It Isn’t Always About Framing

Saturday night in Seattle, the Mariners were playing the Rangers, and the score was 1-1 going into the top of the eighth inning. Carter Capps relieved Joe Saunders, and the broadcast warned that Capps shouldn’t walk leadoff batter Craig Gentry, because Gentry is one of the quicker runners in the league. Also because you shouldn’t walk anybody if you can help it. Capps subsequently walked Gentry, and Gentry scored, and that run would prove to be the winning run in a 3-1 final. Gentry walked on seven pitches and a full count.

It was a walk not without its controversy, although it looks like a bigger deal now than it seemed at the time. With the count 2-and-2, Capps threw Gentry a fastball in the low-away quadrant that easily could’ve been called strike three. Gameday shows that the pitch was within the strike zone, and during the game other strikes were called in the area. The pitch was ruled ball three, and the next pitch was a far less controversial ball four. Hence the walk, hence the run, hence the loss. It didn’t sit very well with Carter Capps, not that the one pitch was the reason the Mariners lost the ballgame.

The pitch in question:

CappsGentry1.gif.opt

Now, if you’d like to see it in slower motion:

CappsGentry2.gif.opt

The little pixelated black cloud was not a part of the baseball game. Either my .gif optimizer didn’t like the screen freeze, or I’m picking up on a ghost. Either way, it’s not worth pursuing on FanGraphs.

The guy behind the plate was Kelly Shoppach, not noted across-the-board disappointment Jesus Montero. Here are screenshots of the target and the pitch around the front of home plate:

cappsgentry1

cappsgentry2

All right, those are all my images. Now, it’s evident that the fastball wasn’t thrown right down the middle. It was something of a borderline pitch, even though it was more strike than ball. Nobody here is going to be absolutely correct. If this pitch is called a strike, maybe the Rangers don’t score, and maybe the Mariners win. After this pitch was called a ball, the Rangers scored, and the Mariners lost. One can understand why the Mariners might be a little peeved. A few tweets on the subject:

 

 


While I’ll own up to being a Mariners fan, my intent here is not to complain about a questionable pitch call that went the wrong way. I should hope that people don’t think I’m ever biased in the Mariners’ favor; just because I’m a Mariners fan doesn’t mean I actually like them most of the time. My intent here is to highlight something about how and why some pitches get called in some ways.

Again, this was a close pitch. In the past, when there were close pitches that went the wrong way, people blamed the umpires. Then, some time ago, many of us started paying closer attention to pitch-framing. Pitch-framing has at least taken certain corners of the Internet by storm, and now people are keeping an eye out for it. When a close pitch is called a strike, people credit the catcher. When a close pitch is called a ball, people blame the catcher. Framing makes a difference, and what people have been conditioned now to believe is that framing makes a huge difference.

Framing is a factor. When a pitch is thrown and taken, there are a variety of factors influencing how the pitch is judged. Framing is one of them, but there are so many others, and let’s watch that .gif from above again:

CappsGentry1.gif.opt

That’s a fastball, and Shoppach didn’t receive it poorly. Maybe he stabbed a little too much, I don’t know, but Shoppach kept his body quiet and stuck the ball when it arrived. He still didn’t get the call. There probably wasn’t a lot Shoppach could’ve done to make that a strike, even though the pitch seems to have caught the zone.

If a missed call isn’t the catcher’s fault, it has to be the umpire’s fault. Heck, even if it is the catcher’s fault, it’s still the umpire’s fault. The umpire is just supposed to call the strike zone, and now we’re talking about the good ol’ human element. It’s been evident since the very dawn of baseball that humans make imperfect arbiters, but consider this a sympathetic exercise. In this instance, it isn’t an umpire calling a pitch on the edge of the zone. It’s an umpire calling a 97 mile-per-hour Carter Capps fastball on the edge of the zone.

Not all pitches will be able to be judged with equivalent accuracy. That wouldn’t make sense, because judgments are based on how pitches look, and different pitches look different. Look at those tweets above and consider the words from Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis. He isn’t wrong that the pitch was probably a strike, but he also isn’t wrong in that Capps presumably makes things more difficult than they already are. Capps throws pitches that move fast and move a lot. He also throws them from an unusual arm angle, so not only will the umpires get a different look; his fastball and slider won’t break like a conventional pitcher’s fastball and slider. A guy like Capps is weird to see from behind the plate, so a guy like Capps is probably destined to end up with something of an inconsistent strike zone.

I don’t have readily accessible information about different arm slots and throwing mechanics. I do have readily accessible velocity information, right here on FanGraphs. Let’s concentrate on average fastball velocity. Now, I’ve written before about a home-brewed stat called Diff/1000. This is the difference between strikes and expected strikes per 1,000 called pitches, based on the PITCHf/x plate-discipline data available on these pages. A negative Diff/1000 means a pitcher got a smaller strike zone. A positive Diff/1000 means a pitcher got a more favorable strike zone. Got it? Got it.

I grouped data going back to 2008, separating starters and relievers. For starters, I set a 200-inning minimum, and for relievers I set a 100-inning minimum. For all pitchers, I calculated Diff/1000. For starters, the correlation between average fastball velocity and Diff/1000 is -0.26. For relievers, the correlation between average fastball velocity and Diff/1000 is -0.34. These aren’t real strong, but they are meaningful, and they don’t account for catcher identity. What the numbers show is that, the harder a guy throws, the less favorable a strike zone he gets.

In general, not in every case. But there’s a reason guys like Jamie Moyer and Livan Hernandez show up with bigger zones. There’s a reason guys like Brandon League and Ronald Belisario and Mark Lowe show up with smaller zones. Pitches that move faster are harder to evaluate. So are pitches that move more rather than less, I’m guessing. So are pitches thrown from unusual arm angles, I’m guessing. It seems to help to have a reputation for good command. That makes things easier for the catcher, and to some extent the umpire will be biased. But there are a lot of factors at play, here, and one has to understand what it’s like to be standing behind a catcher. Some people’s pitches are just easier to evaluate than others, and there’s nothing an umpire can do to change that truth. A guy who throws 95 will have greater strike zone error bars than a guy who throws 85.

Of course, this isn’t independent of pitch-framing. It’s also harder to receive a guy with wicked stuff, and then that’ll have its own influence. But the bottom line is that the fate of a called pitch is never entirely up to the backstop. He can exert some influence over the umpire, but it’s only partial, and the umpire will have more trouble with a nastier pitch than he will with a less-nasty pitch. This is probably what happened with Carter Capps against Craig Gentry on Saturday night. If you want to rationalize it, you can think of this as a small tax for possessing a higher-quality repertoire. In some small way it helps to even the playing field. Capps might throw to a smaller zone, but he also gets to throw like Carter Capps. Most people would take that trade. Is it a trade that should need to be made? Everyone, in theory, should be able to throw to the same strike zone, but as long as things are the way they are, that’s just impossible. It’s impossible, for so many reasons.




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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.


40 Responses to “It Isn’t Always About Framing”

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  1. Nick says:

    Jeff,

    There was a pitch in the KC/TOR that was absolutely right in the middle of the strike zone called a ball because Arencibia set-up off the plate and had to reach back over the plate to receive it. We need a gif of that! I think Morrow threw it.

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    • Nick says:

      It might have been Delabar in the 8th inning

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      • Nick says:

        Yeah we need a .gif of the 2nd pitch to Salvador Perez from Delabar in the 8th inning of yesterday’s game. It’s like bizarro Jose Molina.

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        • jaysin2013 says:

          yeah that was a weird one. could not have been a clearer strike. I know “umps are a part of the game”, but it is not weird that we have humans calling the game on the field, but yet we are showing the pitch location and strikezone on the tv screen after each pitch. So… even if the umpire is wrong, and we know they are wrong, the game goes on. This is like having goalline laser technology in hockey and eagle-eye technology in tennis…. AND NOT USING IT. Umps are humans, and our eyes are not evolutionarily designed to make small spatial judgements based on tiny objects moving 100mph. Either let the computers call the game, or at least stop showing me when they are wrong (which happens quite often).

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  2. alamosweet says:

    There are certainly moments when a pitcher and catcher are penalized for the catcher’s inability to complete the transaction, as it were. There are strikes right down the middle called balls when, for example, a catcher drops or misses the pitch. I think umpires are consciously or subconsciously considering the catcher’s skill in the equation, above and beyond the pure location of the pitch.

    My opinion is that Shoppach didn’t frame that pitch overly well, which was one of several split-second factors in the decision.

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  3. Caveman Jones says:

    The other night when Hanrahan blew the save against the Os in the 9th and allowed 5 runs he actually had the game won with a very clear strike 3 on the inside corner, but Saltalamachia stabbed at it and pulled it way off the plate. I think it was even more of a strike than Capps’ pitch. But poor pitch framing lead to a walk to load the bases and the Os went on to tie it up and then take the lead. It’s amazing how the results of baseball can hinge so significantly on a couple of inches.

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  4. Andy Brandt says:

    Probably the wrong article for this comment but, can a home plate umpire see a catcher’s glove well enough for framing to matter? I’d like to see a picture of their view.

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    • fireal20 says:

      When I umpired at the high school level (a few D3 college games), I tended to not notice the catcher’s mitt at all. Now, to be fair, I was able to put my face directly over the catcher’s left shoulder, which mostly took the mitt out of view. Since I was dealing with velocities in the mid-80s at their highest, and usually closer to high-70s, I felt fairly comfortable that I wouldn’t be injured doing that. I’d imagine dealing with velocities in the mid-90s would cause you to back off from the catcher a little bit, which would definitely bring the mitt back into view.

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    • eye-roll says:

      It’s not just the mitt, though — it’s the catcher’s entire body language and motion. Is he lunging for a ball that isn’t where he was expecting to receive it? Does he have to move his feet or swing his body? That’s all visible to the ump’s peripheral vision, even if he’s not consciously looking for it (and in fact if he’s just subconsciously absorbing it it may be even more influential)

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  5. mike wants wins says:

    They don’t always hings on the inches, though, that’s the problem. They hinge on the inability of the umpires to accurately enforce the rules, and even worse, to consistently enforce the rules the same for every batter / pitcher within a game. No one “earns” a bigger or smaller strike zone. How is that a fair competition? I will be happy when the old people (and I’m one) are no longer running MLB, and we can get better balls and strikes.

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    • X says:

      No, man, you don’t understand. It’s like when the scoreboard operator forgets to add 1 to a team’s run count after a guy crosses the plate. These things just happen; since they happen equally frequently to both teams, it balances out in the end.

      Plus, it introduces a really interesting element to the game: run framing! When you cross home and really stomp on the plate, the scoreboard guy strongly gets a sense that you scored a run. Some guys cross the plate in a really limp or jerky way, so they hardly even deserve a run. Teams have already started recruiting players who can run-frame effectively.

      Anyway, you don’t mess with the tradition of having a random guy increment scores. Tradition!

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  6. RationalSportsFan says:

    Love this article.

    A lot of the recent internet discussion of framing has confused me. It seems like most people are giving the catcher all the blame and credit for strikes called balls and balls called strikes, respectively. Yet basically everyone agrees that the pitcher is a giant factor (this article does a great job discussing various potential ways this can be the case). And everyone basically agrees that sometimes the umpire just makes a mistake, regardless of the pitcher or catcher’s influence.

    Given all this, why in the world are catchers receiving all the the blame/credit when it comes to translating framing into runs saved. The flaws of doing so are analogous to assuming a pitcher controls every ball in play and giving him credit/blame while ignoring the presence of the fielders.

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    • Baltar says:

      This comment, much like one in Jeff’s article on the same subject, are aimed at straw men. There is nobody that claims that pitch framing is the sole cause of borderline pitches being called as they are.
      It is conclusively a factor, and it is conclusively a skill. That is certainly new to the sabermetric community and to much of the rest of baseballdom as well.
      Perhaps it is being exaggerated, perhaps not. Nevertheless, it is a new toy, and as such a lot more people are playing with it, i.e. discussing it, right now.
      Regardless, this new discovery is a very important one.
      The fact that fast ball pitchers get a smaller strike zone is new to me and also an important discovery.
      Thanks, Jeff.

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      • RationalSportsFan says:

        It is not a straw man since catchers are ACTUALLY getting this credit in some version of a Runs Saved stat. I was not arguing that people believe the catcher is the only one who influences these borderline calls. If I had done so, that would be a straw man. Rather, I am asking why, when everyone recognizes the influences of the pitcher and umpire, some seem comfortable only applying the Runs Saved stat to catchers.

        So my main issue is that framing is being included in the statistical evaluation of catcher defense when we are not even close to knowing how much influence each of the three parties (catcher, pitcher, and umpire) has on these borderline calls.

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  7. Sandy Kazmir says:

    Rays game ended against Texas with tying run on base. Even-handed criticism to follow. Mariners lose for want of a nail and one-sided commentary to follow. It’s really hard to take this blog seriously when the two authors that pump out the most work are such gigantic Mariners homers. Just don’t write about your own teams. I enjoy your style and what you bring to the table, but this is nauseating.

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  8. Schuxu says:

    I wonder why the umpires err towards the hitter when the pitches get faster.

    In our european amatuer baseball it seems the other way around. When a pitcher throws faster then most of his peers the umpires are so impressed that everything gets called a strike.

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  9. CircleChange11 says:

    I humbly suggest that perhaps the catcher “over-framed” it.

    Framing is NOT pulling pitches out of the zone into the zone. It IS catching strikes in a way that shows the umpire without question it’s a strike.

    The catcher pulls the pitch 2-4 inches (guesstimation) back towards his body (or center of the plate). THAT motion may have signaled to the umpire that the catcher thought the ball “needed a little help” or that the catcher was trying to “steal one”.

    My son catches and we practice some rather advanced stuff for his age, and I always explain framing as being analogous to being honest. Trying to frame balls is like trying to tell a small lie. If you do it to often, people stop believing you even when you are telling the truth.

    In other words, if you try to frame pitches that are balls in such a way as to “steal them as strikes”, then when you “frame” a strike on the border, the umps assumption might be that it wasn;t really a strike, but was over-framed.

    A well framed pitch does not reveal intentional catcher movement. This catcher has significant and obvious movement of the glove. IMHO, if he had just “stuck it” with perhaps some slight fold or wrist bend, it’s a great frame. I think the whole bringing it close to the body and/or center of the plate was an over-frame and perhaps convinced the ump that the pitch was never really a strike, but a con job.

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    • Jason B says:

      “Trying to frame balls is like trying to tell a small lie.”

      Man I think I would hate growing up in your house… :)

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        Heh He. It’s not my invention, people that coach catchers and run catching academies say the same thing.

        Simply put, umpires don;t like it when they perceive catchers are “trying to call balls and strikes” via framing rather than letting the umpires do it. At the upper levels, trying to frame pitches that aren’t strikes is an insult to the umpire’s intelligence (insert your own joke here).

        On a serious note, catchers and umpires have a unique working relationship, and one that is built on trust, both in terms of protecting the umpire and consistent treatment of balls and strikes. If the catcher is doing things that disrupt that, it upsets the ump.

        We’ve had umps at the HS level come over and tell us (coaches) to tell our catcher to stop “framing everything” because it’s getting the crowd going behind the plate and there’s about 3 dads who are about to be ejected and it’s all the catcher’s fault. Not quite the same thing as what I described earlier. But, umpires don’t like it when catchers trying to make balls look like strikes. It may be a good thing at lower levels with lesser umpires, but at the highest levels, umpires don;t take kindly to “being told” when to call it a strike or not via catcher framing.

        Had a buddy ump AAA, and his quote was “You don’t frame a dirty diaper just because your kid made it.”

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  10. Coodle says:

    Why are you so biased, you biased prick!

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  11. jsolid says:

    Regarding the study on the connection between pitch speed and strike calls. i think you moved to quickly from correlation to causation. i can easily think of some other factors that would be causing the variation in strike call fidelity.

    Pitchers who throw fast and those who throw slow are not equivalent. most importantly, I’m sure that on average, faster throwers have more movement over all their pitches. if youve watched umpires try to call curveballs ever, you know that movement makes calling strikes hard.

    soft throwers, on average, have better control, because they must in order to stay in the big leagues. this better control reputation leads to getting more calls from the umpires.

    for the same reason, the two pitcher types probably have a different proportion of pitches near the edge, which are the only ones likely to be called wrong.

    also, i would imagine that fast and soft throwers get a slightly different profile of pitches taken, like pitch type and proximity to the strike zone edge. so this difference in strike calls may reflect the difference in which pitches are taken, not differing calls on similar pitches.

    What I’ve suggested is more work, but otherwise there is too much confounding for a causal statement between fastball velocity and ump accuracy.

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    • Baltar says:

      Whoa, very interesting and well-though-out comment.

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      • Jason B says:

        We can’t have that here. Dave and Dave sent him a strongly-worded warning denigrating his mother and impugning his cocksmanship.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I would have guessed that lesser velocity pitchers have MORE movement than higher velocity pitchers. Both out of necessity, and that the lesser velocity allows the ball more “time” to move, or travel a greater distance.

      I may or may not be right about this, which is why I said “I would have guessed”.

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    • Balthazar says:

      So jsolid, I’ll concur that the hypothesis that velocity alone or principally is the causative factor in more calls being missed is only weakly demonstrated here, and surely requires more investigation.

      That said, and while I’m not trying to rip you at all, your alternative explanations raised themselves include more embedded but unproven assumptions than does Jeff’s study. ‘Faster throwers have more movement on all their pitches’ is something that needs to be _founded in data_ rather than assumed. I wouldn’t necessarily assume that at all, certainly with regard to ‘all their pitches thrown.’ A guy with 95 on his four-seamer may, or may not, get more movement on his slider, and so on. And there are plenty of guys throwing try straight hard stuff also. Sure, you raise a valid concern, but without data it’s hard to say what it means. Similarly, the idea the guys who throw less hard have better control is quite problematic. For one thing, guys who throw less hard manifestly have to work the corners more since they can’t afford to be in the fat part of the zone as much. Thus, even if slower guys have better control, they are highly likely to be locating in zones where they’ll get fewer accurate calls. That by itself may balance out or more so the calls they might get on a ‘repetitional’ basis. And then too, guys with fewer mph on their fastballs need _some_ kind of out pitch, which implies they routinely use something that has ‘more movement.’ Since the study done isn’t broken down by pitch type (surely something we’d want for confirmation in future work if possible), we can’t know whether, for example, slower guys are getting more calls on their fastball, but more than losing that advantage off of bendier secondary stuff so that it only looks like, in aggregate, that ‘slower guys get fewer calls,’ implying the correlation to velocity.

      I’d argue in addition or instead of the points you raise that guys with extreme arm slots are less likely to get the call. The reason for that is that if there is a ‘normal distribution’ arm slot, umpires will simply see pitches coming in on that angle and trajectory more often and so become perceptually most trained to pick up final location from that whereas extremes are less common and moreover will have to fight the potential embedded bias in the umpire’s perception toward a normative motion. But that, too, is just an assumption without actual evidence behind it.

      Sullivan: “For starters, the correlation between average fastball velocity and Diff/1000 is -0.26. For relievers, the correlation between average fastball velocity and Diff/1000 is -0.34.” That is the data we have. As stated, the correlations _aren’t_ that strong. If the causative hypothesis call:velocity is weakly demonstrated then, still it’s the _only_ hypothesis here which has a foundation in actual data. And given the size of the data set, it makes a reasonable ‘working hypothesis,’ as it were.

      But going back to Capps on the pitch in question, it’s fairly easy to see _why_ he didn’t get the call, and it has nothing to do with Shoppach. Watch the pitch trajectory: As thrown, that fastball is going to be solidly off the plate—but then has truly wicked arm side run on it to veer back late and catch the corner. For most of its trajectory, the pitch in motion doesn’t ‘read’ like a strike, and even at the end it’s only moving toward the strike zone just enough to nick the black. It is going to be inherently harder for an umpire to judge a borderline strike if the pitch only picks up the zone at the very last instant, inherently the observation is going to biased toward the preceding instants of view when a pitch is not heading toward the zone. That, to me, is why breaking balls don’t always get the calls they ‘should’ since many spend most of their trajectories giving the impression that they won’t be a strike so the umpire has to overcome a perceptual bias in an already borderline area of the zone. (And Carter gave up a hit to the bater after Gentry which is why he really lost the game. Carter’s given up a few too many hits, filthy stuff notwithstanding, he needs a bit more focus on making the key pitches in at-bats).

      So as an area of further study, if any is done, I’d suggest video analysis to see how release points and pitch trajectories do (and don’t) bias strike calling patterns, and then using that information to weight the overall data in some way. I.e. a guy with release point X and typical trajectory Y ‘should’ get Z DIFF of calls; does Player A get that, or what happens?

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  12. LK says:

    It seems to me that you’re taking the result that faster pitches tend to get called balls more often when they’re actually strikes, and attributing it to the fact that these pitches are harder to call. I don’t think this really follows – if the pitches were simply harder to call, one would expect an increase both in the number of strikes called balls and in the number of balls called strikes, i.e. a lower percentage of the calls would be correct but not necessarily favoring the hitter or pitcher. As one commenter noted above, some of this may be due to confounding factors, like slower throwers tending to have better command. I also wonder if the umpires tend to call balls more often than strikes when they’re unsure about whether or not the pitch was in the strike zone for some reason.

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  13. thetruth says:

    pitchfx is now accurate to within fractions of an inch every single time, and yet umps are still allowed to call brandon league fastballs in the very centre of the zone balls without any technical assistance.

    i hope that within the next few years umps are required to wear a ‘google glasses’ eyepiece that flashes up a strike zone overlay over one eye, and then mlb would need to punish umps that continue to make egregious calls because at that point it would be done out of spite and not because of an error in judgment.

    oh, and give armando his perfect game already.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      I am pretty sure it is not every single time.

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    • cass says:

      How on earth do you know that pitch f/x is accurate? Have you performed or read a study that proves his accuracy? Cause any system can put dots on a grid. How do you know those dots line up with the actual, real-life, three-dimensional strike zone? What independant verification have you performed to ensure that pitch f/x isn’t misrepresenting where pitches ended up?

      We do know that some pitch f/x installations register velocity higher than others, so it seems silly to assume that the pitch f/x camera don’t also make mistakes in location. Also, the strikezone is three-dimensional. A plane can represent this pretty well, but not entirely.

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  14. Trotter76 says:

    The other thing I noticed was that the umpire was set up off the inside corner, so when the ball crossed the plate his eyes were approximately 2 feet from the pitch horizontally. Imagine looking across at the ball from that vantage point, it would cross the dirt, not the plate. I think the ump was too far from the plate to get a good look at the outside corner, hence the ball call. I don’t think it had anything to do with Shoppach. The fact that the ball had a definite tail back toward the plate probably didn’t help Capps either, but I’m calling out the ump on his positioning on this one.

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    • fireal20 says:

      The umpire is taught to set up as close to the inside corner as possible and not move their heads. The reason for this is twofold. One, you’d like to get the inside strike call dead on if you can, because if you give a pitcher an inch or two off the inside of the plate, he might try to get more than that and hit a few batters in the process (not that this logic is perfectly sound, but that’s the idea). Two, you don’t want your head to move because it makes determining the position of the ball much more difficult. Too, you don’t exactly have time to move when a guy is throwing 95.

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    • John K says:

      Interesting to read this after reading “Jason Castro on Catcher Framing.” Shoppach’s shoulders and knees suggest that his body was angled in such a way that it made it more difficult for the ump to see the ball.

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  15. joser says:

    just because I’m a Mariners fan doesn’t mean I actually like them most of the time.

    Right there with you Jeff. They’re like the drunk uncle that shows up at family gatherings making inappropriate jokes and talking wild conspiracy theories; every year you think maybe it’ll be different and every year you’re disappointed.

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  16. PackBob says:

    Another factor in this particular example is the batter checking his swing, so the ump has to pay attention to two simultaneous actions, enough to get both calls correct. I would guess that how far a batter stands from the plate can be an influence and also how the batter reacts to a pitch, although both of these are probably more subconscious considerations. The prior pitch may also have had effect. Pitchers set up hitters and I’d bet umpires get fooled sometimes just as hitters do.

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