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:

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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.

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Let’s make this even easier:

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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:

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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?

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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:

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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.


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