Baseball Savant is a wonderful online resource, the sort of resource a part of me doesn’t want to talk about in fear of you guys finding out all my secrets. It’s a place where you can run your own PITCHf/x queries, and the site chooses to split its strike zone up into nine equivalent areas. That’s the approximate rulebook strike zone, and presented below — from the catcher’s perspective — please find the 2013 league called-strike rate by sub-zone. This is simply called strikes / (called strikes + called balls).
Strike rates are highest in the middle, and lowest in the corners. They’re higher on the left-hand side than on the right-hand side, possibly having something to do with the fact that catchers catch with their left hands. Pitches right down the middle were called strikes 100% of the time this season. That’s what ought to be the case — those pitches are inarguable. But in truth, pitches right down the middle were called strikes 99.7% of the time this season, and I rounded up so as not to mess with decimals. Toward the end of a blowout, a team’s win expectancy on FanGraphs will show 100%. It’s not a true 100% until the game is officially over. There’s always a chance of a comeback, and with the strike zone, there’s always a chance of a totally blown call on a pitch down the middle. In this post, we explore.
It’s understandable. Humans will forever be imperfect, so no matter the circumstances, a human will always have some chance of failure. There will always be a non-zero probability of a pitch down the middle getting called a ball instead of a strike. The probability in each case is microscopic, but over the course of 30 individual team seasons, sample sizes grow quickly, and mistakes are inevitable. The five biggest mistakes from 2013 are .giffed below. Along with the images, we’ll try to figure out why the call was made how it was. Don’t get me wrong, all the calls were mistakes. There’s no excuse for missing a pitch down the middle. But, there kind of is. Let’s watch and learn and seethe.
- Pitcher: Adam Ottavino
- Hitter: Ike Davis
- Catcher: Wilin Rosario
- Date: August 6
- Location: 2.4 inches from center of zone
The red dot indicates the catcher’s pre-pitch target. Here, Ottavino missed a bit, since he was aiming for the edge, but this one we can pin on Rosario. And the umpire, but all these umpires are wrong. That’s a given. This umpire messed up in part because of what Rosario did. If you’re trying to explain to somebody the concept of good and bad pitch-receiving, show this .gif. Ask people if they think this pitch was a ball or a strike. Rosario makes it look way more like a ball than it actually was, since it actually was a fastball down the gut. After setting a target, Rosario allows his glove to drift arm-side. He does that a bit early, then he responds very suddenly to the pitched ball’s actual flight path, reaching for it and dragging the ball inside. From appearances, Ottavino threw an inside fastball that was hard to catch. In truth, he missed in, but he missed over the middle, in, and Rosario just didn’t respond smoothly. Everybody gets some blame, but Rosario demonstrated poor technique.
- Pitcher: Derek Holland
- Hitter: Ryan Raburn
- Catcher: A.J. Pierzynski
- Date: June 11
- Location: 2.1 inches from center of zone
Can’t blame Holland too much — he threw the ball more or less right where he was supposed to. You can question the wisdom of a changeup right down the middle in an 0-and-1 count, but the target was the target. Which means we’re left with the given umpire mistake, and a mistake on Pierzynski’s part. This is how Pierzynski caught a pitch that was just about right on target. There’s a lot of activity there, just watching him, and then it’s almost like he picks the ball, with a subtle body lurch. Pierzynski’s entire arm changes position in the act of catching, and if you just watch the .gif it looks like the pitch might be down and in. Or it looks like the pitch might be anywhere because this is the worst camera angle in sports. You can’t learn anything from this camera angle. This is a misleading and stupid camera angle, and we shouldn’t have to tolerate it anymore. Cameras mounted to stationary miniature outfield helicopters. Make it happen, TV money.
- Pitcher: Jerome Williams
- Hitter: Adrian Beltre
- Catcher: Chris Iannetta
- Date: July 31
- Location: 1.6 inches from center of zone
Blame for all! Iannetta set up inside. Williams threw the ball more outside. It doesn’t seem like that should make a huge difference, but home plate isn’t actually all that wide, and pitched baseballs go fast. Even the slow ones. By missing location, Williams forced Iannetta to readjust. Iannetta stayed pretty physically quiet, all things considered, but he made it look like his left hand traveled a considerable distance, and then he didn’t stick the landing, dragging the glove and ball instead further away. The fact that Iannetta remained decently composed might’ve suggested to the umpire that Williams didn’t miss by all that much, but in this instance the ball was basically a penalty for missing a spot. Nevermind that the spot was missed in favor of a spot that should be an automatic strike.
- Pitcher: Kevin Gregg
- Hitter: Tony Sanchez
- Catcher: J.C. Boscan
- Date: September 25
- Location: 1.5 inches from center of zone
The better camera angle is a godsend, because you can really see how hilarious it is that this pitch was called a ball instead of a strike. But, again, it’s fairly easy to explain, if any balls on pitches down the middle can be easy to explain. First of all, Gregg missed up and arm-side. Boscan subsequently attempted to catch the ball improperly, and then the ball hit the heel of the glove and dropped to the dirt. I’ve seen enough of these to know that umpires don’t often give strikes on pitches catchers don’t catch. It’s rare enough that I notice when an umpire does grant such a strike, as happened somewhere later in the playoffs. In part, it’s probably because an uncaught pitch seems like it must’ve missed somewhere out of the zone, in order to be more difficult to receive. In part, it’s probably also because umpires feel teams shouldn’t be rewarded for mistakes, even if the mistakes happen after a pitch crosses through the zone. Never having umpired, I don’t know the mechanism for how these decisions are processed. But I know dropped pitches don’t get a lot of strikes. That’s the conclusion. You explain why.
- Pitcher: Edwin Jackson
- Hitter: Yadier Molina
- Catcher: Welington Castillo
- Date: June 19
- Location: 1.1 inches from center of zone
And here’s another one where everyone loses. The first pitch of the at-bat was a called strike on the inside edge. Castillo wanted to go back there again, but Jackson missed by several inches over the plate. Castillo had to respond to that, but he also had to respond to an aggressive runner on first, so as he reached over, he stood, and as he stood, he reached his glove all the way over to his bare hand so he could get the baseball out of it. Castillo was in the process of standing as he received this pitch, and there’s no way the umpire could’ve ignored that activity. That would’ve created unusual visual circumstances, making it more tricky to identify just where the ball crossed. Ultimately, as in all these cases, the blame goes to the umpire most, because you should never miss a fastball one inch from the very center of the strike zone, but just like with dropped pitches, I’ve seen enough evidence to know that umpires don’t handle attempted throws to bases well either. Catchers don’t do anything to pitches before they reach the plate, but they can do a lot just after, and it all happens so far it all factors in within the umpire’s brain. You can’t just block out that motion, and I’d love to see what the called strike zone looks like when catchers make or fake a throw somewhere. I suspect the zone is a lot smaller, and maybe this would be one way for a team to mess with the other when it gets a guy on. Have a guy on first take intentionally aggressive leads, so as to draw throws or bluffs. It might earn you some extra pitches, and they all count.
In fact, a few pitches later in this very at-bat:
On the one hand, that pitch was out of the zone when it was hit, and it came in a 1-and-2 count. On the other, a proper call earlier would’ve put Molina in an 0-and-2 hole, and then the rest of the at-bat changes, and maybe he doesn’t go deep. This happened in part because of the blown call, which goes to show the difference that pitch-receiving and strike calls can make. A blown call doesn’t cause or prevent a home run, but it can make a home run more or less likely. Pitchers: stop missing spots. Catchers: receive better. Umpires: be closer to perfect. Is that all so much to ask? Oh, I see, well all right. Guess we’ll be doing this post again next year too.
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