A lot of analytical baseball articles today will make some sort of reference to catcher pitch-framing. References to pitch-framing will often make references to Jose Molina, and they will less often but still somewhat often make references to Livan Hernandez. References to Livan Hernandez often lead to recollections of the 1997 NLCS, and Eric Gregg’s strike zone in Game 5. Consensus is that Gregg’s zone was extremely favorable to Hernandez, and it was a big reason why the Marlins were able to get past the Braves and advance to the World Series.
Of course, that which is unusual has a tendency to become exaggerated, made extraordinary over time. Gregg’s Game 5 strike zone is today remembered as one of the worst umpiring performances ever in the game. One hyperbolic example of many:
Umpire Eric Gregg’s strike zone in this 1997 NL playoff matchup had viewers outraged. Pitches that sailed high over the heads of players were called strikes.
I’m pretty sure that never happened, although I’m not completely sure, since I don’t have access to a time machine, since I probably wouldn’t even know how to operate a time machine, and since I’m willing to believe in government cover-ups. Anyhow, Game 5, of course, came well before the era of PITCHf/x. It was four days before Bryce Harper‘s fifth birthday. There’s little we can do now to objectively evaluate Gregg’s actual strike zone. But there are some things we can do, and I think this is worthy of a reflection. Especially while the clip I found on YouTube still exists. Too late, Major League Baseball. You can take down the video, but I’ve already made the .gifs.
We’re looking for some sort of confirmation that Gregg’s strike zone was comically large. Confirmation beyond popular opinion. We can begin with some of the numbers. In Game 5, Livan Hernandez struck out 15 Braves batters in a complete game. That stands as Hernandez’s career-high. The runner-up: 11 strikeouts, in July 2001. Hernandez has done that once. He’s struck out ten batters in a game twice. Hernandez has started many hundreds of games.
Hernandez threw 143 pitches, and 88 of them were strikes. Of those, 37 were called strikes. That regular season, 29% of Hernandez’s strikes were called. In Game 5, 42% of Hernandez’s strikes were called. The other starter in Game 5 was Greg Maddux, and he struck out nine batters in seven innings. That was well above his regular-season rate. But 29% of his strikes were called, against a season rate of 28%. It’s not a great measure, but that hints at a more favorable strike zone for Hernandez.
Of some interest is that, during the season, Gregg was not unusually pitcher-friendly. Without controlling for anything, Gregg umpired a .750 OPS and a 2.2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The league averages were .756 and 1.9. Gregg might’ve been favorable, but he wasn’t obscenely so, based on his track record.
We can go beyond the numbers to opinion. Obviously, people remember Gregg’s zone for being just awful, and that has meaning. Even if things are exaggerated now, there was an origin for this. Jim Salisbury, right after Game 5:
If Florida Marlins righthander Livan Hernandez was the most popular man in South Florida yesterday, umpire Eric Gregg was a close second.
Benefiting from Gregg’s liberal strike zone, the 22-year-old Cuban defector pitched the game of his life in shackling the Atlanta Braves, 2-1, in Game 5 of the National League championship series at roaring Pro Player Stadium.
The big umpire from West Philadelphia had a strike zone so wide he could have slept in it. It left many Braves privately infuriated, and at least one publicly steamed.
“I’m so damn mad I can’t even see right now,” Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. “I know I swung at a couple of pitches that were a foot outside. I asked Eric if they were strikes, and he said yes. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Some people work all their lives to get into [a postseason] situation. It’s frustrating when you’re not allowed to do your job.”
Fred McGriff, who ended the game with a called strikeout:
“It was a little big,” the mild-mannered McGriff said of Gregg’s strike zone. “You couldn’t even hit some of those pitches.”
And I guess I have to include this blockquote:
The irony in all this, of course, is that no staff in baseball gets wide strike zones more often than the Braves. It’s a reputation thing. And Gregg did appear to use the same wide zone for both teams.
Gregg himself, in his own defense:
“My strike zone has been the same for 25 years. I don’t have any problem with it. Next question,” Gregg said.
“The kid did a great job. I am surprised I am getting these questions about my strike zone. Did you see anybody throwing helmets? Did you see me eject anybody? Everybody went along well. It was the same for both sides. It was no problem at all.”
Players felt like Gregg’s strike zone was too big, and reporters on the scene felt like Gregg’s strike zone was too big. Gregg thought his zone was just fine, but if he didn’t, he wouldn’t have called the zone like he did. Bobby Cox didn’t like the zone, but he was careful not to come off as being too upset about it, placing some of the blame on his hitters for not executing regardless of the circumstances. The Braves, I should have mentioned, lost 2-1.
But what we can do now is go straight to the source. The stuff above — that’s opinion, and that’s a set of numbers that beat around the bush. Numbers that hint indirectly. What did Eric Gregg’s strike zone actually look like? No better way to know than by looking at video of it. All of the .gifs you’ll find below were produced from a YouTube video. I apologize for the low quality, but this is bootleg video of a game from 1997 and I didn’t even know cameras were invented yet. I’m pretty sure the game was not played in front of a small illuminated lamp on a nightstand but then I wasn’t actually there.
The footage is from an off-center camera angle. That’s to be kept in mind. But here are called strikes by Eric Gregg for Livan Hernandez in the 1997 NLCS’ infamous Game 5. In a way this is like YouTube video of Jesus, or the Chicxulub crater bolide.
All of the pitches above were thrown to lefties — only Jeff Blauser, Eddie Perez, and Maddux batted right-handed against Hernandez. All of the pitches above were called strikes located off the outside edge of the plate and the rule-book zone. Many, if not all of the pitches above probably should’ve been balls. But for one thing, we’re not shown any comparison clips of Maddux’s zone, and for another, this game happened well before we developed an understanding of the “lefty strike”.
Those of you who have read strike-zone studies get now that the strike zone for left-handed hitters is shifted, covering some of the area outside off the plate. That’s just the way it is, for whatever reason or reasons, and while that doesn’t excuse Gregg’s zone, it does serve to reduce the magnitude of the offense. Hernandez got lots of strikes off the plate, but they weren’t as far from the zone as they might’ve seemed. We’ve now entered into a gray area, in case you weren’t aware. Gregg’s zone seems to have been bad, but it was probably less bad to some degree than thought. Perhaps somewhat understandably bad. Those strikes landed in an area where umpires — all umpires — are generous with strikes.
And there’s something to be said for the Livan Hernandez effect. Something about Hernandez just draws a more generous strike zone. At least, that’s the way it’s been lately, and presumably that’s the way it was before PITCHf/x, too. Again, that doesn’t excuse Gregg, but Hernandez has made a career of identifying where he can steal some extra strikes. If someone was going to get too big of a zone in an important game, it makes sense that it would be Livan, even Livan as a rookie. Believe it or not, there was a time at which Livan Hernandez wasn’t coming up on 40 years old.
Eric Gregg’s zone in Game 5 was big, based on all the evidence. Maybe that was the reason the Marlins beat the Braves. Maybe that was *a* reason the Marlins beat the Braves. We don’t know what the zone was like for Maddux, and we don’t have PITCHf/x data, and really the point of this was just to show off that video still exists out there somewhere of a game from the 90s that lives in infamy. Even if the video is removed, the .gifs will live on. The awfulness of Gregg’s zone has probably been exaggerated, given the way that umpires call strikes with left-handed hitters, and given the way umpires call strikes with Livan Hernandez. But it was still bad, which means everyone’s happy. Baseball fans know more about a well-known game, Marlins fans get to reflect on an historic victory, and Braves fans get to keep on complaining. Sometimes we’re driven by our complaints.