Last season, in baseball, there were more than 700,000 pitches thrown. Of those, nearly 400,000 were taken, or un-swung at. Every single one of those taken pitches was determined to have been a ball or a strike by a trained human umpire. Trained human umpires are very good at their jobs — to confirm, one need only watch an untrained human umpire. The umpires in the major leagues get almost every call correct. But they do miss some, and when it comes to nearly 400,000 called balls and called strikes, it stands to reason that there are going to be mistakes, and there are going to be really bad mistakes. It’s simple probability. Within any such data pool, there are going to be extremes.
Herein, we will reflect on the 2012 season’s worst called ball. That is, the called ball that was most like a strike. As it turns out, I actually wrote about this before, but at that point I had less than three months of data. Now I’m looking at data for the season entire. For the record, I’m not doing this to criticize the umpire, or to make some statement about instant replay and automated strike-zone judgment. I’m doing this for the sake of exploration, for the sake of curiosity satiation. As you watch what unfolds below, try not to be frustrated. Try instead to be interested. If anything, you should be trying to eliminate frustration from your life.
We find our worst called ball on May 3, in Cincinnati. Some of the details:
It was the top of the sixth in a game between the Cubs and the Reds. The Cubs were up 3-0, and Dempster was batting against Bailey with two outs and the bases loaded. Maybe Dempster shouldn’t have been batting in that situation, I don’t know, but he was, and he took a called strike one. It was a fastball from Bailey on the outer edge, a fastball at 95 miles per hour. Ahead 0-and-1, Bailey came after Dempster with another fastball, this one at 96. This is how that went.
Let’s go ahead and freeze that, taking note of the off-center camera angle:
A strike-zone plot, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:
One of those pitches kind of stands out. It’s the ball right down the very middle of the strike zone. This pitch was ruled a ball, making the count 1-and-1 instead of 0-and-2. According to PITCHf/x, the pitch was 0.8 inches from the center of the zone. Put your fingers in front of your face and estimate 0.8 inches with your index finger and thumb. It doesn’t matter how accurate you are. The point is that the gap you’ve made between your index finger and thumb couldn’t even accommodate a Mandarin orange, unless you are legendarily terrible at visual estimation.
Said ex-catcher Bob Brenly on the Cubs’ broadcast after the pitch:
Break for Ryan Dempster, that was a good pitch right on the outside corner that young catcher Devin Mesoraco pushed it out of the strike zone and didn’t get the call from Kerwin Danley, and immediately tapped his chest letting his own pitcher know that that was my fault.
To confirm the tapping:
Brenly’s right — this, presumably, was on Mesoraco. I mean, ultimately, it’s on the umpire to get calls correct regardless of the behavior or actions of the catcher, but watch the pitch again:
Mesoraco sets up inside and then stabs at the baseball, making it appear as if the pitch was outside. His attempt to frame is insufficient to overcome his initial pitch reception, and Danley makes his call. Interestingly, 2012 data suggests that Mesoraco is an above-average pitch framer. But above-average pitch framers won’t be above average on every pitch, and here, Mesoraco simply screwed up.
In a way, this is confirmation that pitch framing makes a difference. It’s confirmation that pitch framing, or a lack thereof, is capable of turning a fastball down the middle of the zone into a called ball. I’m guessing that, had Mesoraco received this pitch better, it would’ve gone for a strike. Pretty comfortable with that. He messed up, and that influenced Danley’s thought process, even though the actual pitch couldn’t have been more of a strike. This is exciting, in that it supports the idea behind pitch-framing research. It’s discouraging, in that obvious strikes should always be strikes, and what catchers do behind the plate shouldn’t affect what umpires think of a pitch right above it. Heater down the middle. Right down the very middle. Ball 1. There weren’t many of these over the course of the season, but there weren’t zero.
One wonders what Bailey thought after the pitch. This .gif is fairly unclear:
One wonders what Dempster thought after the pitch. Dempster would’ve been happy to take the ball, but Dempster was also throwing to Kerwin Danley’s strike zone. It would’ve been a somewhat bittersweet break.
As a fun note, remember, this game took place on May 3. Homer Bailey was born on May 3. Ryan Dempster was born on May 3. Perhaps Danley was simply giving Dempster a birthday present, at Bailey’s expense. It didn’t matter, though, which is unquestionably a good thing. The very next pitch was another fastball, and Dempster swung and blooped the ball right back to Bailey in the air. Bailey made the catch, ending the inning, ending the threat, and preventing the bad call from doing any real damage. In the end, the Reds even won, after the Cubs’ bullpen came apart.
The season’s worst called ball was a called ball on an 0-and-1 fastball right down the heart of the plate. It can’t get a whole lot worse than that. Though watching the pitch provides an explanation for why Danley did what he did, that doesn’t necessarily make it okay. Whether pitch framing ought to be a thing is among our hottest new debates.
1.1 inches from center of zone