Earlier today, Nicolas Stellini documented umpire CB Bucknor’s tough night behind the plate at SunTrust Park on Tuesday. As Stellini noted, it’s only April 19 and we already have a contender for the worst call of the year.
But we also have a contender for the best call of the year.
As tough a night as Bucker endured, his performance also included one of the most courageous third-strike calls I’ve seen. Really! In fact, considering the actions of the Atlanta catcher, it might have been among the best strike calls I’ve seen.
On the seventh pitch of Wilmer Difo’s seventh-inning at-bat on Tuesday night, Braves right-hander Mike Foltynewicz missed his intended location by the width of the plate. The pitch, nevertheless, did graze the lower portion of the strike zone, and it was justly called (by Bucknor) a third strike.
While the pitch didn’t reach its intended target, it was a nearly perfect offering in one sense — namely, that it was difficult to hit or, at least, hit well. But it was surprising that Bucknor called the pitch a third strike, as Braves catcher Kurt Suzuki failed to catch the pitch. Instead, Suzuki whiffed on it.
It’s rare to see a major-league catcher fail to secure a fastball that passes through the strike zone. And it’s even more rare to see such a pitch actually called a strike by the home-plate umpire.
On one of the worst of nights we might see from a home-plate umpire this season, Bucknor also made one of the best calls we might see all season.
Here’s video of the pitch in question:
And the location of the pitch, per Statcast. (The relevant pitch is No. 7.)
The first pitch of the at-bat wasn’t such a great call. In the upper-right corner of the zone, it was nevertheless called a ball. The call on the seventh pitch was excellent, however, because it was the most borderline of locations made correctly, and it was made free of bias. (OK, not completely made free of bias, as the Braves were the home team. To have been the most courageous of third strike calls it would have had to have been made on the road, since home teams generally do receive the benefit of the doubt on borderline calls which in large part fuels home-field advantage.) But it was free of something umpires are expected to overcome but by which they’re often influenced, something which has become a larger part of the game: catcher receiving. In this instance, Suzuki’s poor receiving could have easily biased Bucknor against a strike call.
It’s that recency bias, what an umpire last sees before making a decision — a catcher’s glove subtly moving to grasp and freeze with a pitch — that influences decisions. In the last decade, teams, of course, have made acquisition decisions based upon framing influence. But on this one occasion, in this one, game Bucknor overcame it.
Sure, it was just one pitch, one correct call, on an overall poor night for Bucknor. But it was a really rare call to get correct. I asked colleague Sean Dolinar to research similar instances from 2016, and there really aren’t any. What Dolinar did find — by way of the most complete search of 2016 pitch data we were able to conduct on short notice — is that there were only eight called strikes last year on pitches that both (a) passed through the strike zone and also (b) were scored as passed balls. (Tuesday’s sequence wasn’t considered a passed ball, as the runner did not reach first base safely.)
It’s calls like this — calls free of bias — that umpires might need to make more often if they want to hold off robots from taking over their ball-strike duties. While MLB commissioner Rob Manfred doesn’t think baseball is ready for robot umps behind the plate, yet, he seems open-minded.
“Look, the technology of calling balls and strikes without a human being involved has continued to improve,” Manfred said, according to USA Today. “Sandy Alderson started us down the path of reviewing balls and strikes via technology after the fact. The principal reason we’ve always done it after the fact is that unlike the box you see on a broadcast, [for] our system that we use to grade our umpires, someone goes in and manually adjusts the strike zone for the batter. As technology continues to improve and those sorts of adjustments can be made [in] real time, that technology will become more feasible for use on the field. I don’t believe we are there yet.”
There’s a growing call for the strike zone to be made free of bias through technology. Jayson Werth, for one, was ready for robot umpires after Tuesday’s game.
Jayson Werth's full quote on the end-of-game umpiring tonight… pic.twitter.com/Q24LU7F0qy
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) April 19, 2017
And if teams continue to value expert framers, it only makes sense that the zone will continue to grow in size, becoming harder to define and judge in the process. In fact, the strike zone did grow in size every year from 2008- to 15 according to Jon Roegele’s research.
So what can umpires do to call a more accurate zone? How can they free themselves of pitch-framing bias?
While major-league umpires are generally unavailable to the press, as a newspaperman last season I asked the director of MLB umpires, Randy Marsh, about how umpires have been instructed to deal with catcher framing, and I asked for his thoughts on why the zone was growing.
Marsh noted through QuesTec, and later PITCHf/x, strike-zone evaluation has greatly improved the uniformity of the strike zone east and west. It was actually a poor umpiring performance — by Eric Gregg in Game Five of the 1997 NLCS — that, in part, sparked the creation of QuesTec:
But there is the growth, up until last year, south of the strike zone.
Marsh evaluates major-league umpires during the season in person at major-league parks and from his laptop in his Covington, Kentucky, home. He doesn’t give umpires scouting reports on catchers, he doesn’t ask them to go over framing metrics of individual catchers. And, in theory, umpires should try to enter each game as free as bias as possible, though the quality of receivers is probably known through word of mouth if not statistical research. (Many, if not all, MLB clubs study the called strike-and-ball tendencies of umpires for a given game.)
“I don’t think that [umpires] worry about one catcher being better than another,” Marsh said.
What he studies, among other things, are umpires’ mechanics. And, yes, umpires have mechanics. Are they positioning themselves correctly behind the plate? Do they have the best possible view of the zone as possible?
How did he explain the growing strike zone of 2008-15?
“I think the umpires have seen that on the [evaluation] system, that if the ball goes over the hollow of the knee and breaks down … it is still a strike,” Marsh said of a low strike. “I think it’s changed maybe a little bit  on the top end to try and call a more complete zone, which would be a higher strike, which is not called that often over the years. We are trying to get it called perfectly.”
And on one occasion, for one pitch, Bucknor freed himself from receiving bias and called the most borderline of pitches perfectly. It’s not an easy call to make, but if the umpires want to keep their ball-strike duties for years to come, it’s the kind of borderline call they’ll probably have to call more correctly, more often. Maybe it’s impossible, but they must better free themselves of catcher bias.
More likely, I suspect, we are headed toward a future of ball-strike automatization.