Investigating The Worst Strike Zone of 2014

Let’s talk for a second about Scott Carroll, a generally unknown right-handed 29-year-old rookie pitcher for the White Sox, although this isn’t really going to be about Scott Carroll. He doesn’t throw all that hard, topping out at around 91 mph. He doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts, but he also doesn’t limit walks particularly well, leading to the second-worst K%-BB% in baseball, minimum 80 innings. When he survives, it’s because of a somewhat-decent ability to get grounders. If and when the White Sox are good again, he’s probably not going to be a big part of it, but for a back-end starter on a bad team, you get by with what you can. Needless to say, Carroll exists in the big leagues on a razor-thin margin of error, though he’s occasionally capable of bursts of brilliance, like taking a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning against the Red Sox last month.

With all that working against him, for Carroll to succeed, a lot of things have to go very right. You’ll be forgiven if you didn’t pay much attention to Saturday’s huge Carroll/Yohan Pino matchup between the fourth-place White Sox and last-place Twins, but now matter how unimportant a game may seem, there’s always something of interest to be found. Unfortunately for Carroll, what he found was umpire Gary Cederstrom having what looked like a very bad day.

A really bad day, actually. Thanks to the wonderful Baseball Savant, we can look at umpires and see who called the most supposed strikes (per the PitchF/X zone) as balls. Since the start of 2013, this game ranked pretty highly…

Percentage of PitchF/X strikes called balls, 2013-14

  1. 5.02%, Mike DiMuro, 2013-05-22
  2. 4.78%, Gary Cederstrom, 2014-08-02
  3. 4.71%, Sam Holbrook, 2013-07-14
  4. 4.70%, Dale Scott, 2013-06-16
  5. 4.68%, Dale Scott, 2014-04-06

…or lowly, depending on your perspective. It had the highest percentage of “missed strikes” of the season, and the second-highest of the last two years. Why?

Here’s how Gameday saw Carroll’s first four pitches of the day, to Twins leadoff man Danny Santana, and remember that green dots mean balls, red dots mean strikes:


No red dots. All green dots. That is… unfortunate. I simply can’t see an image like that and not want to investigate it further. But okay, fine, Gameday isn’t always perfect. Let’s see what really happened here, and take advantage of one of the few times that having Ken Harrelson‘s commentary is going to be an added bonus. To the GIFs!

Here’s the first pitch of the game:


Harrelson noted “Good pitch. Didn’t get it,” but maybe we’re already seeing an issue here. Catcher Adrian Nieto, a Rule 5 pick who was in Single-A for Washington last season, stabs at the ball, a good example of pitch framing — or lack thereof — in action. (Nieto has started just 24 games this year, so the samples are small, but in the limited data available, he’s rated as below-average.)

Pitch two looks basically identical:


Harrelson: “There’s a blueprint of the first pitch. Should be 0-2, and it’s 2-0.”
Steve Stone: “We’ll see what Gary Cederstrom’s strike zone is, because those two were both pretty good pitches, they both had the whole plate, they had it at the knees at the inside corner.”

Pitch three:


Harrelson: “Well, it doesn’t bode well for a sinkerball pitcher if the umpire’s not going to give you that pitch.”
Stone: “He’s put three of them in the zone, and it’s 3-0 on Santana.”

Higher than the first two, this looks like the best pitch of the three, and Nieto didn’t stab at it as much… but he also didn’t catch it. Rightly or wrongly, that’s pretty much a requirement for an umpire calling a strike, no matter where the ball is.

Now at 3-0…


Harrelson: “Actually, he had four pitches in that at-bat that caught the plate… and he’s standing on first base.” That one certainly looked good and again was low; unsurprisingly, Cederstrom’s game was also the highest percentage of “missed low strikes” this year, by a lot.

Unfortunately for Carroll, it didn’t get better with the following hitter, Brian Dozier:


The first pitch to Dozier, seemingly inside and probably the worst one of the first seven Carroll throws, actually gets a strike call:


Harrelson, by now, is laughing. “That’s a strike… oh boy.” The next one shows up as a low strike on PitchF/X, but looks a bit low on the video, again with little help from Nieto:


Harrelson, meanwhile, is displeased: “I don’t understand this. Gary’s a good umpire. So far, he’s thrown six pitches, five of them have had the plate.” Stone: “If you’re a sinkerballer, and you’re not going to get the low strike… that’s when you get the ball up, and that’s when you get hurt.”

Clearly, that wasn’t in the cards for the day; looking at the “missed” strikes on a heat map, they were all low:


 (That’s 13 pitches; five came when the White Sox were batting, so it went both ways.) Again, Carroll goes low on 1-1; again, it’s a PitchF/X strike; again, Nieto really doesn’t help his pitcher out.


Carroll, perhaps certain now that he can’t throw low in the zone, has to come up to Dozier. Guess how that worked out:


Harrelson, though admittedly biased towards “the good guys,” is now nearly apoplectic. “That figures, when you’ve got to get it up. Should have had Santana struck out, he’s on third. Now also man a first, no one out. Good thing that Thurman Munson wasn’t behind the plate, he might have been thrown out after the first hitter.”

The next hitter, Trevor Plouffe, doubled; the next, Josh Willingham, walked, though on less controversial calls, as Harrelson quizzed Stone, a pitcher for 11 years, what he would do if an umpire wasn’t giving you anything. By the end of the inning, Carroll had thrown 26 pitches and let two runs in, plus additional runs in the second and third innings, against the same Twins team he’d held to one run over six innings his last time out.

It’s not easy to be a big league pitcher, especially one without elite stuff. It’s harder when the umpire isn’t doing you any favors. It’s nearly impossible when your rookie catcher isn’t helping, either. Just consider this reminder eleven billion that everything in baseball is interconnected; even something as seemingly straight-forward as a pitcher throwing a strike doesn’t happen only because of where the pitcher puts the ball.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or