The Worst Called Ball of the Season

Every year, around this time, I look forward to this post. I look forward to it because it checks the two boxes most important to me as a writer: the post is always popular, and I don’t have to try to come up with a new idea. It’s always the same idea, and it’s always the same basic research. What changes are the names and the dates and the numbers. It’s not that the research and prep are easy, but finding an idea is usually the challenge. That’s not a concern when you have a recurring series.

That being said, I get nervous. I always want to write about the worst called ball of the season, but, around the All-Star break, I tend to write about the worst called ball of the first half. Here’s this year’s. If that stands up as the worst called ball overall, then I’d have to decide if I want to write a second time about the same event. It’s preferable, to me, that the second half contain a ball that’s objectively even worse. The odds of that aren’t great; the second half is shorter than the first. They’re not actually halves at all.

Excitement and nervousness. My fingers are always crossed. This year, I got lucky again. The worst called ball of the first half was thrown on June 18. The worst called ball of the whole season was thrown on August 20. It was worse by a fraction of a fraction of one inch. The pitch-tracking technology isn’t truly that precise, to begin with. And this all depends on the upper and lower strike-zone boundaries, which are subjective, since they change for every hitter. I don’t have 100% confidence that the ball on August 20 was worse. But my confidence level is at least, I don’t know, 51%. That’s good enough to proceed.

I know that you read these things just to look at the pitch and laugh. We’ll get there. I know you don’t care much about the method. I just want to quickly explain how I separated these two exceptional pitches. I begin at Baseball Savant, looking for balls on pitches down the middle. Once I have some candidates, I look up the calibrated, corrected information on Brooks Baseball. That is, after I confirm that the pitches actually happened, by using the archived video. This time I introduced one more step. On June 18, there was a ball thrown to Danny Valencia. On August 20, there was a ball thrown to Josh Reddick. Instead of using the strike-zone boundaries set for the at-bats in question, I looked at each hitter’s average strike-zone boundaries, for the whole summer. That way I figured I could erase extra noise. Long story short: The pitch to Valencia missed the exact middle of the strike zone by 1.87 inches. The pitch to Reddick missed the exact middle of the strike zone by 1.85 inches. Perfect. Good enough to continue.

Now, when you’re researching these things, you run into a good number of data glitches. Every now and then, the tracking technology burps, and something is misreported. Often, the errors are corrected within a few minutes. Sometimes, they’re not. Many alleged called balls down the middle don’t exist, because, of course, why would they? Sometimes they’re accidentally labeled as balls instead of strikes. Sometimes two consecutive pitches are switched. Sometimes the pitch-tracker shows a ball down the middle if it bounces back up there off the dirt. I look up every bad called ball. In each case, I expect I’ll find a glitch.

On August 20, Jharel Cotton threw a ball to Josh Reddick that was right down the middle. It was the first pitch of the at-bat. Right away, as I looked it up, I was given a signal. Nope. Didn’t happen. Must’ve been a glitch. For one thing, it wasn’t reported as just a regular ball; it was recorded as a blocked ball, as a ball in the dirt. How on Earth? That didn’t make sense. Then I found out the game log was missing from Brooks Baseball.

August 20 is just plain skipped over, like it didn’t exist. That’s suggestive of some tracking errors. Furthermore, there was also no information available on Texas Leaguers, another resource I like.

The internet wanted me to believe it didn’t happen. The internet was sounding the data-error alarm. But there’s no substitute for actual video. Maybe, some day, down the line, people who are hellbent on manufacturing history will change the videos to make it look like things happened that didn’t really happen. We’re not there yet. I can’t imagine anyone gained official MLBAM access and doctored footage of a mid-August game between the A’s and the Astros. With two runners on in the bottom of the sixth, Cotton threw his first pitch to Reddick. It was a ball, down the middle. And it was blocked, in the dirt.

It’s almost too good to be true. Until now, I never would’ve believed it could exist. That is, a pitch down the middle, called a ball, that has to be blocked in the dirt. I just didn’t think there was enough space between the catcher and the front of the strike zone. That’s a very limited area, in which a pitched ball would have to drop two or three feet. But here we are, and this is reality. Let’s slow the pitch down, just because.

If you remember the pitch to Valencia, or if you clicked the link again today, that pitch happened because the pitcher and the catcher were crossed up. So it is here; Cotton threw one thing, while catcher Dustin Garneau expected another. Cotton threw a first-pitch curveball, trying to steal a strike. Garneau thought he was getting a fastball, up. It’s cleaner this way, kind of. When I write these posts, and the pitches are called balls because the catcher just frames poorly or something, some readers are annoyed. They don’t like that umpires can be so influenced by a catcher reaching across his body. Strikes are strikes and balls are balls, and the catcher shouldn’t have anything to do with it. A case like this is different. It’s extreme. Technically, I suppose, this is Garneau demonstrating godawful framing technique. But our home-plate umpire is Dan Bellino. I don’t think you can blame him for much of anything. Garneau moved too much. And he moved too much in a misleading direction. No human umpire could possibly ignore that, and if Bellino had an instant where he realized the catcher was crossed up, he would’ve been most concerned with his own physical safety. For me, Bellino’s excused. You couldn’t reasonably expect the right call to be made.

There’s one thing here that’s probably not a coincidence: Until August 20, Garneau had never before caught Cotton in a game. And because there was a runner on second, Garneau had to go to alternate, more complicated pitch signals. It’s not a total surprise that the pitcher and catcher weren’t on the same page. After Garneau made sure the ball didn’t get to the backstop, he went out for a talk.

Yet one thing still lingers. After the pitch, Cotton and Garneau had a chat. But, immediately before the pitch, they also had a chat. What in the heck did they discuss, if not the plan or the signs?

Garneau and Cotton met. They had a situation to discuss. Easiest to talk these things out by the mound. One assumes they would’ve touched on at least a general strategy of pitching to Reddick. From the very next pitch, I’ve selected some screenshots.

The first one shows where the pitch was around the time it entered the zone. Here’s another, more zoomed-in view, as if you needed any more evidence. Look, it happened. But I might as well drill the point home.

The ball is a blur, and it’s impossible to know exactly when it’s crossing the front plane of the plate, when your view is from center field. But we can get pretty close. This is pretty close. That ball is around the middle of Josh Reddick’s thigh. It’s around the middle of home plate. Maybe ever so slightly shifted. In screenshot form, you don’t get the chaos. You don’t know it’s a cross-up. That’s the utility of video. The video tells the whole story.

Sometimes, when these calls are made, the announcers move right past them. They don’t mention what happened, either because they’re not looking closely, or they don’t want to hang the umpire out to dry, or something. The announcers, though, jumped all over this one, to their credit. From Astros TV:

Todd Kalas: Cross-up, Garneau may have taken that pitch out of the strike zone. It’s 1-and-0.

Geoff Blum: Good job of knocking down that breaking ball. This was a pretty good pitch but, with Garneau jumping around back there, obviously blocks the umpire’s point of view and [he] calls it a ball.

Kalas: Astros catch a break on that cross-up, it’s 1-and-0.

From Astros radio:

Robert Ford: Astros caught a break there — that actually was right down the middle of the plate but was called a ball because the catcher came out of his crouch and blocked the view of the home-plate umpire.

From A’s TV:

Glen Kuiper: And that was a cross-up.

Ray Fosse: And it was a strike!

Kuiper: It may have been, you’re right.

Fosse: It’s right in the middle of the plate! But it’s hard — look at the location of this pitch. I mean, it’s right there. And he was looking fastball, got a breaking pitch, kind of went with it and kept it in front of him. As we always say, it’s where the ball crosses the plate for the home-plate umpire, not where the catcher brings it back into the strike zone.

From A’s radio:

Ken Korach: Taken for a ball, and Garneau definitely was crossed up by that. It was a curveball. And I think the plate umpire was crossed up. I think that pitch was a strike, but it was because Garneau missed it that Cotton didn’t get the call.

I didn’t check out the Spanish-language broadcasts, but only because the point had already been made. The announcer crews picked up on exactly what had taken place. I think it was treated fairly. Fosse still wanted the call, it seems, but in general, it was a break for the Astros — nothing more, nothing less. This wasn’t just about bad framing. Cotton and Garneau miscommunicated with one another. You could say they didn’t deserve anything good.

Nevertheless, Cotton did freeze Reddick with a first-pitch curveball over the plate. Instead of being ahead 0-and-1, Cotton was behind 1-and-0, with a rally taking place. Reddick popped the next pitch up in foul territory, and Matt Chapman came mere inches from making the catch by the A’s dugout. Two pitches in a row, two bad breaks for Cotton. You had to feel bad for him; based on his pitches, he deserved a better fate. Instead, the at-bat continued. Instead, Cotton had to battle.

The old 3-6 double play on a pop-up behind first base. That’s how the inning came to an end, somehow. Cotton earned his first win in nearly two months.

We hoped you liked reading The Worst Called Ball of the Season 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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Post of the year candidate.