The Season’s Worst Called Strike(s)

Earlier, I wrote about the season’s worst called ball. It only made sense to attempt a companion piece, regarding the season’s worst called strike. I’ll blockquote from that other article, because even though blockquoting is lazy, it’s Friday afternoon and shut up:

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.

There, in that research, I looked for strikes called balls. Here, for the piece that follows, I looked for balls called strikes. There are mistakes made at either end of the spectrum. Again, the purpose of this isn’t to make you mad, or to get under your skin — it’s just to shed light on something that happened that’s weird and reasonably interesting. One shouldn’t be so easily made upset. One shouldn’t be easily made upset at all. Being upset should be saved for situations in which being upset is an actually appropriate response. Like, I don’t know, accidentally buying a rotten apple. It’s the worst! Damned store!

Now, a note: in the earlier piece, I was able to identify a single worst called ball. Here, I was not able to identify a single worst called strike; rather, I identified three candidates. I’ll explain. Let’s just get to the pitches.

**Candidate 1**

Pitcher: Chris Archer
Hitter: Daniel Nava
Catcher: Jose Molina
Umpire: Ted Barrett

“Of course,” you’re thinking, “there’s Jose Molina.” The Rays were playing the Red Sox on September 19. It was 3-2 Boston in the top of the fourth, when Nava faced Archer with two down and none on. A first-pitch fastball was a borderline ball, then Archer followed with two more balls to fall behind in the count 3-and-0. The fourth pitch was a fastball at 92 miles per hour — this fastball, at 92 miles per hour:

Archer1.gif.opt

Frozen:

archernava

Of all called strikes captured by PITCHf/x last season, this one was the furthest from the strike zone, with a horizontal location of 20 inches from the middle of the plate. You can see in the screenshot that the pitch is actually located in the opposite batter’s box. Thought of in this way, this is the worst called strike of the season. But there are two factors to consider:

(1) the “lefty” strike zone extends outside, off the plate
(2) the strike zone is at its most generous in 3-and-0 counts

Technically, this was the worst called strike of the season. It was not the most, I don’t know, unlikely called strike, though, given the two factors above. It’s just an extreme lefty strike in a count that comes with the most forgiving zone. Nava didn’t raise much of a stink. On the next pitch, he walked. It was a borderline fastball, right on the strike zone’s lower edge. Okay!

I think it’s interesting that this called strike came in a game in which Red Sox pitchers walked ten Rays batters in eight innings. That was the second-highest team walk total in 2012 for games going eight innings. Daniel Bard threw four strikes out of 16 pitches. Chris Archer was given the strike you see above. The Rays wound up winning by ten.

It had to be Jose Molina.

**Candidate 2**

Pitcher: Joe Nathan
Hitter: Josh Reddick
Catcher: Yorvit Torrealba
Umpire: Tim Welke

This was A’s/Rangers, on May 16. Reddick led off the top of the ninth against Nathan, with the A’s trailing 4-1. Oakland was looking at phenomenally long odds; Nathan’s first pitch to Reddick didn’t help.

Nathan1.gif.opt

Frozen:

nathanreddick

There’s no doing anything about the off-center camera angle, as both broadcasts used the same or very similar video feeds. This was a fastball, at 94 miles per hour. This was very slightly a less-worse called strike than the Chris Archer called strike, at 19.9 inches to the side from the center of the plate. That’s a difference of a tenth of an inch. However, the Archer pitch came in a 3-and-0 count, while the Nathan pitch came in a 0-and-0 count. The first-pitch zone is smaller than the 3-and-0 zone, so perhaps this was a more unlikely called strike.

It’s still a lefty strike, though, which is why we have still a third candidate. Over the rest of this game, Welke granted a handful of lefty strikes. This one was the most extreme, but only by a little. According to the rulebook, this was a terrible strike call. According to how umpires actually call baseball games, this wasn’t as terrible a strike call. Reddick didn’t argue, or at least he didn’t argue much. The broadcasters didn’t complain, or gloat. This was close enough to being an ordinary strike that it didn’t seem to raise eyebrows.

The data I’m looking at suggests that Torrealba is an above-average pitch framer. You should just take my word for it since you’re not also looking at the data. I probably wouldn’t lie to you. Torrealba, of course, is no Jose Molina in this regard, but he pulled a Molina above.

**Candidate 3**

Pitcher: Joe Smith
Hitter: Matt Holliday
Catcher: Carlos Santana
Umpire: Mike Winters

Now you probably didn’t expect to see Santana in here, either because evidence suggests the Indians have been bad at pitch framing, or because you haven’t been making predictions while reading. The Indians were playing the Cardinals in an interleague matchup on June 8. Smith entered in the bottom of the eighth, with the Indians winning 6-2. The first guy he faced was Matt Holliday, and the first pitch he threw was this one:

Smith1.gif.opt

Frozen:

smithholliday

The camera angle is just about dead-on, and the pitch is clearly inside, off the plate. It was a sinker at 89 miles per hour, and though it was tailing in, it never touched the strike zone. It was located 18.6 inches inside, horizontally, from the middle of the plate, where the border of the actual plate is 8.5 inches from the middle. And it wasn’t a lefty strike, as Holliday bats right-handed. You don’t expect a generous strike zone in a 0-and-0 count, and Holliday turned to ask about the pitch after it was called. Ask, or complain. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, but I don’t want to make potentially baseless accusations.

This pitch was more than an inch “better” than the Archer and Nathan pitches. But those pitches were thrown to lefties, for whom the strike zone shifts. That’s why this stands as the third candidate, and possibly as the best candidate. Even better, here’s the second pitch of the at-bat:

Smith2.gif.opt

This pitch was identical to the previous pitch. It was a tiny bit faster, but on Gameday, the locations completely overlap. The first of the twins was called a strike. The second of the twins was called a ball. All hitters really want in a strike zone is consistency. Something they can grow accustomed to. Holliday wasn’t happy after the first pitch, and he probably shouldn’t have been happy after the second pitch. “What, exactly, are you doing back there?” would be one thing to ask. Realistically, it makes sense that there would be areas where some pitches are strikes and some identical pitches are balls. On paper, though, that’s stupid. This is stupid.

I’m not sure which of our three candidates is the worst. I am sure that we’ll find the worst among our three candidates.




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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.


46 Responses to “The Season’s Worst Called Strike(s)”

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  1. Chris says:

    top view would be so helpful to illustrate this

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    • ezb230 says:

      To account for the offset just move the pitch (in your mind’s eye, of course) to the right a bit. The more the offset to the right, the more a pitch appears to be away to righties and in to lefties.

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    • Fred Thompson says:

      These three candidates for worst called strike of the year, perfectly illustrate my biggest umpiring pet peeve, i.e. the umpire that sets up on the hitters inside corner. Many MLB umpires do this is in varying degrees. Some set up way inside, making it almost impossible to be consistent calling balls and strikes on the outside part of the plate. Some of the worst calls I’ve seen came from umpires that set up too far inside.

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  2. Daniel Rozenson says:

    I’d say the worst one is the last one because of the inconsistency. Makes hitting and pitching comfortably impossible.

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    • Baltar says:

      Also, it simply looked the worst. There is no excuse for the umpire due to great framing.

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    • TIF says:

      It’s the worst because the umpire’s head is already positioned in the same freaking spot. I know umpires generally line up on one side of the catcher or the other and stay there the whole game, but the catcher is ALREADY SET UP OUTSIDE OF THE “THEORETICAL” CATCHERS BOX. It’s no wonder the umpire called that a strike at first. He was probably taking for granted that the catcher would already be that far off the plate to begin with.

      Having been an umpire myself (non pro), I understand that you can’t always sit with your head directly in the middle of the plate (sometimes the catcher’s head is blocking you, in fact, most of the time the catcher’s head is blocking you), but when he’s lining up so far inside, the umpire should have easily been able to line up on the catcher’s right shoulder instead to stay with the plate. As it was, if a pitch had been thrown on the outside portion of the plate (or direct middle, like the Bailey non-call in the last article) those pitches probably would have been called balls simply by virtue of the umpire mistaking where the plate is actually positioned.

      Obviously he corrected his problem on the second pitch (not his positioning, just where he was relative to the plate).

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  3. Dave Scott says:

    I respectfully doubt that “all hitters really want is consistency.” More likely they really want is a strike zone about three inches wide belt high. Consistency is just something they say when they choose not to lambaste the ump.

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  4. Pablo Sandoval says:

    These pitches all look like strikes to me.

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  5. wristworks says:

    Huh, and here I fully expected to see the malicious third-strike call against Lawrie. Of course, I can’t remember the pitch-fx data for that one so it’s probably not as mathematically egregious as the ones in this article.

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  6. Cody says:

    Jeff,

    Both of these posts were an absolute joy to read.

    Thank You,
    Cody

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  7. Phantom Stranger says:

    I think Smith’s arm angle fooled the umpire in this case, as much as it usually does to righthanded batters. For the same reason it’s tougher for a hitter to pick up, a weird delivery likely makes it tougher for an umpire to accurately call strikes. It might be interesting to separate out the sidearmers and submariners into a pool and check whether their called strike zone floats more than guys with traditional arm slots.

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  8. Tyler Greene says:

    I reckon I could hit all of those pitches over an outfield fence.

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  9. WonderBrett says:

    PLEASE do a freeze frame of the 2 pitches brett lawrie took for strikes that were a foot off the plate, leading him to smash his helmet off the ground…and Bill Miller

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  10. Craig says:

    3rd is the worst. Mostly because I think you can factor in that in the first two, you have two bonafide quality pitch framers added to the fact that they’re both lefties.
    Also I’d suspect that the ump had to make some kind of adjustment to the sidearmer and I’m assuming it was the first pitch the ump saw from him that day maybe it caught him off guard a little, also explains why he might call that one a strike and the next one a ball.

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  11. Nick says:

    Some of these aren’t even that bad. I feel like I see 10 worse calls in every game.

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  12. algionfriddo says:

    Screw the human element here. Get out the lasers and find a way to make it work. No human can get the strikezone correct. Start in rookie & A league and work up for a few years to make it as perfect as possible. It does seem some batters are hurt more than others (it works that way for pitchers too of course). Micheal Saunders of the M’s seems to get screwed on calls more than most, for whatever reason. He’s normally not a bitcher.
    I remember when Doug Harvey retired he said he would call the strike zone correctly in his last game (the high strike in particular). I’m not blaming umps. Calling the borderline strikes correctly is VERY difficult.
    It could be worse. We could be talking about the NBA. I heard several years back that someone got called for traveling.

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    • Roger Turner says:

      Has anyone ever studied the ways and frequency that Pitch-fx makes mistakes? How often does it get it wrong, and in what ways when it makes an error?

      Somewhat relatedly, what should the people on the field do when a pitch is thrown but the system doesn’t record it? Call a do-over?

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    • Cidron says:

      get out the lasers, and you will, dare I say it, have a properly called strike zone. Not the width part, but, you may actually see a strike called above the belt !! *gasp* Even though, it goes up to the armpits (technically, halfway from shoulders to top of pants, so somewhere in upper ribs – given crouch factors) !

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  13. Taylor says:

    Can you analyze the back to back strike calls against lawrie ( which led to his helmet toss) that was the most pathetic umpiring I have seen. Not only the magnitude of the situation but that it was back to back, right after lawrie thought he had drawn a walk. An umpire who has a personal vendetta against a player should be banned.

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  14. James G says:

    On the issue of consistency, I remember watching a yankee game one time and Michael Kay asks Paul O’Neill if all players want is a consistent strike zone. His answer was something along the lines of I want them to call balls over the plate strikes.

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  15. Jason H says:

    Pitch framing by catchers is one thing. But how about pitch framing by pitchers? I’ve watched Mariano Rivera throw balls that are called strikes for a long time with a lot of different catchers. Of course this is anecdotal and it may not be the case, but I think Mo gets called strikes because of his insane control. He almost never makes the catcher move his mitt at all. Yankees catchers don’t set up as strikes with Mo. Especially inside to lefties. They always sit inside, and Mo often gets that call.

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    • Cidron says:

      good thought, reverse? pitch framing.. on the pitcher. Reminds me of the old Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz days with the Braves. The catcher would set up well off the plate, pitch arrived exactly where the catcher set up, voila, STRIKE.. even though it was ‘jusssst a bit outside’ (in the words of Bob Ueker).

      All three had such remarkable control that the borderline calls were always strikes and they knew it. They used that to push it so that even balls were strikes. Others did to (Eckersly).. but, all were precise in their pitches. A pitched ball was considered a bad days work !

      Good thought on a “next article” – ‘Pitch Framing by the Pitchers’ (or, ‘Its a strike, catcher didn’t even have to move his glove’)

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      • Jason H says:

        Pitchers often dont get strike calls when they miss their target by a lot. …in the other article looking at the worst strikes called balls, the catchers seemed to have been blamed for poor framing. But really, in all those cases, the pitchers were missing their spots by feet. They just happened to miss over the heart of the plate. They weren’t good pitches even if they should have been called strikes. I think umpires probably have an idea of what a strike will look like before a pitch is thrown based upon how the catcher sets up, and if he doesn’t see that pitch he calls a ball. I wouldn’t be surprised if pitchers have as much to do with “framing” as catchers do.

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      • Cidron says:

        Go back to the Braves over their run.. Catcher set up outside the strikezone, away from the hitter a TON of times. Pitch arrived dead on, into the mitt. It was called a strike almost always, even though it was outside the zone. But, as the pitch arrived where it was….

        If I recall right, there was a “instruction” from above (commish office, or similar) to the umpires, stating that they were to call those as balls, even though they arrived exactly on target. Further, if I recall right, alot of the write-ups by sites/papers/media basically pointed at the braves pitching staff as the culprit/cause of this “instruction” from above.

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  16. Matty Brown says:

    The highest team walk total in 2012 would have to be Ricky Romero.

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  17. Leo Walter says:

    The absolute worst case I have seen in 50+ years of watching Major and Minor League baseball was Eric Gregg in the 1997 NLCS,Brave vs Marlins. There is no way that man wasn’t doing that intentionally. No individual umpire could be that consistently bad for an entire game without doing it with a purpose.

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    • Jason H says:

      Worst I remember was CC Sabathia against the Tigers two postseasons ago. He just was not allowed to have a called strike. If you look at the box score it looked like he was wild, but he was throwing five or six strikes to many of those hitters that walked. It felt like some of those walks he struck the hitter out twice in the same at bat.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      Yeah, the “Livan Hernandez 12K Game” was just horrible. Like, Naked Gun bad.

      Gregg was having more fun than Livan was.

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  18. Hurtlockertwo says:

    Those pitch’s are at least in the strike zone from bottom to top. What about th strikes called on pitch’s in the dirt or at eye level? I’m convinced that some record pitching games (high strikeouts or no hitters) are influenced by the umpire.

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  19. Bloggy says:

    I have to think that the Nava one was worst. I mean, it’s way outta the zone and it’s tailing even farther outta the zone, and I think the catcher basically catches it in the visitor’s dugout. The Holliday one is at least moving towards the plate.

    Hard to get a good comparison on the Reddick one because of the angle, but it might actually be worse than Nava’s. I dunno.

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