Why Does John Hirschbeck Hate Left-Handers?

Last night in Anaheim, Josh Hamilton had a really bad game. In five trips to the plate, he hit into three double plays, and in the two at-bats where he didn’t make two outs, he struck out, including a ninth inning whiff with the winning run in scoring position. For the day, he finished with a -.48 WPA, so while he didn’t single handedly cost them the game, he was the primary reason the Angels ended up dropping a 3-2 contest to the Mariners.

But I’m not here to lament Josh Hamilton again. His terrible performance is noteworthy, but I think it’s also worth acknowledging that Hamilton was fighting an uphill battle last night, because as a left-handed hitter in a game with John Hirschbeck behind the plate, he was screwed before he ever stepped up to the plate.

Via Brooks Baseball, here is a plot of the pitches Hirschbeck called strikes against left-handed hitters last night.

Hirsch618

As you probably know, Major League umpires call strikes on a significant portion of pitches off the outside corner to LHBs, which is notated by the dashes that set off the “typical LH zone” on the left side of the rulebook strike zone. Last night, both Joe Blanton and Jeremy Bonderman pounded the outer section of the plate against left-handers, and were consistently rewarded with called strikes. In fact, Hirschbeck even expanded the normal lefty strike area further than usual, giving Blanton three strikes that didn’t fit into the already expanded strike zone. And, just for fun, he called a bunch of strikes on pitches that were below the knees as well.

By my count, there were 10 called strikes to LHBs last night that were not inside the boundaries of even the expanded LHB strike zone, and the plot of pitches to LHBs shows just how aggressive every pitcher was in taking advantage of Hirschbeck’s zone. The great majority of pitches to LHBs last night were low and/or away, and it gave the LHBs no choice but to swing at pitches they couldn’t really do anything with.

For instance, here’s the plot of pitches Hamilton swung at last night.

HamiltonSwings

On a normal night, we’d look at the fact that eight of his 11 swings came on pitches out of the zone and just conclude that Josh Hamilton was still self destructing. But, really, what choice did he have last night? He swung at two pitches that were just outside — both well within the normal lefty strike area, much less within Hirschbeck’s zone — and five that were low but in spots that Hirschbeck was calling strikes for most of the evening.

Need proof of that? Here’s the pitches Hamilton did take last night.

HamiltonTake

Twice, Hamilton took a pitch that was low by rulebook standards only to have Hirschbeck call it a strike. He’s not the kind of hitter that needs to be incentivized to swing, but that’s exactly what Hirschbeck’s zone was doing last night. Swing or take a called strike; those were basically the two options that left-handers were faced with.

Hamilton wasn’t the only left-handed batter who had problems last night. Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales both struck out in three of their five trips to the plate, while Hamilton, Endy Chavez, and Kyle Seager all struck out twice. Joe Blanton tied a career high with 11 punchouts, putting up a 39.2% K% for the evening, more than double his overall strikeout rate for the season.

If it was just a one night thing, maybe Jeff would be writing a post about pitch framing, highlighting what Mike Zunino and Chris Iannetta did behind the plate to help their pitchers steal extra strikes. But with John Hirschbeck, this isn’t a one night thing. His reputation for having an exaggerated strike zone is well earned, and it’s most often expanded off the plate and down when a left-hander is at the plate.

From Baseball Heat Maps, here’s Hirschbeck’s called strike zone against LHBs during the PITCHF/x era.

HirschAll

And here’s Hirschbeck’s strike zone against right-handers, just so you can see how shifted the zone is when a left-hander is hitting.

HirschRHB

And, just for reference, here’s some data. Multiple sports handicappers carry umpire data to assist those who wager on things like over/unders. For instance, here’s some umpire data from StatFox. Of the 69 home plate umpires they have tracked, Hirschbeck’s 2013 strikeout rate of 17.1 K/G is tied for fifth highest this season. 16 games isn’t a very big sample, so maybe you’d think that these numbers are biased because he’s happened to be behind the plate in a lot of NL ballparks, where strikeout rate is naturally higher. The game log, though, shows that 10 of his 16 games behind the plate have come in AL parks this year, and while there’s a Yu Darvish here and a Stephen Strasburg there, it’s not like he’s just had a steady stream of dominant hurlers on the mound.

Going further, I asked Jeff Zimmerman to send me the called ball/called strike/swing rates for every MLB umpire this year. I filtered out the umpires who have fewer than 500 called strikes on the sesaon, which left me with 70 umpires who have been behind the plate for a decent number of games this year. Out of those 70, Hirschbeck’s 19.1% called strike rate is tied for seventh highest.

Now, these numbers aren’t adjusted for the locations of the pitches that have been thrown, and in samples of just a few months, we shouldn’t draw any firm conclusions about an umpire’s zone based on called strike or called ball rates. In fact, a pitcher friendly umpire could have average called ball/called strike rates if the league knew of his reputation and hitters simply adjusted by swinging at more pitches off the plate, thus masking the fact that his zone is inflated. That’s why the location data is key here, and we have six years of data showing that John Hirschbeck’s strike zone is one of the more generous in baseball.

Last night was just the latest example of a long term trend. The Mariners put seven left-handed batters in the line-up against Joe Blanton, and he responded by simply pounding them down and away, letting the extra strikes pile up and turn into strikeouts. The Angels line-up is fairly right-handed, with Hamilton around to provide some left-handed punch, but he made eight outs in five trips to the plate in part because pitchers had even less reason to throw him a strike than usual.

The lefty strike has been around in MLB long enough that it’s almost certainly not going away, and everyone is aware of it enough that hitters and pitchers alike have adjusted to the reality of the shifted zone for LHBs. But, when an umpire takes the already enlarged strike zone and makes it even larger, he’s essentially neutralizing left-handed hitters. There is only so much room they can realistically cover while standing in the batters box, and if you force them to swing at every pitch thrown their way, you’re simply going to end up with low scoring, high strikeout affairs.

MLB has the data and the technology to crack down on stuff like this. If the league is really concerned about the rising strikeout rate, getting rid of unreasonably large strike zones is a good place to begin.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


53 Responses to “Why Does John Hirschbeck Hate Left-Handers?”

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  1. G_Funk_J says:

    Bud Selig doesnt even know what technology means.

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  2. Mick O says:

    Fangraphs would do well to offer some sort of ump tracking so that when can follow Hirschbeck around and let him inform our streaming starter choices in Fantasy Baseball.

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    • NatsFan73 says:

      It’s right there in the article. StatFox.com does this. That’s a straight up gambling site though, so your work-safeness may vary.

      Hint: Tonight could be a good night for CJ Wilson…

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    • timmay says:

      The gambling aspect of this would seem to be the only practical application of this research…O/U lines might exhibit some correlation with known umpire extremes, but otherwise I can’t see a ton of value for fantasy, even daily games.

      You know, I think it’s amusing that this site has been banging the drum for ball/strike robots and the effect of all this research has been–for me–to appreciate the umpires even more. It’s surprising just how little predictable effect umpires have on the game. I mean, it’s really impressive just how little there is to complain about, especially after the 80s and 90s.

      It’s doubly funny too because of their relative position when stacked up against other multibillion dollar sport leagues. NBA (On display right now! Hi Joey Crawford…), NFL, Premier League, etc…if I’m an mlb ump, I’ve got to feel pretty, prettay good about my job security these days.

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      • evo34 says:

        Apparently you don’t have an idea of how much a single flipped ball/strike call has on the team’s win probability.

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  3. Caveman Jones says:

    Dave, the only way to get through to MLB is to hand write this column into a letter, draw the graphs using grid-lined paper, and then snail mail it to Bud Selig.

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  4. GlennBraggsSwingAndMissBrokenBat says:

    10 years ago I might have considered the idea of robots calling balls and strikes an insult to the game.

    Today, I consider it an insult to the game that humans are still calling balls and strikes, and doing it poorly on a regular basis.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      There really is no good reason I can think of to have umpires call balls and strikes any more than it is to have umpires call faults in tennis. It’s just too easy to have a machine beep the called strikes like the tennis one does for faults.

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    • monkeywrench says:

      I dunno, it is a game after all. Do I want computers monitoring my grandmother’s heart? YES! But, baseball is a game and it is a mess of fun. Most of that fun from seeing great players (not Josh Hamilton anymore) do great things, but some of it comes from the umps, complaining about them, the late night bar discussions about that asshole. I hate it when it decides playoff games, mind it less with regular season games…but I think it is a fun part of the game.

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      • Will says:

        Why do you take pleasure from the misfortune or the undeserved fortune of your own team? This is not a criticism. I just genuinely cannot understand this line of argumentation you’re making. Why do you derive pleasure from misfortune? That sounds like sadism and/or masochism to me.

        When my team gets screwed over by an incorrect call it makes me angry. When my team gains an unfair advantage over a botched call, it prevents me from gaining the same satisfaction knowing that they did not deserve it. I don’t enjoy either of these scenarios, and would prefer that they don’t occur. I really enjoy baseball, and the rules are what make the game a reality. So as a result, I want the rules applied as correctly as possible.

        So why is it that you, and many others, hate incorrect calls, to the point that you enjoy complaining about them for hours on end, yet at the exact same time insist that incorrect calls remain in the game. Isn’t this very obvious hypocrisy??

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        • Hank says:

          My views have changed on this too, and it’s not because I think umpires have grown worse or anything like that (I was a umpire for kids 10-16 for about 7 years, and I can vouch for its difficulty, even when the worse thing to happen when you blow a call is a parental meltdown behind the backstop). Part of the reason I love baseball is its unpredictability, and elements of chance are a key ingredient in making baseball fun and interesting and something other than an equation with 200 or so variables that you plug in to determine an outcome. The reality, though, is exactly that. The only reason those variables seem random and unpredictable is because we don’t have the ability to predict them, yet. Yet being the extremely key word. Because once we do gain that ability they’re no longer random and unpredictable, they’re mistakes that can potentially be controlled and eliminated to make the game closer to one of skill. I like the idea of rewarding the better team, and I don’t think umpire error is a necessary source of randomness. But I can understand liking it somewhat, because bad teams should have the ability to beat good teams sometimes, and umpire error is one way for that to happen.

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    • Bill says:

      I’m ok with human umpires, but they should be incentivised to get the calls correct. MLB should review umpire accuracy periodically and base the umpires pay on their accuracy; firing those who are consistently awful. Eventually, officiating will improve. This should appease the traditionalists and those who demand accuracy.

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      • Jay29 says:

        Agreed. Just keep hammering the rule book zone into their heads and eventually they’ll realize they can either call it better or go back to umping little league.

        Related to that, I’d like to see some heat maps of the best ball/strike zones among umps, as far as LHB vs RHP, 3-0 vs 0-2 counts, etc. Let us know what is readily achievable and what needs to be rid completely of bad habits and re-built from the ground up.

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  5. Retirenutting says:

    Umps not helping their job security this yea.

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  6. Kevin says:

    Is the league concerned about strikeouts though? Or are pundits? One could argue that strikeouts bring people to the stadium – fans get to hold up their little “K” sign, pitchers have entire sections of the ballpark devoted to them, etc.

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    • David says:

      There are legions of old men, standing in bathrobes on their front lawns, shaking their fists at those young whippersnappers who don’t understand that a strikeout is the ultimate failure of every batter. They are tired of 160 lb shortstops swinging for the fences on every pitch and yearn for the days of small ball when men were men and didn’t take walks unless the pitcher simply couldn’t get find the plate.

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    • AverageMeansAverageOverTime says:

      I don’t think the league cares about increased strike outs. I don’t therefore, seeing them rushing to solve a problem that they don’t see as a problem.

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  7. supershredder says:

    I make no pretenses about being a stat know it all, so forgive me when I ask what the difference is in the first graph between green/red and square/triangle?

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    • supershredder says:

      OK so mostly I mean what’s the difference between red and green. I see that Anaheim is tracked with squares and Seattle with triangles. Is the color indicative of the umpire’s call?

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    • Caveman Jones says:

      Red is a strike, green is a ball.

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    • Jason B says:

      No worries shredder, it’s a totally fair question. The sentence right before the graph says “here are the pitches that were called a strike” and then shows both balls and strikes, and there’s no legend indicating what the shapes and colors mean. It’s not as clear as it could/should have been.

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  8. Hunter says:

    Lefties ARE evil, and Hirschbeck is a valiant crusader against these scourges of humanity, in his own small way.

    Where do you think we got the word sinister?

    Up with Hirschbeck, down with lefties!

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  9. Hank says:

    That’s not Hirshback hating on lefties… It is world class catcher framing!

    In fact think of how many runs the catchers saved that game with their framing.

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  10. Gabriel Syme says:

    If baseball ever does adopt automated ball/strike calling, I think lefties will be the overwhelming beneficiaries.

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  11. steex says:

    I suspect Hirschbeck was naturally right-handed, but his unstable father tied his right hand behind his back and beat him until he learned to do things the LEFT way. After gradually reverting to his natural right-handed ways, he has ever since held a passive aggressive vendetta against all left-handed people. This is simply a manifestation of said vendetta.

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  12. D says:

    Too bad we don’t have historical data. From memory, the Eric Gregg was this problem on steroids.

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    • Bill says:

      MLB has to trick the umps into quitting again so that they can once more burn the chaff. It was good to see Eric Gregg and Yankees season ticket holder Rich Garcia not get rehired.

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  13. Phantom Stranger says:

    It was immediately obvious on the telecast that Hamilton was receiving a very poor strike zone in the game. Even though he doesn’t really have any better results to show for it, Hamilton’s swing has gotten better in recent weeks.

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  14. Zach says:

    A quick semi-random sampling of heat maps of other umpires show similar tendencies when calling strikes for left handed batters. My unscientific analysis seems to make one thing clear: the strike zone for lefties is shifted about 6 inches away from the hitter. Pitches in the zone, but inside are not called strikes as often as they should be, and pitches outside the zone and away from the hitter are too often called strikes. In a way, it almost seems to even out; but not really.

    With this apparently being such a systematic problem, you start to wonder why it exists in the first place. I doubt there is intentional bias, although that would be a fun scandal. It has to be something mechanical. More unscientific analysis of video highlights lead me to believe that umpires are calling pitches off the plate to their left strikes because they stand to the left the of center of the plate (from their perspective). Outside pitches to lefties appear to be online with the plate if your standing off to that direction a bit. That would also explain the lower percentage of inside strikes being called.

    The first logical question to poke holes in this theory is why this doesn’t seem to impact the right handed hitters. My thinking is that they react to the now inside pitches by jumping out of the way, which induces a ball call. Pitches off the plate to the umpires right (outside to righties) are easily called balls, so their zones appear more consistent for right handed hitters. The next question is why do umpires stand to one side? My guess would be that like most people, most umps are right-handed and right-footed. When in a squatting stance, more often than not, right footed people place their left foot in front of their upper body and their right foot slightly behind their upper body. Therefore, while trying to position themselves as close as possible to the plate right handed/footed umpires accommodate their stance by shifting slightly to the left of the catcher, thus changing their perspective of the strike zone.

    Or, they just hate lefties.

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  15. asa lasky says:

    ummm…I believe that Mr Strasburg is in the National League

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  16. MGL says:

    Hirschbeck has a larger than average strike zone for lefty and righty batters. It is a little more generous against LHB than RHB, but those heat maps are misleading. They should be compared to the average MLB umpire.

    I am having a hard time with the concept that umpires who have a smaller or larger than average strike zone are evil, since even the average umpire does not call balls and strikes according to the rule book strike zone (which doesn’t bother me at all since I don’t care what the rule book says about a called strike) anyway.

    So are all umpires evil because they don’t use the rule book as their definition of a ball or strike? Are only those umpires who call a larger than average strike zone evil? Larger and smaller? Why?

    If umpires with non-standard strike zones, with the rule book as the standard, are evil, then almost all umpires are evil (OK, that might be the case, for other reasons). If umpires who have non-standard strike zones, as compared to the average umpire, are evil, and I’m not sure why that is the case, then many, many umpires are evil, including Barrett, Bell, Bucknor, Cooper, Cousins, Crawford, Culbreth, Cuzzi, Danley, Davis, Eddings, Everitt, Gibson, Hernandez, Hirschbeck, Holbrook, Iassogna, Layne, Marquez, Marsh, McLelland (he is particularly evil as he has the smallest strike zone in baseball), Miller, O’Nora, Nauert, Reilly, Schreiber, Tschida, Wegner,Fairchild, Berry, Campos, Johnson, Reyburn, Carapazza, and Fagan.

    Now, if you want to call umpires who are more inconsistent than the average umpire evil, you might have a point. But size of the zone? No. Not at all. Either they are all evil or none of them, size-wise…

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    • Tim Donaghy says:

      I wish I was a MLB ump. I would have a secret Cayman Islands account from which I would bet vast sums of money on the games I called. I could call all sorts of crazy strike zones to benefit the team of my choosing. If I was ever called on it, I could just contend that every umpire has different strike zone. It’s not my fault mine favored the lesser teams soft tossing lefty and hurt the better teams power pitching ace.

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  17. pft says:

    Good article. I wonder if part of the problem is umpires setting up on the hitters side of the plate which means they are guessing on the outside of the plate. Not sure why thats more of an issue with LHB’ers, maybe because most pitchers are RHP’ers.

    Can’t they get umps better equipment and force them to stand in the center of the plate where they have the best view.

    Perhaps the umps wider strike zone, especially against LHB’ers who tend to be the best hitters given their platoon advantage, is something MLB wants. Why? To reduce offense and pretend the testing program is responsible for the reduction. That would explain the lack of action to stop such a blatant issue in the pitch f/x age.

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  18. Joelskil says:

    Excellent piece, Dave, as usual.

    Robot Umpires.
    Robot Umpires.

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  19. TKDC says:

    How can you expect a guy that can’t tell the difference between the outfield and infield to know the difference between a ball and a strike?

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  20. Kermit W. says:

    I am SO OUTRAGED by this INJUSTICE! Sometimes I forget about how INCOMPETENT umpires are and how ANGRY that makes me, but then one of these articles is published and I totally remember.

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  21. The Royal We? says:

    Why does Dave Cameron hate everyone in the world? Seriously, what a miserable, bitter guy.

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  22. allan says:

    ***So are all umpires evil because they don’t use the rule book as their definition of a ball or strike?***

    Yes. They are.

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  23. Dylan says:

    This is off-topic, but after seeing the heat maps, am I crazy to think that octagonal strike zones should be implemented once we finally make the switch to robot umpires? It does make some sense, especially given the increasing strikeout rates and depressed run environments of recent years, and it seems like the game is already being called like that.

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    • Hank says:

      That… is a weird idea, and one that makes me uncomfortable but I don’t know that it’s necessarily wrong. It’s probably just the fear of change speaking, but… wow. That would be so strange. It’s a good question, because it brings up the question — what increased capabilities would robot umpires bring, and how could the rules potentially change to make those a part of the game? There could be tiers of strikes! If you can somehow sneak a pitch into the EXACT CENTER of the zone, it’s worth 1.5 strikes. Robot overlords, I mean umpires, would open up a lot of possibilities, most more serious than mine, that would have to be at least considered a little. Octagonal strike zones being one of them.

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  24. Scraps says:

    John Hirschbeck’s oldest son, Little John, bats left.

    http://www.pulitzer.org/works/1997-Feature-Writing

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  25. Mo says:

    Strange that the article didn’t mention the most obvious and important reason it is impossible for humans to call balls and strikes: the catcher in front of them. Hirschbeck sets up over the right shoulder of the catcher, creating that blind spot on the outside and low for LHBs. Anyone who has umpired home plate knows that you have to guess quite often, yet I almost never hear this discussed. Fundamental stuff that makes computers calling balls and strikes crazily obvious.

    To those in the “I’m used to this” school, try watching TV that gooses you with a canned audience track (umpire stagecraft) and one without. You get used to and appreciate the one without quickly, and after a while, you never would go back if your favorite shows gave you a choice.

    Computers calling balls and strikes would speed up the game and make at-bats much more exciting, not less exciting, than they are now. If only they could keep batters in the batting box for the entire at-bat.

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