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Jim Joyce’s Strike Zone: Not That Bad, Turns Out

Because I’m married — and because my wife informed me that we needed to “get out of the house” at around 5pm CT or whatever — I watched the last third of yesterday afternoon’s Cardinals-Nationals NLDS game from a very authentic sort of supper club near my house in Madison, Wisconsin.

Watching baseball at a supper club in Wisconsin is nothing to complain about — one is warm, one is drinking a brandy Old Fashioned, one is drinking (later on) a second brandy Old Fashioned. Life, in short, has been perfected.

What is something to complain about, I learned — especially if you’re Matt Holliday or the TBS broadcast team or (later on) the entire internet — is home-plate umpire Jim Joyce’s strike zone.

These were not complaints that I actually heard with my own ears. Perhaps the one drawback of watching a baseball game at an authentic sort of supper club in Wisconsin is that a constant soundtrack of top hits from the 50s and 60s and 70s takes precedence over audio commentary.

However, all was not lost: as a married person — and especially as a married person who is also an idiot — I have become quite adept at registering frustration in the facial and bodily expressions of others (wives, most notably, but different kinds of people, too). Which, as an expert in this area, frustration is what I registered on the face and body of Matt Holliday following the third pitch (and third called strike) of his eighth inning plate appearance against Nationals.

Can you spot it?

The strike call to which Matt Holliday is reacting most immediately here regards this pitch:

This pitch, according to PITCHf/x data from Brooks Baseball, was 1.319 feet from the center of home plate. Owing to how home plate is 17 inches wide — and, therefore, half of home plate is 8.5 inches (or .71 feet) — one feels pretty comfortable in saying that umpire Jim Joyce missed the call. That’s not ideal — especially given the situation (i.e. tied, possible elimination playoff game).

However, reactions to Joyce’s strike-calling for the duration of the game seem overstated. Not only was Joyce’s strike zone rather consistent over the course of the game, but it was mostly consistent with how umpires call strike zones all the time.

Let’s return to Holliday’s eighth inning plate appearance. Here, courtesy of Brooks again, are the locations of Clippard’s three pitches to Holliday:

“Those are all outside, you dirty Italian!” the reader cries aloud to the author. To which that same author responds: “I see that.” And also: “Maybe let’s keep the ethnic slurs to a minimum.”

Indeed, all of those pitches from Clippard to Holliday were off the plate — were, in fact, 1.175, 1.085, and 1.319 feet, respectively, from the middle of said plate, according to the data.

However, work from John Walsh on the strike zone at The Hardball Times from a few years ago demonstrates that umpires, on average, call a wider zone than the rule book otherwise dictates. Here, for example, is the normal strike zone to right-handed batters:

In fact, umpires call a strike zone that’s about a full two-feet wide. Applying that same zone to the Holliday at-bat, here’s what we find:

By this measure, we see that — relative to how the strike zone is usually called — that Joyce has only really erred notably on that third and final called strike to Hollday.

This was really the case during the entirety of the game. In fact, including the bad call to Holliday, Joyce made only three notably poor ball/strike calls on Thursday.

Here, by way of example, are all of Joyce’s calls with right-handers batting (with the actual strike zone, as it’s called, noted by hash marks):

And here are Joyce’s calls with left-handers batting (with the actual left-handed strike zone, as it’s called on average, noted by hash marks):

Indeed, besides the called third strike to Holliday, Joyce’s other notable errors came with Ross Detwiler pitching. Twice Joyce adjudged would-be strikes from Detwiler to be out of the zone — one, on a first-inning pitch to Jon Jay (the first pitch of the game, actually); the second, a fourth-inning pitch to Daniel Descalso.

Did Joyce’s one poor call draw some (probably deserved) attention because of the circumstances under which it occurred? Yes. Was that one poor call representative of a poorly called game, in general? The data would suggest not.