No one ever wants to have to talk about the strike zone. If the zone is called well, there’s nothing to discuss; if it isn’t, that’s a problem, but it’s all deeply unfulfilling. Fans don’t want to be helped by the strike zone, because it takes something away from a team’s own achievements. And fans don’t want to be hurt by the strike zone, because it leaves them feeling cheated. Every baseball fan everywhere acknowledges that the game involves a certain human element, but we all prefer to think the games are decided by the players, and by the players alone. Introducing a third party tends to make people upset.
Among the great reliefs of Game 5 is that it won’t be remembered for home-plate umpire Bill Miller. The game packed in enough astonishing action that there are more interesting and important points to make besides the zone having been so weird. Miller made some strange calls, but every pitcher was also entirely gassed, and balls were flying over the fence. Alex Bregman won the game with a walk-off single. Although the zone was pitcher-friendly, there were still 11 total walks and 25 total runs. The lingering image isn’t one of a hitter shaking his head.
Yet the obnoxious reality is that the zone was a factor. The zone is always a factor, because every game changes with every individual pitch. On Sunday, some pitches were called unlike how they usually are. The zone is woven in, inextricable, a part of the larger game story. We’d prefer not to think about it, but blissful ignorance doesn’t acknowledge all that went on.
I wouldn’t say that anyone should be surprised. Even before Game 5 got started, it was noted that Miller is notoriously pitcher-friendly. He tends to call a larger zone than average, and that’s what everyone saw. If there was a surprise, it’s that it was so apparent. Sometimes a tendency doesn’t show up when you have a sample of only one game. Miller’s tendency showed up. The evidence is there on Brooks Baseball.
Here is the zone that Miller called for left-handed hitters.
Here is the zone he called for right-handed hitters.
It’s not as if every close pitch was a strike. But many close pitches were strikes, and so were a few that weren’t even that close. It seems like the Astros got a few extra calls. I don’t say that with any bias, and the Astros’ own hitters had their own disagreements. Yet it was the Dodgers who were the most frequently upset. Their frustration only grew with the leverage.
This is a story I could tell with the images above. I’d prefer, though, to tell it with the images below. This is going to have a lot of GIFs, again, so you are free to click away. I know that this is an overload. But sometimes a post just calls for a GIF barrage. I won’t be annoyed if you don’t want to watch all these. Trust me, I get it. But these videos show 14 called strikes, arranged in chronological order. I’ve selected for incredulous hitter responses to Bill Miller’s called strikes. The hitters will tell you how a zone looks from the box. Sometimes internet graphics deceive. The internet graphics aren’t deceiving. Last night’s hitters weren’t happy, at least not after watching the pitches go by.
We start, as you would, in the top of the first.
2-and-1 is an important pitch. They’re all important pitches, in Game 5 of the World Series, but this was the difference between 3-and-1 and 2-and-2. A hitter-friendly count, and a count calling for a defensive swing at anything close. Yasiel Puig, I imagine, felt pretty good about this take — Dallas Keuchel wanted him to get jammed by that pitch. It’s not an easy take. It’s a disciplined take, a difficult take. Puig laid off the close ball, inside. It counted against him anyway. Puig turned away in disgust. Little did he know, then.
Not all that long ago, baseball passed a rule mandating that hitters keep at least one foot in the box. There are exceptions, like how a hitter can leave the box after attempting a swing, but you’re not supposed to be able to leave if you just take a pitch like normal. Marwin Gonzalez took the pitch from Clayton Kershaw and then went for a stroll. That’s not supposed to happen, but Gonzalez, I imagine, wanted to clear his head. Miller wasn’t going to call him out on it. Umpires are tasked with keeping the game moving along, but the action will slow if you don’t allow a hitter a moment to calm down.
The early calls draw the more muted responses. The game hasn’t yet had time to develop, and the hitters don’t yet have a clear strike-zone impression. Cody Bellinger could do little but stare for a second, and shake his head walking. But the early calls also *create* the impression. This call against Bellinger in part informed the responses to follow.
Let’s do it again. 3-and-1, or 2-and-2? Puig, again, took the close pitch. His process was sound. His vision was clear. Puig was in the right to do what he did. Strike two. I don’t know what kind of behavior this zone reinforces, but it’s probably not behavior the Dodgers would want to encourage.
In the bottom of the fourth, the Astros came back and made it a baseball game. As soon as Yulieski Gurriel blasted his game-tying homer, the emotions kicked in. From that point forward, every pitch and every at-bat were important. And so the displays of frustration grew more dramatic. Kike Hernandez walked away smiling, but not because he was in any way happy. A smile can be an easy thing to misinterpret.
You’re Yasiel Puig. You’re kind of upset. You feel like you know what the strike zone should look like, but you’ve already taken some strikes way inside. They’ve changed the complexion of your at-bats in the game. Perhaps, you figure, the zone is just shifted. It happens. At least you have it in your power to adjust. Just means they won’t be calling the outside strike. Right?
No umpire ever likes to be shown up. No umpire ever wants for a hitter to assume a close call. Umpires don’t like to cede that authority. Maybe that partially explains this strike two. Or maybe Miller sincerely thought this was good. George Springer certainly didn’t think it was good.
The emotions were high for everyone. Already, by this point, the game had been a roller coaster. There was still an out to go in the fifth. A player would have a split-second to decide how to express his own annoyance. Emotions will get the best of you, unless you can keep them pressed down. Alex Bregman, I imagine, wanted to curse. But he settled for putting his hand on his hip. You curse with three strikes. You don’t want to curse with one. That can hasten the trip to the strikes yet to follow.
Corey Seager handled this one pretty well. He kind of leaned back when he initially heard the strike call, but he asked for some clarity and nodded along. Making friends. Influencing people. Seager could accept it. But that still didn’t mean he wasn’t annoyed. He just couldn’t afford to show it. Not for another few minutes.
That might well have been the perfect pitch. A ball only needs the tiniest sliver to pass through the zone in order to technically count as a strike, and the pitch was right there. But Seager’s response wasn’t about only this. Frustration over the first pitch, too, boiled over in his throat. A hitter can accept one borderline strike. Throw in another and all bets are off.
Batters are already standing so close. It’s what allows them to tell the difference between a ball and a strike. Hernandez was bunting, crouched even closer. He had an even *clearer* idea of the zone, and he got himself ahead 2-and-0. Might even get the bunt taken off. Hernandez could’ve been in position to swing. Strike one, though. Two plus two is three. Why? Because that guy said it. If you try to argue with him then you get yourself ejected.
I’ll say it again — it’s possible this was another perfect pitch. Another two-strike delivery that ever so barely nicked the zone’s corner. If this happened in isolation, free of all context, Logan Forsythe would’ve been annoyed, but he might’ve been able to take it. But Forsythe didn’t argue with one pitch in his mind. He argued on the basis of several innings. The strike zone is crafted over the whole entire game, but the impression is set in stone early. The Dodgers’ impression of the zone was absurd.
I never know quite how I’m supposed to feel about good pitch-framers getting called out on borderline pitches. I still don’t.
You can practically see Joc Pederson think his way through this. The last thing he wanted was to take a borderline strike to fall behind 0-and-2. Pederson thought it might’ve been a ball, and the stakes were enormous. Pederson raised his arm as if to act out, letting Miller know exactly what he thought, but Pederson smoothly caught himself. Instead of turning and cursing and making the wrong enemy, Pederson adjusted by removing his helmet and wiping his brow. No, sir, nothing to say. Just feeling kind of sweaty. This baseball game, right?
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.