The Worst Called Ball of the First Half

If I know you, you’ve been around long enough to have seen a number of these. There isn’t much in the way of variation. Over a large enough timescale, the worst called ball will come on a pitch thrown in the vicinity of the middle of the strike zone. There’s no alternative. Those are the clearest, most obvious strikes, so when they’re not strikes, they’re lousy called balls. They all look more or less alike in that regard. So exploration is just about filling in the details. When did this particular bad call happen? Who was the umpire who made the actual call? Which pitcher threw the pitch? Which catcher caught — or didn’t catch — the pitch? What was the situation at the time? Did the call end up mattering much?

I’ve written the same post a whole bunch of times. I’ve done the same research, to end up with the same kind of play. Just about always, the call happens because the catcher sets up somewhere, and then the pitcher badly misses. I usually make some reference to how it’s evidence that framing does matter. Catchers struggle to catch pitches headed for surprising locations. You can “earn” a ball, even when you throw a pitch down the pipe.

This is another play that wasn’t very clean. We’re going back to June 18, in the first inning of a game between the Rangers and the Mariners. Danny Valencia got ahead in the count 1-and-0 against Yu Darvish, because Darvish and catcher Robinson Chirinos failed to properly execute. But this time, there’s a twist. This isn’t the same post as always.

Darvish had already gotten into some trouble. It was the first inning. That’s kind of what he does. Although there were two outs, the Mariners had a 1-0 lead, and they had two more runners in scoring position. Valencia stepped in after Kyle Seager got the green light and ripped a 3-and-0 double off the fence. Darvish needed to get ahead, lest the situation get worse, and to his credit, he did throw a strike. But Hunter Wendelstedt called a ball, leaving Darvish with little recourse. There was no way for him to protest. The count was 1-and-0. Darvish’s first pitch missed the dead middle of the strike zone by all of 1.5 inches.

The pitch was a fastball. It wasn’t some weird Darvish-specific breaking ball with anomalous spin. Fastball, 95, dead red. Valencia didn’t swing! What could’ve been better? Use your fingers. Approximate 1.5 inches, between your index finger and your thumb. It’s a fun-size candy bar. A pitch that misses by that little isn’t a pitch that missed. And yet, I warned you this would be weird. Here’s a glimpse of how:

If you don’t look carefully, you might not even see the baseball. It’s there, in front of Chirinos’ left shoulder. I promise you that’s not some commemorative patch. I’ve never loved the camera angles at Rangers home games, because they’ve forever been off-center, but that aside, here’s my best guess at where the pitch was located when it entered the strike-zone area:

Mid-thigh? Yep. Mid-plate? Yep. Images back up the pitch-tracking data. Sometimes, when you find a pitch like this in the spreadsheets, it’s nothing but a glitch. A technical malfunction. This was a different sort of malfunction. This is Robinson Chirinos, looking like he’s actively trying not to catch Darvish’s first-pitch fastball. Making at least an effort to catch every pitch is kind of Catching 101. Wires were crossed, and catastrophe struck.

I can tell you exactly what happened here. With a runner on second, Chirinos went to alternate signs, because he didn’t want to let Seager tip the hitter off. Darvish knew they were using alternate signs — they’d already thrown several pitches in the inning with a runner on second. But ultimately, alternate signs are more complicated signs, and for any given individual pitch, the probability is higher that the signs will be misinterpreted. In this case, Chirinos and Darvish got crossed up. When you see Chirinos re-settle with the pitch on the way, it’s because he thinks he called for a slider. Sliders from righties, to righties, are almost always away, at or beyond the outer edge. Darvish thought the call was for a fastball. We’ve all seen pitchers and catchers get crossed up dozens of times, and there’s no getting used to it. Catching isn’t like hitting, where you have to be prepared for any pitch in any spot. Catchers *know* what the pitcher is going to try to do. So when the pitcher does something else out of nowhere, without warning — how terrifying is that?

Here’s what Gameday had to say about the whole at-bat:

I’m not going to sit here and try to interpret the Rangers’ alternate pitch signs. In fact, maybe I’m naive, but I wonder how much effort actual baserunners use when it comes to trying to interpret alternate pitch signs. Would Kyle Seager really have been able to pass information along to Danny Valencia? Doesn’t it seem like sometimes the defensive team is being a little over-protective? I know that sign-stealing happens, or at least I think I know that, but, I mean, I don’t know. How widespread is the activity? How good are baserunners at cracking the code? How much attention do hitters give to the runner on second, when the pitch is just about to be thrown? Do catchers really need to make things as complicated as they make them? I don’t want to talk like I know more than I do. Maybe the players know something I don’t. Maybe they don’t, and this is all just tradition, like talking through gloves during mound meetings so no one can read your lips. Whatever the case, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that Robinson Chirinos flashed the following sign, which might have been of some significance, when Yu Darvish was looking somewhere else.

So, this happened.

Every so often, I get asked why pitchers and catchers don’t plot revenge against frustrating umpires. The idea tends to be, okay, when the umpire is screwing up and hurting your team, why not throw a fastball and then have the catcher dart out of the way? The umpire always depends on the catcher for protection, and if that barrier were to shift, the umpire could get drilled nice and clean. Now, there are a number of reasons why this doesn’t happen in the majors, first and foremost being that that’s psychopath behavior, and you should get yourself checked out for even thinking about it in the first place, but this is what a screenshot would look like if that were to occur. Catcher randomly off to the side. Pitcher acting like this wasn’t the plan all along. Hitter shocked, shoulders raised in surprise. Umpire doubled over, wondering whether he still has his testicles.

To slow things down some:

The ball drilled Chirinos right in the forearm. He missed a bunch of last season because of an injury to the other forearm. Chirinos was okay after a couple minutes of getting a break, but what Chirinos also knew right away was that he’d almost certainly have to stay in regardless, since it was a day game and, as the backup, he was giving Jonathan Lucroy a breather. If Chirinos had his arm snapped in two, he wouldn’t be able to play. That would be silly. Hairline fracture? I don’t know. I don’t know where the line is, where a team reluctantly does become willing to interrupt a starting catcher’s Sunday off because the backup might need to go to the hospital.

We should check in with the announcers. What did they have to say about the pitch? From Seattle radio, Rick Rizzs:

Rizzs: And man, Chirinos was really crossed up on the pitch. The pitch was almost a strike. Chirinos, as we look at the replay, was going to his right. The ball sailed to Chirinos’ left and got him on the left arm. He never got a glove on the pitch.

This is how media bias works. It’s usually not that overt. It’s subtle, just barely there, seemingly innocent. The pitch was, objectively, right down the middle. According to Rizzs, the pitch was “almost a strike.” Can’t say it should’ve been a strike, because then that means the Mariners got lucky. No, the Mariner hitter took a ball, and then the ball also got away. Way to go, Mariners!

From Texas radio, Matt Hicks:

Hicks: And as we take a look at the replay, that pitch was basically a strike, and Chirinos missed it. And so he obviously got crossed up there. And I’m not too sure if the pitch was called a strike, but it was right down the middle of the plate!

From Texas TV, Dave Raymond and C.J. Nitkowski:

Nitkowski: Watch his glove — he’s expecting a slider. That ball stayed right down the middle at 95 miles per hour, which — it was a strike. They call a strike?

Raymond: Well-

Nitkowski: It was a strike.

Raymond: I thought it was a strike. They scored it — they called it a ball.

Nitkowski: That ball was right down the middle. I understand, listen — sometimes an umpire gets no look at it. We talk about catchers giving a good look, but when there’s a cross-up like that — it does happen, but still — that was a strike. I’m looking at my little graphic over here that plots all the strikes. That ball was right down the middle of the plate.

Hicks was right. Nitkowski was right. The pitch was, by definition, a strike, because it was right in the middle of the rule-book strike zone. But the pitch was also, by definition, not a strike, because umpire Wendelstedt didn’t call it a strike. I think you need to be sympathetic, here. Understand where Wendelstedt was coming from. I know that it’s always a bad look for an umpire to call a ball on a pitch right down the middle. And, sure enough, it’s a rarity. These don’t happen very much. On paper, it’s bad. In reality, imagine you’re Wendelstedt. You’re staring down at Yu Darvish, 65 or 70 feet away. There’s someone in front of you whose job it is to receive the ball headed north of freeway speeds in your direction. Only that guy has a glove. You have a chest protector. It can’t stop a bullet. If not for the catcher, the umpire’s virtually naked. Now imagine a pitch is delivered, and the catcher suddenly shifts to the side, but the ball doesn’t follow. In that four-tenths of a second, Wendelstedt’s entire life flashed before his eyes. He thought he was going to get that ball flush. He might’ve said something out loud to his loved ones. You expect Wendelstedt to still have the discipline to call that pitch a strike? You expect Wendelstedt to remember he’s involved in a baseball game at all? It was Chirinos who needed a visit from the trainer, but Wendelstedt might’ve needed the break even more.

Robot umps wouldn’t work like that.

As a fun fact, here’s what Eric Nadel had to say, just as the pitch was about to be thrown:

Nadel: Keep in mind Darvish is second in the league in wild pitches. He’s thrown eight.

On the one hand, wow, foreshadowing. On the other hand, the pitch was officially scored a passed ball. Let’s take the time to look at one more replay:

There’s a lot in here. At present my favorite part is how Darvish had to go and get the ball himself. I feel like that’s how things should go whenever a pitcher throws a terrible pitch or makes an embarrassing mistake. Crossed up? Go get it. Wild pitch? Go get it. Wild pickoff attempt? Go get it. Home run? Go get it. Negotiate with the fan if you have to. Maybe try signing his t-shirt. Everyone has a price.

There’s also Kyle Seager flailing about as he aggressively rounds third base. He doesn’t make much in the way of actual contact with Pete Kozma, but it looks like he was trying to make contact with Pete Kozma, so as to draw a call and get an extra run. No such call was made, and so Kozma could laugh about it afterward. Haha! I was being framed!

Another highlight to me is how casual everything is. Jarrod Dyson very casually points toward home to instruct the running runner to run. The Mariners’ third-base coach very casually points toward third to instruct Seager to stay put. The Rangers’ left fielder watches everything, motionless, and then he starts to jog forward just when it’s clear nothing else is going to happen. In theory, I suppose he thought he could back up a potential throw to third base, but this is all just baseball people going through the motions. I bet they don’t even know why they did what they did. On some level, we’re all machines.

At last, you notice where Dyson is? Here’s Dyson around the first pitch of the at-bat:

Now here’s Dyson around the second pitch of the at-bat:

Not only was Dyson not standing in the on-deck circle — he moved even closer to the plate after the first pitch. Turns out nobody cares and nothing’s enforced. There are no rules about the on-deck circle in the official rule book. Here’s a New York Times article from October 2010. The on-deck circle is effectively just a suggestion. If anything, players now avoid it more, since it’s generally just a rubber mat, which is slippery when you’re wearing spikes. Or when you’re not wearing spikes. The on-deck circle is just kind of there, very precisely emplaced, and very casually ignored.

Anyway, Danny Valencia was ahead in the count 1-and-0 because he took a fastball down the pipe. A few pitches later, he bopped a home run. Just another bad first inning for Yu Darvish.

We hoped you liked reading The Worst Called Ball of the First Half by Jeff Sullivan!

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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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Ryan DC
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Ryan DC

Well that was a wild ride, great job as always!