A Chronicle of Indignity: Unjust Punchout Leaders

© Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I contemplated baseball as a carnival game. It gave me great joy because I think there should be more silly games in the world. It also gave me great joy because I got to spend hours watching beautifully located pitches, on a loop, for work. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend trying this yourself – bosses are wild these days – but trust me, it’s really fun.

Another thing I really enjoyed in writing that article was watching batters react to those perfectly placed pitches. One, in particular, stuck with me, so I snuck a piece of it into the piece. Here’s the full clip. In it, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has either just realized he had a huge cryptocurrency position on FTX or been called out on strikes:

I love it. I love it so much. It makes me even happier that he wasn’t right. That was a strike! Everyone loves to think they’ve been wronged. Everyone has their own perspective. Vlad’s perception of the strike zone is surely that it smaller than the actual zone. In this case, the difference between perception and reality led to a delightful expression of disbelief.

Batters don’t get to look down at a digitized representation of the borders of the strike zone. They see a blur fly past them, often while they’re busy trying to hold back a swing. I’ve always been impressed by what a good job hitters do understanding the zone while operating with limited information.

To some extent, they just do what’s optimal and get mad at every borderline pitch, ball or strike. Over time, that might sway the minds of umpires to their cause. If a hitter is upset, it must mean you did something to upset him. I’m not sure how strong that effect actually is, and there’s no easy way to measure it, but it at least seems plausible.

For the most part, though, I think hitters do a great job of understanding the zone. They save their most animated gestures for bad calls. They aren’t perfect, but neither are umpires, and both sides seem to accept that there will be hurt feelings and differing perceptions on the fringes of the zone. If you’re a hitter, you might think you’re being victimized all the time, but some part of your brain surely knows that some of the pitches you’re complaining about were really strikes.

Only some, though. Sometimes, a combination of catcher receiving, umpire perception, and sheer random chance conspire to retire a batter on a pitch that shouldn’t have done so. That is, of course, a real bummer, the kind of thing that will get you channeling your inner Hulk. It happens to everyone who plays in the majors for much time at all. Just from a probabilistic standpoint, if you take five pitches that are each called strikes 20% of the time, you’re going to get one bad strikeout call in expectation. Per Statcast, umpires called 1,779 strikeouts on pitches that were outside of the regulation zone in 2022. That’s nearly 5% of all strikeouts.

It wasn’t 5% of each batter’s strikeouts, though, obviously. The world isn’t neat and orderly like that, and it’s not even clear if that would be fair. Edmundo Sosa swung at 80.6% of the two-strike pitches he saw in 2022. Taking a ton of inaccurate called third strikes – or really any type of called third strike – isn’t in the cards for him. On the other hand, Patrick Wisdom saw 810 two-strike pitches and swung at only 48.8% of them. Sure, that’s painting with a broad brush – maybe Wisdom saw a ton of uncompetitive pitches – but my point is that not all hitters are created equal.

What follows isn’t exactly an attempt to figure out how this will shake out in future years. It’s not that at all, in fact. Not everything needs to be forward-looking analysis that will figure out who the next batter to improve on their wRC+ by two points over their median projection will be. I just enjoy knowing who was wronged the most, and maybe showing videos of them in the process.

If you’re interested in which player was victimized by the most incorrect third strikes, I’ve got that list for you:

Most Incorrectly Called Strikeouts

Of course Julio is at the top. It was a whole thing early in the year. Just look at this nonsense:

I mean, what? What!? I’m not a big robo ump guy, but that one makes me long for our machine overlords. That was part of a string of 10 called third strikes that missed the zone in April alone, an absolutely unconscionable total.

Is it a rookie thing? Peña wasn’t far behind, and there were some similarly shocking calls against him. Sure, some of these are borderline calls that could go against anyone. Plenty of Peña’s were fractions of an inch off the black, pitches that get called strikes plenty of the time with no argument from anyone. But there was also this howler:

I could go on like this all day. Every batter on the list above had reason to complain about at least one preposterous call. You don’t need to see the video evidence because trust me, they’re all the same. The point is, there are plenty of missed calls to go around. If we want to figure out who was the most wronged, we’ll need a slightly more stringent criteria than “who had the most incorrectly called strike threes.” My first take: what if we figured out how many pitches just off the plate each player took with two strikes, and how many of those resulted in strikeouts?

To do that, I looked at every pitch that was in the shadow zone but also outside of the rulebook strike zone. I looked only for pitches thrown with two strikes and only for batters who saw at least 50 such pitches all season. In total, roughly 12.3% of these turned into called strikeouts (the other 87.8% resulted in balls, naturally).

With that rate in mind, I came up with a rough expected called strikeout rate on these pitches. You can subtract out that expected rate from how many times a player actually struck out on those pitches and come up with “bad called strikeouts above expected,” or BCSAE if you really want to abbreviate things for no good reason. Peña got robbed this year:

Bad Called Strikeouts Above Average
Player BCSAE
Jeremy Peña 7.9
Randy Arozarena 6.3
Julio Rodríguez 6
Ty France 5.6
Lourdes Gurriel Jr. 5.1
Jose Siri 4
Gary Sanchez 4.9
Ryan Mountcastle 4.8
Bobby Dalbec 4.6
Jose Altuve 4.5

That’s kind of boring. It’s basically the same list from before! Even if you just look at strikeout rate, allowing for players who batted less often to get in on the mix, that only adds Bryan De La Cruz to the party. We can probably do better by controlling for how bad of a call each particular strikeout was. Again, a strikeout that was a few millimeters outside of the zone isn’t as egregious as some of the indignities visited upon Rodríguez earlier this year.

To this end, I came up with an arbitrary metric that, while it won’t settle all debate, will finish this article. Thanks to the magic of Statcast, we can measure exactly how far out of the zone each incorrectly called strikeout was. We can then add them all up. But adding isn’t enough, at least in my eyes. Four quarter-inch misses aren’t as bad as a single one-inch miss. To handle this, I squared the distance of each miss before adding them up.

I’m not sure squaring them is exactly right, but I think it’s good enough for our purposes. The effect is intuitive: really bad strikeouts count way more than close-but-wrong ones. Take this Steve Cishek pitch, for example:

That’s outrageous! That was more than five inches off the outside edge; Matt Olson was rightly worked up about it. That should never, ever be a called strike. By comparison, close calls don’t sting much at all. Here’s one that was a fraction of an inch off the edge:

Was he perturbed by that one? A little, but not majorly so. He probably let out an explosive sigh as he walked off, but nothing further. Distance matters; those atrocious ones matter far more than missing a 50-50 call.

With that in mind, your 2022 bad called strikeout leader is Nick Senzel. He’s also the winner of the coveted Worst Called Strikeout Award, one that he shared (an actual dead heat measured to the 100th of a foot, if you can believe it) with that Peña strikeout from earlier. He wasn’t happy about this one:

Now for the final list of this article, the leaders in squared distance of bad strikeout calls. I’ve excluded the units because they’re basically nonsense, but you get the idea. These are the 10 hitters who should be most aggrieved about their treatment by umpires:

Most Incorrect Strikeouts, Squared Inches
Nick Senzel
Jeremy Peña
Eric Haase
Matt Chapman
Wilmer Flores
Santiago Espinal
Julio Rodríguez
Yadiel Hernandez
Randy Arozarena
Robby Grossman

Is this a perfect metric? Most definitely not. It ignores called balls in the strike zone, correctly called balls outside the zone, and so on. I like it, though, because it gives me a definitive answer. Whose strikeout rate was most ridiculously inflated by pitches that shouldn’t have ended at-bats? Nick Senzel and Jeremy Peña. Sorry, guys. I hope Peña, at least, will take a World Series MVP award as fair compensation for his loss.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

For all of the crying over this in the early season for Julio, 6 total “bad” Ks above expectation doesn’t sound like much. That’s what, 1% of his total PAs? It’s not great for him, but “unfair strikeouts” aren’t the kind of event that would be perfectly and fairly distributed across a large sample. Just like the early season complaints about Julio’s treatment in the sample size of a month, this seems like a nothingburger. It’s akin to complaining about a pitcher giving up more home runs than their xHR would say.

1 year ago
Reply to  DLHughey

The article does not lay out when these bad Ks occurred, but let’s just say 4 of them were in April, which is when the issue arose. Julio had 81 plate appearances in April, so that works out to just under 5% of his PAs. But don’t forget that there were likely a few more “expected” unfair Ks in there as well, so the number gets more significant.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
1 year ago
Reply to  DLHughey

Despite everything, I cried for this at the beginning of the season for Julio, 6 general “bad” Ks, the sea of expectations does not sound like much. What, 1% of the time you see your novice? So this magic, already “falling unjustly” is not the kind of event that would be ideally and correctly distributed among the great electorate. In the same way, the complaints at the beginning of the season about the jubilant Julio in the midst of the selection of missats seem like nonsense. If you want to go to the gym, what’s wrong with the abdominal area?