Umpires Are Having Some Trouble with Aaron Judge

The absence of Mike Trout, however unfortunate, has the possible effect of opening up the field for the American League’s MVP award. It’s also possible we’ll see a position player other than Trout lead the league in wins above replacement for the first time since 2011, when Jacoby Ellsbury posted a 9.4-win season. Trout still leads the league this season (3.3). Given that he could miss two months of time to injury, however, he could be hard pressed to finish ahead of his peers for a sixth consecutive campaign.

So that brings us to the No. 2 player on the American League leaderboard, Aaron Judge.

I received some questions about MVP odds during my Monday chat and Judge’s name came up. As impressive as Judge has been this season, including a 510-foot batting practice shot in Toronto…

… I sense there are questions, concerns about the league’s ability to punch back when it accumulates more scouting material against an inexperienced hitter who possesses both a long swing and unusual baseball body. Judge doesn’t yet have the same type of exposure to major-league pitching and defenses that other MVP candidates have. When pitchers began to refine their approach against him, will Judge be able to counter punch?

There’s already some evidence that a considerable slow down is imminent: Judge’s strikeout rate has been inching up.

While Judge deserves credit for his offseason work — including a swing adjustment that has resulted in dramatically improved bat-to-ball skills and allowed his raw power to translate into games — the forecasts call for merely a good player, not a great one. Our Depth Chart projections, which are a combination of Steamer and ZiPS with curated playing-time estimates, have Judge slashing .253/.338/.500 for the rest of the season, with 22 more homers and 2.2 wins.

If those projections are reasonably accurate, Judge probably isn’t capable of holding off Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Miguel Sano or even a partial season from Trout.

Judge has already proven to be an able and willing student, and the improvement he’s made from his first exposure to the major leagues has been impressive. Maybe he will counter punch effectively and put together a truly remarkable campaign. But there’s something contributing to Judge’s strikeouts, a factor working against him relatively more than his MLB peers to date in his young MLB career: the low strike.

Consider this third-strike call from Pirates pitcher Tyler Glasnow from earlier this season:

And consider another third-strike call, from then-Mariners pitcher Wade LeBlanc last season:

To the average major-league hitter, those pitches are around or above knee-level; they’re excellent pitches. They are clearly strikes thrown to the average batter. For Judge, though, they’re below the knees. Since there are no players the size of the 6-foot-7, 280-pound Judge in the majors — the 6-foot-6 Giancarlo Stanton is the nearest comp — umpires are being challenged to adjudicate a unique and large strike zone.

I employed the useful Baseball Savant search tool to get a detailed look at where strikes are being called against Judge. I was particularly curious to examine the 50-50 area at the bottom of the “detailed” zone now provided by Savant.

This season, 41% of pitches on the lower edge and just below the strike zone are being called as strikes against Judge (75 called strikes of 183 pitches in examined location). For MLB hitters as a whole, it’s a 24.3% rate (9,300 called strikes of 38,193 pitches in examined location). Last season, 24.6% of pitches in that location went as called strikes against Judge according to the search tool, compared to 17.4% for the league.

I also looked at pitches well below the strike zone. Judge has seen 379 pitches in his young career dating back to last season, 2.1% of which have been missed calls going for strikes. According to Statcast data, the going league-average rate for called strikes in the area is 0.4% since the beginning of last season.

Of the pitches in the top third of the zone since last season, at the top edge of the 50-50 area of the zone, only one out of 56 pitches thrown there has been called for a strike against Judge this season. The league-average rate is 12.3% (8,444 out of 68,547 pitches located there). So umpires are giving Judge a larger bottom of the zone to date, but a smaller top of the zone.

Still, the net result is negatively effecting Judge in two ways. For starters, he’s been more of a high-ball hitter to date in his career. Consider his career isolated slugging percentage per swing:

The other issue is that far more pitches are thrown to the bottom part of the strike zone, more than twice as many of them. Here’s a visualization of all called strikes against Judge to date in his young career:

At least at this point in Judge’s career, umpires are having trouble calling a correct zone on him. Judge would perhaps be even better, he would be in more hitter’s counts, getting more elevated pitches, if he were facing an accurately called strike zone. The good news for Judge is that perhaps umpires will learn to better call Judge’s strike zone. In that bottom 50-50 area of the strike zone, 21.4% pitches have been called as strikes against Stanton, his closest contemporary in terms of right-handed batting height, since the start of 2016.

So not that Judge needs much help, but perhaps he will get it eventually, and his power will play up even more often.

We hoped you liked reading Umpires Are Having Some Trouble with Aaron Judge by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Yet again, if we had a laser guided strike zone none of this would be an issue.

Remove the human element from baseball umpiring – NOW.

eldurko
Member
Member
eldurko

From what I’ve read, the up/down aspect of the automated strike zone is still very much in need of refining. In/out is easy, but up/down is relative to the batter, and up is a particularly vaguely defined point.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

That is my understanding as well. The top/bottom of the zone, by definition, depends on the batter’s height and stance. For pitch-tracking purposes, it is manually set by a human prior to each pitch.

The obvious solution would be to have some kind of RFID sesnor sewn into the knee and chest of the uniforms.

SoxWatcher
Member
SoxWatcher

I’m a big proponent of doing this kind of thing – I wouldn’t totally automate it – I’d give the ums a hand-held (like an iphone) where they could see the same visual we see on TV, showing where the ball crossed, and then he still makes the call.

After “Deflate-gate”, I wonder how long it would take for such a system to give birth to “RFID-sensor-gate” :)

eldurko
Member
Member
eldurko

For me, the appeal of the umpire behind the plate lies in the reactionary aspect. It’s much more exciting when a pitch paints the corner with runners on 2nd and 3rd with two outs in a full count to have that reactionary call – GOT HIM!! It would deflate the excitement a bit to have the batter looking up at a scoreboard to see if the call is right or not.

Whatever method is chosen to make the zone more accurate – even if that’s having a 5th ump in the both with a monitor and the overhead and front-facing views to make the call – I think there should be an ump behind the plate with an earpiece in.

Not to say the game is about the ump, but the immediate reactionary interchange between ump and batter adds a lot of excitement. It can remain while also making the zone accurate.

Johnston
Member
Johnston

You want entertainment, we want accuracy. I’m not sure that the twain will ever meet here.

John
Member
Member
John

You want “Truth” with a capital T. Not the same as “accuracy” ;-)

fuster
Member
fuster

you can’t handle the accuracy!

pear1jamten
Member
pear1jamten

retracted

Johnston
Member
Johnston

Exactly. And that would be cheap to do.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

Just occurred to me: how the heck do you not title this article “Umpires Are Having Some Trouble Judging Aaron”?

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

He missed the call, that’s why.

Robert
Member
Member
Robert

I never want to hear any criticism of Cistulli, but that was obvious!

johansantana17
Member
johansantana17

But then would there be an added element of checking that each batter hasn’t moved the RFID sensor before each AB, slowing down the game?

Sarachim
Member
Sarachim

The other problem with an RFID is that the strike zone is based on the batter’s stance when the pitch is thrown. Hitters could manipulate the zone by crouching or standing up straighter.

LHPSU
Member
LHPSU

They’ve always been able to. See Henderson, Rickey.

bleh
Member
bleh

50 rfid sensors for all the players? That’s the *obvious* solution? Teams can’t even keep their 2 bullpen phones from breaking. And they’re not getting banged around on the field. That would be a disaster. I think the obvious solution would be having custom heights for each player set before the game and someone off field switching them before they come to the plate.

CliffH
Member
CliffH

Why 50? You just need the front knee and the front shoulder/”midpoint”, right?

fuster
Member
fuster

why sew it into the uniforms, which could be altered or worn differently and simply implant the sensors into the players?

Cybo
Member
Cybo

Well once they define it more accurately they can track it precisely. The rules regarding the strike zone will have to be updated to be more clear and concise.

John
Member
Member
John

Sorry, just to clarify, you’re trolling here right? Otherwise, I don’t understand your demand, or its tone. I know trollers don’t like to troll-and-tell, but I really can’t figure this one out.

John
Member
Member
John

Oh, I guess you could be a Judge MVP/Yankees homer, maybe that’s it?

John
Member
Member
John

Not sure what I’m getting down votes for, must be about *my* tone, which I can apologize for. To clarify, my question is how can you make such a demand without giving any indication that you’d considered the consequences. You make it seem like bringing in lasers is like some magic bullet that renews “lost” “integrity” and “authority” with out having any impact on either the deep structure of the game, or its surface (just some guesses here), and that’s simply not true. So I hoped you would clarify, before I bothered with a response, that you were in fact actually interested in one, and not just being provocative. It seemed a fair questions, and I’m sorry if there was any offense.

noseeum
Member
noseeum

If there’s ever going to be a change, the umps have to be on board. I think calling any new strike zone technology “robo umps” will get you nowhere.

Instead it should be designed, implemented and communicated as a tool for the umpire. Eric Byrnes had a segment on Real Sports on HBO where he umpired an independent league game using a strike zone system that fed strike/ball info to his ear.

To the rest of the world he looked like any other umpire you would see. He also had final say on whether the pitch was a ball or strike. But he was armed with better information than other umps.

Give the ump a new tool to do his job better and than let him do his job: don’t replace him because as others mentioned, you still need a home plate ump even if the strike zone is managed with technology.

jdbolick
Member

An automated strike zone would introduce a laundry list of potential problems, and it’s simply not at all necessary. I appreciate that pitch framing is a part of the game. I also don’t mind that umpires have different strike zones as long as they are consistent within the game. I’m all for getting rid of poor performing umpires like Bucknor, but on the whole I think umpires do a fine job and I believe the game would be lessened without them.