An Illustrated Guide of Missed Strike Calls

I hope you’ll indulge me in a small bit of personal venting as a setup for this article. Over the holidays, my wife and I traveled to see family. This being 2021 (well, at the time), she caught COVID. We’ve been isolating at home ever since – I haven’t tested positive, but given that I’m being exposed every day, what can you do?

Why tell this story? To some extent, I want to complain. I’m only human, after all, and venting is one way to feel a bit better about the week I’ve spent sitting at home reading, cooking, and taking care of a sick person without being in the same room as them. More importantly, though, I’ve had a bit of free time, and I spent it the way that anyone would: watching an absurd number of videos of pitches in the strike zone that were called balls.

What’s that? You’d do something else with your time? I did some cooking and such too, but seriously: plenty of videos of balls called strikes. Why? I wanted to write an article about them, and when your free time stretches out infinitely, you might as well get a firm grasp of the genre first. Anyway! I’ve found what I would consider to be an exhaustive account of the ways that pitches very clearly in the strike zone get called balls. I’m going to use the worst missed calls of the 2021 season to show the ways a perfectly placed pitch can turn into a ball.

Or, I’ll do that shortly. First, we have to exclude one category, namely, edge-case pitches in two-strike counts. Are they strikes? By the letter of the rulebook, absolutely. But I’m okay with strike zones that shrink a bit in this situation, as long as they expand a little bit when the shoe is on the other foot. That’s not a problem of catcher presentation, or one where the umpire misses an obvious one. It’s simply a different view of how the strike zone should work, and slightly-narrowed edges are not the kinds of misses I’m hunting for.

We’re also excluding cross-ups. When the catcher has to turn on full panic mode, umpires miss the call fairly often. When the catcher goes from sitting high fastball to dropping to a blocking position, there’s so much commotion that you can forgive an umpire a slightly altered sense of the strike zone. Finally, I left out anything where the batter was attempting a full-on bunt and obscured the umpire’s view, because those wouldn’t be fun to watch. That leaves us with these archetypes.

The Stab

A classic as old as our appreciation of framing. If you want to present a pitch as a strike, a still glove is key. This one was a strike, and it wasn’t a cross up; it was just Daulton Varsho making a mess out of a pitch he had to know was coming:

Did Jean Segura’s half-hearted bunt attempt throw him off his mechanics, or perhaps confuse the umpire’s sense of the bottom of the zone? Maybe! For a call like this to get missed, something has to go really wrong. That pitch was six inches above the bottom of the zone, squarely in not-even-close-to-a-ball territory. The worst part of this one is that it would have been easily avoided. J.B. Wendelken didn’t miss the target by much. If Varsho had kept his glove down the whole time rather than first pulling it up and then recovering back down, I’m fairly certain this would have been called a strike.

This isn’t the most exaggerated stab you’ll see. That motion, though – reaching down for the ball with the glove – just looks like a ball. It wasn’t a ball, of course. We have the luxury of the white strike zone box – and exact three-dimensional coordinates – but between that dipping motion and the bunt attempt, it was simply a missed call. Usually, umpires get these right. Stab often enough as a catcher, though, and you’ll lose strikes. There’s a reason Varsho grades out as indifferent at best with the glove. It’s not this pitch in particular, but it’s an accumulation of things like this pitch.

The Drop

If you’re not stabbing, you’re part of the way there, but you can’t be dropping either. Here’s a good way to earn a one-way trip off the Marlins roster:

That’s Jorge Alfaro behind the dish, and while he has plenty of interesting tools, top-notch receiving is not one of them. There’s no need to sugarcoat it; that was Alfaro dropping victory into the jaws of defeat.

From the umpire’s perspective, these are tough ones. Yes, the pitch location was clearly a strike – a good six or seven inches above D.J. Stewart’s knees. But the ball also hit the dirt, and I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I could put that out of my mind while attempting to call this one. The ball was so low that the catcher dropped it, after all. How can that be a strike?

Again, umpires don’t miss many of these. They’re good at their jobs. But if you keep clanking them, they’re bound to miss a few, and this one ended up costing the Marlins; Stewart walked and scored on a home run in an eventual 8-7 Baltimore victory.

The Stab-and-Drop

This time, let’s combine the worst of the drop and the stab. Here, Tom Murphy set up low and away for a fastball. Low is fine against Jose Altuve, though:

Yikes! This pitch was so solidly over the middle of the plate that I think both of Murphy’s mistakes had to happen to make it a ball. First, Kendall Graveman missed on location by enough that Murphy ended up making an unnatural right-to-left stab to attempt a clean catch. With his left knee down, it looked like an even bigger movement than it already was.

Combine that with how far outside Murphy set up, and even though the pitch was down the middle, it likely felt quite a bit farther inside. When catchers set up outside, they’re trying to project the strike zone outward. Catch a ball dead center in your chest protector, and it feels like a strike, even if that protector is on the outside corner of the plate, rather than the middle of the plate. But if you set up outside like that and then dive back inside, it looks like the pitch is way off-target, even though the plate is right there. With the plate cut out, if you don’t have that white box for guidance, it sure looks like this pitch is drifting inside:

Even worse, Murphy didn’t grab it cleanly. A pitch that misses the catcher’s torso and gets dropped? Why, that’s almost always a low and inside pitch. In this case, however, it was a strike – just an easy one to miss.

Too Much Motion

I’m guessing here. This is a fairly standard fastball, down the middle of the plate on the first pitch of an at-bat:

Fear not, Tom Murphy fans. That’s Cal Raleigh behind the plate here. To be honest, I’m not even convinced Raleigh committed any grave receiving sins, but this type of miss happened often enough – though not so blatantly – that I’ve come up with a name for it.

Raleigh stabbed at the ball a little bit. He set up inside before turning back outside to receive it. He used a catcher-approved technique of starting low and coming up to the zone, after setting a high and inside target for JT Chargois to start the pitch off.

I think it was just too much motion. Where’s the zone? The umpire has a good idea, but as we all know by now, catchers can influence their perception. For my money, Raleigh just gave too many influences here. It’s high! It’s low! It’s outside! Depending on which part of the pitch you watch, you could believe any of those.

Of course, the umpire might have also just missed the call. Umpires usually don’t make mistakes on pitches like these, no matter what the catcher is doing. Maybe there was something in his eye, or he saw a four-leaf clover in the infield grass and forgot he was umpiring. But this one at least has a happy ending. Raleigh called the same pitch again on 2-0, kept his hands quieter, and got the obvious strike it deserved:

The Over-Enthusiastic Frame

I’ll be honest with you – I had a hard time classifying this one. I’m not exactly sure what Jonah Heim was doing, though, so I’m inclined to blame it on him:

At the instant Heim caught this ball, it was squarely a strike:

None of that Murphy problem either: though Heim had set up further inside, he re-positioned his body well and caught it in a good receiving position, without too much excess motion before the ball hit his glove.

After catching the ball, however, he decided to sell a pitch that surely didn’t need selling. He pulled the pitch up emphatically, almost leaving the top of the zone by the time he stopped his glove:

The move of yanking up a low pitch to convince an umpire of a strike has never worked all that well, but catchers have used it in emergencies as long as I’ve watched baseball. It’s a last-gasp attempt to sell a strike when the pitch missed the zone low. “Hey umpire,” Heim is saying with his glove positioning, “I caught the ball here, my glove is in the strike zone, call a strike.”

Umpires aren’t dummies. They see through the legerdemain that catchers try on a daily basis. The pull-up has been used so often that umpires are wise to it by now. Not only that, but catchers mostly use it when the pitch in question was a ball to start with. If you see a catcher attempt this move, the pitch was probably borderline at best. Otherwise, why try it?

This pitch wasn’t borderline. Heim made it look like it was. The call didn’t go his way. That’s the danger of giving the full hard sell – people only sell that hard when they’re worried the truth isn’t enough, and the only reason the truth wouldn’t be enough is if the pitch was near the border of the zone in the first place. Should this have been a strike? Absolutely! But I can at least convince myself that I understand why it wasn’t.

The Uh, What?

Okay, fine. Most of this article has been about catchers doing something wrong that turns certain strikes into near-certain strikes. They’ve been chosen to make the catchers look bad – they’re all called balls in the middle of the strike zone – but they’re a mixture of mistakes by catcher and umpire. This one is not that:

I watched this pitch over and over again trying to figure out what went wrong. This thing is middle-middle. It’s a fastball, so it’s not like some strange break deceived the umpire. Tim Hill has a unique delivery, but he’d already thrown 10 pitches in the inning, so it’s not like this was the first look umpire Brennan Miller got at it.

Every other catcher in this article got some flack from me. I think most of them deserved it a little. These mistakes aren’t enough to turn every single clear strike into a ball, but they make it a closer decision for the umpire, and the difference between a pitch being called a strike 99% of the time and 93% of the time adds up in the long run.

This isn’t that! Luis Campusano caught this cleanly, set up exactly where Hill threw the pitch, and received it cleanly. He didn’t try to pull the pitch to the center of the zone, or stab wildly. He didn’t set up wrong and trick the umpire that way. He just did his job, and didn’t get the call. That’s the real takeaway of all of these. If you’re a catcher, you can tilt the odds ever so slightly in your favor. On any given pitch, though, it’s all in the umpire’s hands… and while they’re frequently right, sometimes they just call a ball on a fastball down main street.

Is that a reason for an automated strike zone? I don’t think so. I’m a fan of the probabilistic edges of the zone. I like rewarding pitchers more the further they venture into the zone, and I think that a pitch a centimeter off the plate should get called a strike sometimes to keep things interesting. But uh… yeah, these ones were rough. Catch me on the right day, and I might take a robot over errors this large.

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

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CC AFCmember
2 years ago

Thank you for articulating the over-enthusiastic frame. I’ve seen this so many times and I have had a hunch that it might cost some borderline calls when it’s done so blatantly. It’s like “hey, I’m trying to tell you that wasn’t a strike because I have to do this exaggerated framing motion!”

It’s the baseball version of a football player reaching out and putting the ball down past the marker after they get tackled a yard short.

2 years ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I am always baffled by the over-enthusiastic frame ever getting called a strike. The umpire must see or sense the excessive movement of the catcher which clearly means the catcher doesn’t think the pitch is a strike yet many of these balls are called strikes. I will admit to being a strong advocate for an automated, meaning consistent, strike zone and cringe when I hear the play-by-play broadcaster tell me that Carlos Marquez is a hitter’s umpire or that Angel Hernandez called another one that was a foot outside a strike.

2 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I see MLB catchers jerking the ball and am confused. An umpire sees and feels the jerk. The line of the ball hasn’t changed. Who teaches this?

2 years ago
Reply to  eph1970

You still get more calls than you lose, which is why framing is a thing