arm travels in something of an ellipse. Molina probably would’ve “cheated” with his glove, gradually moving his target inward to account for the run on Rodney’s heater. Lobaton left his target in place until the ball was out of Rodney’s hand, with the result being inches of horizontal elbow movement. I don’t think Lobaton screwed this pitch up, but this doesn’t strike me as an exceptional frame job. Again, I’m not an expert in the field.

Explanation: the umpire was being a little more generous because it was a blowout and so there was incentive to just get the game finished

I wonder if anybody has studied what the strike zone looks like in blowouts, versus close games. Intuitively, it makes sense that the zone might expand, because there’s less reason to be strict. It would encourage hitters to swing more often, and it would speed the game up toward its virtually inevitable result. Just looking at last year’s league numbers, the average K/BB in tie games was 2.3. The average K/BB in games with a margin of at least five runs was 2.6. Does that mean anything? I doubt it, since most of that gap goes away once you factor in intentional walks. But this is something that should be examined using PITCHf/x, not statistical proxies. Interestingly, here’s a pitch:

PestanoSomeone.gif.opt

There are two outs in the bottom of the ninth of a 13-0 baseball game. This is a 3-and-0 fastball that grazes the rule book inner edge. It was called a ball, and the Rays worked their second consecutive walk of the frame. There would’ve been almost every reason to call that pitch a strike, especially if the umpire were trying to get things to hurry up. Matt Joyce took his base. It’s not consistent with the idea of the umpire expanding the zone.

Explanation: the umpire just missed it

The obvious one is the most likely one. Fernando Rodney threw a first-pitch fastball that was to become ball one. It was determined instead to be strike one, because the umpire is human and funny things happen in the course of human processing. Perhaps, on account of the blowout, the umpire was operating at less than 100% focus. Perhaps, if the score were closer and this same pitch were thrown, it would’ve appropriately been called a ball. One should never excuse a lapse in concentration, but if there has to be a lapse in concentration, a good time would be the ninth inning of an absolute blowout. There are worse mistakes to make. There are actual meaningful mistakes to make.

And maybe the umpire was being more generous because the game was out of hand. Which leads one to wonder: should that be considered permissible behavior, or should the strike zone always remain the same? Should the zone be the same in all combinations of scores? Should the zone be the same in all combinations of counts? Is it better this way, or is it worse this way? If the human element can call this pitch a strike, might it call similar pitches strikes in closer games, games of greater import? How much can we take away from a single called strike in an 11-0 game at the beginning of April?

Why do humans do the things they do? Why was this pitch called a strike? What did the umpire see, and what was the umpire thinking? It’s a completely insignificant thing, but from another perspective, it is the very most significant thing.




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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.


31 Responses to “Explain a Strike”

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  1. Man From Nantucket says:

    The catcher is set up inside and it looks like the umpire is set up a little further inside from the catcher. The pitch is centered nearly right where the umpire has set up. Probably makes the pitch harder to distinguish as being off the plate. Is it written that the umpire is supposed to position himself to be shielded by the catcher when the catcher is inside or outside the plate?

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    • RA Rowe says:

      It really does appear the catcher fooled him bc of where he set up. And if you notice in the last gif. the catcher set up middle in and reaches to the inside corner, and doesn’t get the call. There is something to this.

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    • JayTeam says:

      One would hope a major league umpire would know where he is set up relative to the plate.

      I’m guessing the ump suddenly remembered he still hasn’t filed his tax return.

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  2. Pat G says:

    I feel like the following comment is akin to “first!”

    But Jeff you consistently write excellent pieces about truly interesting and utterly obscure occurrences in MLB. They are one of the highlights of this site

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  3. RA Rowe says:

    Umpires are really good at the Major League Level, but i am so frustrated that MLB seems convinced that unassisted human umpires are the best way to officiate baseball.

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    • Dave S says:

      this this this this this! a MILLION TIMES… THIS!

      expanding the zone
      wide zone vs lefties (or righties)
      calling the low strike
      caling the high strike
      framing pitches
      pinching rookies

      euphmisms for
      BLOWN CALLS
      MISTAKES

      and its uncalled for.

      and I agree, MLB umps are very very good. The best.

      They just aren’t good enough at balls and strikes. Human beings aren’t able to be perfect at that sort of task.

      Let’s stop asking them to do it.

      Period.

      /end rant

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    • lookma says:

      “unassisted human umpires are the best way to officiate baseball.”

      I’m pretty sure MLB looks at it as an efficiency argument, coupled with a notion about acceptable errors. Time Time Time

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  4. Hard at Lunch says:

    I’m going to go on record and say that it looks like the catcher did a very nice job of framing the pitch. The glove ends up several inches closer to the plate from where the ball entered the glove, and it did so very quickly and very smoothly. This does not negate the explanation that the ump blew the call.

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    • Drakos says:

      In addition to the glove movement Lobaton seemed to do one other thing that Molina is very good at. The rest of his body stayed very still. In contrast Santana looks to be rotating his upper body in order to reach the pitch. Now this is potentially caused by the fact that the pitch was across the body from his glove, but it seems like in most examples of pitch framing the catcher may move his glove but the rest of his body is very solid.

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  5. Frank says:

    In the first example used the Rays were down 11-0 and the zone seems to expand in there favor. This led to the hypothesis that the umpire was expanding the zone to speed up the game. To counter this a second example was used showing a Cleveland pitcher throwing a ball when Cleveland was up 13-0. Couldn’t we modify the explanation to say something like: “Umpires are more generous to teams that are being blown out.”

    I’m more then willing to buy the idea the umpire just blew the call… But from the examples presented it is at least not entirely inconsistent to say that umpires expand the zone.

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    • Frank says:

      Apparently I glanced over the paragraph that deal with this… Such a fool I am… Back to my schoolwork I go. Pay no heed here.

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  6. channelclemente says:

    Great article, and particularly poignant in SF now. We have a young catcher who’s struggling with the art of framing a pitch, Hector Sanchez.

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  7. Tomrigid says:

    I loved this post, except for one thing: the Brooks fastmap is a poor visualization of data. Minimally there should be a key. Ideally you wouldn’t need a key, because the visual elements would represent themselves in a logical and intuitive manner. You could make your posts a lot worse and I’d still read them — because they’re good and because you’re a good writer — but I’d rather you make them better. Thanks again.

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  8. Bryce says:

    Since we already know that umpires favor the underdog within a count, shouldn’t we expect them to favor the underdog within a game?

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  9. isavage30 says:

    Explanation: this umpiring crew was terrible all series, it was easily one of the worst-umpired series I have witnessed. The game on 4/6 featured some particularly bad ball and strike calling, as well as CB Bucknor blowing 2 of 2 chances on plays at second base. Including one where the runner was out by about 15 feet and slid into Jason Kipnis’ glove and was called safe.

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  10. Sports Enthusiast says:

    You forgot: Fernando Rodney is (was?) a highly-regarded veteran who gets the benefit of the doubt on close(ish) calls.

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  11. Robert says:

    It looks like an excellent pitch-framing job to me.

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  12. Brad says:

    Can you please explain the strike that was just called AGAINST the Rays that stole our chance to win the game?

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  13. TheMaskedUmp says:

    You missed a very important element to this story. The plate umpire is working what is called, “the slot”. It’s the daylight between the catcher and the batter. Working the slot has been mainstream ever since the inside protector became widely used. And in the first pitch that you illustrate — to Reynolds — the plate umpire is getting what is called, “squeezed,” out of the slot. Umpires get squeezed out when the catcher sets up inside, such as in the case of the Reynolds pitch. When an umpire gets squeezed out, his view of the strike zone becomes obstructed – he cannot see the entire trajectory of the pitch. Umpires have two choices to deal with getting squeezed out: First, they can adjust to the middle, which leaves them far more vulnerable to getting hit by a foul ball — so umpires hate adjusting to the middle. Their other choice is to live with the obstructed view, do their best to see the pitch, and base their decision partially on a, “benefit of the doubt,” principle. When a catcher squeezes the plate umpire out by setting up inside, the defense generally loses the benefit of the doubt — the catcher is squeezing him out. In this case, however, either the plate umpire went the other way with his benefit of the doubt principle, or he was simply fooled by the framing and saw little of the pitch after its movement. That is, the plate umpire could see the trajectory of the pitch until it got closer to the plate, so he missed the late movement, and based his decision on a combination of the framing and the benefit of the doubt principle — since the game was a blowout, the guess became a strike.

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    • Schuxu says:

      Good explanation.

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    • Synovia says:

      SO, basically the umps are making ball/strike judgements for pitches they can’t even see.

      remind me again why human umpires are still being used?

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      • TheMaskedUmp says:

        There are a couple of reasons why human umpires are still being used.

        First and foremost, fooling the umpires is a part of the game. A switch to electronic ball and strike calling would fundamentally alter how a pitcher approaches his job, how a catcher approaches his job, and what fans have come to accept as the traditional strike zone. Anyone who has sat and watched PitchF/X for any length of time can tell you that there are pitches that technically pass through the bottom of the strike zone, but end up being so low that the catcher practically digs them out of the dirt. No baseball player or fan in our generation would call that a strike — yet by the technical book rule, it is a strike. And even if that is a desirable change in your mind, it is undeniable that it would be a fundamental change in how we view the strike zone. It would change the game. It would change how the battle between pitcher and batter is fought.

        But even if you do not desire the element of human judgment in umpiring, there still exists no machine that can do what human umpires can do. The computer technology we currently have can do a fine job of determining the position of a pitch to within a fraction of a ball width. What it cannot do, however, is accurately determine the position of the strike zone. The strike zone is not only different for every batter, but it is determined at the moment a batter is prepared to strike at a pitch – and not from his initial stance. Since we currently do not possess the technology to have a computer calculate strike zone sizing in that fraction of a second when batters are preparing to strike at a pitch, human judgment is still required to determine the position of the strike zone. Either you let an umpire behind the plate make that judgment, or a computer operator. And the computer operator himself does not have enough time to accurately place a strike zone in that fraction of a second — not nearly as quickly as an umpire can figure it out in his mind. So the rules for how a strike zone is determined would need to be changed to something far more static requiring a lot less judgment — and once again, that would be a fundamental change in how the game is played.

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        • chongo says:

          It would change the game- but for the worse? Ok, so the strike zone varies batter by batter, but only the top and bottom of the zone. The left and right side should be the same- the black of the plate. Right?
          In which case many technologies could be in place to cover the side boundaries of the plate, 3 dimensional zones from the exact width of the plate up to the sky- it would eliminate half of the blown calls, and still leave it up to the umps to catch the strikes that touch the top and bottom of the zone (which varies batter to batter). And the “zone” doesn’t have to show up the umpire- it could instantly tell him the call and he could gesture the call to everybody else watching. It is difficult to watch the amount of mistakes made by the umps every game- any reduction would help maintain some integrity. Every year the issue is magnified in the playoffs. Just because it was aceptable in 1913 doesn’t mean it should be acceptable in 2013

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        • TheMaskedUmp says:

          @Chongo – Whether such a change would be for the worse or not is a matter of opinion, isn’t it? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that current MLB umpires have operated for too long without proper supervision and meaningful accountability. No one is evaluating their mechanics. Bad habits form, complacency sets in — and the current system of absent supervision allows it to happen. The solution isn’t to replace umpires with computers. The solution is to implement an evaluation system that ensures umpires continue to demonstrate exemplary techniques throughout their careers.

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    • Man From Nantucket says:

      This is the point I was trying to make in my comment above.

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  14. Craig says:

    Love the Lucroy shout out. Have you also noticed that his backup, Maldonaldo happens to be an excellent pitch framer as well (and a better pitch blocker and way better arm). I really have nothing to add to this article other than the Brewers having the best pair of pitch framers in the game. Though their pitchers could use all the help they could get.

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  15. Jon L. says:

    This is incredibly timely, considering that earlier tonight was what the announcers are calling one of the worst strike calls they’ve ever seen, costing the Rays a chance to come back against Texas. In both cases, I feel like the movement of the pitch helped the pitcher’s case in getting the call. Both pitches start out closer to the strike zone, and then tail away and also, at some point, disappear from the umpire’s view.

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  16. TheMaskedUmp says:

    There are multiple causes for a plate umpire missing a ball or strike call. One way is getting squeezed out as I talked about in my earlier post – the umpire doesn’t get to see very much of the flight path when he gets squeezed out. In many cases, he is guessing.

    Another way the catcher can cause an umpire to miss a pitch is by rising too soon from his crouch. If the catcher rises too soon, he risks completely blocking out the plate umpire from seeing the pitch. Umpires will almost never call a strike if they get blocked out by a catcher that rises too soon.

    Also how the catcher catches a pitch can sometimes be a factor – as the author of this blog touches on in his framing paragraph. I have witnessed many times a pitch that passes through the strike zone, but is caught poorly by the catcher, called a ball. This is called “catcher’s influence,” and it can sometimes determine the call. It can turn a borderline strike into a borderline ball — and you won’t hear a peep from anyone in protest at the call.

    The next way plate umpires miss pitches is by poor mechanics. The most common error in plate mechanics occurs when the umpire fails to “lock in” to his stance. The plate umpire’s head must remain perfectly still for his eyes to accurately track the entire flight path of the pitch. If he is not locked in to his stance and his head is moving, that means his eyes are moving. And it’s much more difficult to track a moving pitch when your head and eyes are also moving. This type of lapse in mechanics usually occurs from simple bad habit — which is why umpires should require regular evaluations of their mechanics.

    Another factor that causes plate umpires to miss pitches is a phenomenon known as “tunnel vision”. It is more of a mental lapse, usually caused by fatigue in late innings, where the umpire fails to track the entire path of the pitch with his eyes, losing focus, and determining his call too soon — before the ball reaches the plate. Any late movement is not witnessed when tunnel vision occurs.

    Naturally, there are other causes which include simple human error, as well as plate umpires themselves being fooled by a pitch. But the next time you see a plate umpire egregiously miss a call, look for some of these factors — was his head moving? Did he seem to decide too soon? Is he getting squeezed out of the slot? Did the catcher jump up too soon?

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  17. Schuxu says:

    “The average K/BB in games with a margin of at least five runs was 2.6. Does that mean anything?”

    How much of this is due the hitters? Are there comparisons of swing% between close games and blowouts?

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  18. Danny says:

    For smarter people out there than I…or maybe someone with umpiring experience: Is there certain pitches that are harder to calm then others? Without researching it, Rodney throws about 97-98 mph with good late life and fools a number of hitters causing them to take. Would his pitch then fool umpires, especially when they are being “squeezed out” as someone above mentioned. I would imagine 98 is hard to track for anyone, and then add in some good movement and maybe it makes itself one of the harder ones to call. Personally I would think a good curveball with sharp movement would be the hardest for an ump. Maybe this could be looked at somehow to determine with pitch is called incorrectly the most. My guess would be a curve, but maybe a 97+ 2seamer is missed more. Just a thought.

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    • TheMaskedUmp says:

      It isn’t really a question of certain pitches being harder to call than others. It’s a question of proper mechanics. The end of the Rangers/Rays game last night is a perfect example. Marty Foster blew the call. But we know *why* he blew the call. He blew it because his mechanics are lazy. He blew it because he has little supervision over his mechanics, he has developed bad habits, and that culminated in a horrendous call last night. Watch the replay of the pitch that ended the game and gave Joe Nathan his 300th save, and you will see a classic example of an umpire who was not locked in to his stance. His head is moving, which means his eyes are moving — and it becomes exponentially more difficult to judge an object moving at 85-95mph when your own head and eyes are also moving. The solution to these issues with umpires in MLB is not to replace the umpires with computers — but to put in place a meaningful evaluation and supervisory system for MLB umpires. They currently have none. And these guys end up developing very bad habits that aren’t getting policed, and so those bad habits fester until one day something happens like what happened last night.

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