How the Astros Wound Up With a Bigger Zone

In a way, it felt like the Yankees were lifeless. Few fans expressed surprise when the team was ultimately shut out, given the way the offense had gone of late. The season is over, but it’s over by a narrower margin than it might seem. The Astros scored their first two runs with two swings, and the third scored on what could be best described as an accident. Neither team on Tuesday was dominant, and you can only wonder how it might’ve gone had the Yankees gotten another break or two. That’s the sort of thinking that gets people talking about the strike zone.

It was a story during the game, and it remained a story after the fact. Here’s a post by Dave on the matter. Perception was that Astros pitchers worked with a more favorable zone than Yankees pitchers did, and while a few pitches here and there didn’t make all of the difference, they certainly could’ve made some difference. Based on the evidence, it does indeed look like the Astros benefited more. A quick glance at the Brooks Baseball zone charts shows me the Astros benefiting by six or seven strikes, comparatively speaking. That’s a big enough margin to notice, and it deserves an explanation. Those of you in favor of an automated strike zone might well want to just skip the rest of this.

There’s no single enduring image, but if I had to pick one, it would be either Brian McCann in the umpire’s face, or the following screenshot of a replay of a called strike from Tony Sipp:

sipp-refsnyder

That’s a fastball crossing the inside of the line of the opposite batter’s box. Very clearly off the plate, by a big enough margin to matter, but still this went the pitcher’s way. The ESPN broadcast called attention to it, although they stopped short of any criticism. If I recall, the pitch was described as “unhittable.” That’s one way to put it.

Maybe the best way to lay this out is by just watching various pitches. Below, there are nine replays — five thrown by the Astros, and four thrown by the Yankees. These don’t capture all of the close calls, but I figure it’s sufficiently representative, and I didn’t want to risk .gif overload. It’s not like the Astros got every single close call. And it’s not like every single close call went against the Yankees. But here are five Astros called strikes, and four Yankees called balls. All were somewhere around the borders.

Here’s Dallas Keuchel:

Keuchel again:

Keuchel again:

Keuchel *again*:

And that pitch from Tony Sipp:

Now, Masahiro Tanaka:

Another Tanaka:

Dellin Betances:

Another Betances:

I guess we can start with command. Look at the five Astros pitches. All of them wound up more or less where they were supposed to go. Jason Castro barely had to move, because the pitchers did a good job here of painting the edges. Command is a huge part of earning a favorable zone — command means a pitch location is predictable, based on the catcher’s position, and a pitch thrown to the wrong edge of the zone will come as more of a surprise. It’ll cause the catcher to have to react with his body, and that distracts the umpire. Now, the two Tanaka pitches were also commanded well enough. They were supposed to be near the low-away corner. But that first Betances breaking ball missed, and the fastball was more up and in than low and away. Though the Betances pitches were technically close, they weren’t close to where they were supposed to go. That makes a strike call less likely.

There’s another factor. Look at the counts, in order:

  • 1-and-0
  • 2-and-1
  • 2-and-0
  • 2-and-0
  • 1-and-0
  • 1-and-1
  • 1-and-1
  • 0-and-0
  • 0-and-1

The five Astros pitches were thrown with the batter ahead. Three of the Yankees pitches were thrown with the count even, and one was thrown with the pitcher ahead. Dave briefly touched on this, but one of the more interesting discoveries of the PITCHf/x era is that the strike zone changes within at-bats. This is nothing new to any of the teams. As the count gets more hitter-friendly, the zone gets more pitcher-friendly. As the count gets more pitcher-friendly, the zone gets more hitter-friendly. Presumably it’s nothing intentional on the part of the umpires, but it’s a trend that’s been proven, and it’s held up over time. So at least a small part of this is that the Astros were throwing their borderline pitches with the hitters ahead. That slightly expanded the zone’s boundaries.

And then there’s the last bit. It actually came up on the broadcast, discussed by both Chris Archer and Buster Olney. It has to do with the pitch-framing by Jason Castro and Brian McCann. Archer and Olney both used the word “presentation,” instead of framing, but regardless, it’s the same idea. Castro just looked like the better receiver. If you watch the images above, you can see how quietly Castro was receiving the pitches. Some of that, absolutely, was command. But it wasn’t all command. Consider the following two examples of vaguely similar pitches, called in different ways:

castro

mccann

Castro got the strike. McCann didn’t. Both pitches were close to where they were supposed to be. McCann’s, definitely, was a tiny bit more outside. Maybe that’s the whole story. But you can see some differences in technique. Castro caught the ball near his center. McCann caught it toward his right side. Castro kept his body tight, and caught the ball with his elbow bent; McCann’s arm was straighter, with his other arm off to the side. One way to imagine this: Castro let the ball come to him, while McCann went more out to get it. The strike-zone box is helpful here. Most of Castro’s head and upper body are inside the box. Half of McCann’s head is outside the box. McCann’s body language suggested a pitch out of the zone. Castro’s suggested a pitch more right on. Castro did this better.

Which isn’t anything new. McCann is by no means a bad receiver. He has a track record of having been a real good receiver. But this year, by the numbers at StatCorner, Castro was the superior catcher by a good margin. By the numbers at Baseball Prospectus, Castro, again, was the superior catcher by a good margin. Some of that is the catcher and some of that is the pitchers, but Castro demonstrated superior technique Tuesday night, so it’s not a surprise Castro earned the better zone.

The Yankees should’ve gone in expecting a difference in zones. And maybe they did. This year, Keuchel finished third in lowest rate of pitches in the zone called balls. Tanaka finished 64th. Meanwhile, Keuchel finished fourth in highest rate of pitches out of the zone called strikes. Tanaka finished 45th. With good command and a good catcher, Keuchel’s been able to manipulate the edges, and sure enough that’s what just happened. Tanaka’s command isn’t bad, and Brian McCann as a catcher isn’t bad, but the Astros came in with a certain advantage, and they possessed said certain advantage. This isn’t to say that it’s necessarily fair. That’s a whole different conversation. But the Astros did what they had to do to pitch to a slightly bigger zone in a one-game playoff. That didn’t, on its own, decide the result, but then nothing did, on its own. The Astros, I’m sure, were happy to take the help.

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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.

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Trey
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Trey

Great article! I expect that more teams will start to pay attetion and take advantage of a good pitch framer.

DD
Guest
DD

I agree. It seems like such a “low hanging fruit” area to focus on for MLB catchers – some consistent practice with it on different pitch types, with the potential for big benefits.

Jim Price
Guest
Jim Price

But maybe its not quite as easy as we think. I’m sure teams are not stupid and probably some of them were on to this before the general public. Most likely, its a skill that some guys will master better than others.