In the Dodgers/Cardinals game Monday night, Dale Scott served as the home-plate umpire, and when the game was over Matt Kemp couldn’t help but complain to the media that Scott had been terrible. Umpires have had better games, and umpires have had worse games, but one could at least understand Kemp’s frustration, given what happened to him in the top of the ninth. And what happened to Kemp in the top of the ninth really captures the whole problem with the human-called strike zone. Nothing you’re going to read below is going to be new to you, because this has been the problem forever, but the specific sequence with Kemp was too incredible not to acknowledge. In not writing about Kemp’s situation specifically, I’ll begin by writing about Kemp’s situation specifically.
This post might have my favorite-ever .gif. At least, it’s my favorite .gif so far of the month. I love it because of how much I hate it.
The setting for you: 3-1 Cardinals, top 9, Kemp leading off against Trevor Rosenthal. With the count 1-and-2, Rosenthal threw Kemp a fastball down and away.
Ball. All right, makes sense. Seemed a little off the plate away. At 2-and-2, Rosenthal came back with another fastball down and away.
Strike. All right, makes sense. Perfectly spotted, barely missed the plate. You see this pitch called a strike pretty often. The only problem being: welp. See, there was this other fastball, right before. Now we get to move on to just an absolutely amazing .gif. This is the problem with the umpire strike zone, in a couple of seconds:
See the green circle with the 4 in it? Not for long you don’t, because it’s replaced by a red circle with a 5 in it. That tells you everything, but just to really drive the point home, here are some PITCHf/x details, from Brooks Baseball.
The fourth pitch, called a ball, was a fastball measured at 99.1 miles per hour out of Rosenthal’s hand. At the front plane of the strike zone, the center of the ball was 13.1 inches from the middle of the plate, and 26.4 inches off the ground. Basically, the height was fine, but the pitch was a bit outside.
The fifth pitch, called a strike, was a fastball measured at 99.2 miles per hour out of Rosenthal’s hand. At the front plane of the strike zone, the center of the ball was 13.0 inches from the middle of the plate, and 26.2 inches off the ground. The location was different from the previous pitch’s location by 0.2 inches. Which is to say, the locations were not different at all. Which you can tell from the .gif just above.
That’s the problem. That is the whole problem. The pitches had very slightly different movements, but Dale Scott wasn’t perceiving that. Trevor Rosenthal threw a pair of almost literally identical 99mph fastballs. Both pitches were taken, and both pitches were called differently. The pitch that Matt Kemp heard was a ball was then subsequently a strike, his third of the at-bat in the ninth inning of a playoff game.
We’ve known forever that umpires are inconsistent, because calling balls and strikes is super hard, but seldom do you get to see it exhibited like that. Same pitch twice in a row, literally opposite calls. You can see why Kemp was upset, because, what he is supposed to do with that? You can tell him that maybe he should be protecting with two strikes, but literally just the pitch before Kemp struck out, he hard that pitch was a ball, so why swing at it? You swing at it because it’s a strike, even though it’s a ball.
Those were fastballs in the gray area. There has to be a gray area with anything that humans are judging, because we can’t mentally draw consistent borders, and when you have pitches on the edge, the call is nothing but a coin flip. Scott easily could’ve called the fourth pitch a strike. He easily could’ve called the fifth pitch a ball. Instead he did what he did, and it’s simultaneously understandable and unfair. We’re asking humans to do something that’s basically impossible to do right often enough, and when you see something like this, no one comes out of it looking good. Dale Scott wouldn’t want this to happen the way it did, but a man can see pitches only so well.
It wasn’t that long ago that Asdrubal Cabrera got ejected after arguing strikes. The pitches in question were neither obvious strikes nor obvious balls, so someone was going to have a problem. Brandon McCarthy distilled the issue into a tweet:
5 out of 10 times those are strikes. Therein lies the problem.
— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) October 5, 2014
Most pitches that are taken are clear strikes or clear balls. Yet when it comes to the edges, so much of it comes down to luck. A good take by a hitter can end up looking like a bad take, a take that was too close to lay off of. And pitchers, sometimes, get the bad side of this as well. All anybody wants is strike-zone consistency. The shapes of the zones tend to be pretty consistent, but ideal consistency doesn’t include those gray areas, because if a pitch is sometimes a strike and sometimes a ball, what is that but consistently inconsistent?
Pitchers shouldn’t have to feel around for the strike zone, and hitters certainly shouldn’t have to bat without knowing the dimensions of the invisible box. Hitting is already so difficult, due to its nature of being reactive, and players are trained for years to expect a certain zone to be called. It’s completely unreasonable to expect hitters to react to a strange zone on the fly, because so much is ingrained, and I just don’t know how you can explain to a hitter that a pitch is a partial strike. That’s essentially what the Rosenthal fastballs were. What is a hitter supposed to do with partial strikes? Calls are binary and definitive, and how can a pitch be definitely one thing and then definitely the opposite thing mere moments later?
This is the problem that’s never going away as long as people are making the decisions. It’s been like this for as long as baseball’s been baseball, and while overall umpires are getting better seemingly every single season, there’s still a lot of inconsistency, which leaves players on both ends feeling a little bit helpless. And while the inconsistency might approach zero over enough time, it’ll never actually get there, or even particularly close to there. Baseball is a game in which whole strikes or balls are assigned to fractions. Given what other sports deal with, baseball has far less error due to human subjectivity, but that isn’t really a point in its favor. It’s its own sport. It has this issue, which we can do nothing about but deal with.
Baseball doesn’t want an automated strike zone. A huge number of baseball fans don’t want an automated strike zone. Even a huge number of players don’t want an automated strike zone. People are extremely resistant to significant change, and most of the time, the game can proceed without incident. It’s obvious that the game isn’t broken, because it would’ve fixed itself if it were. People are willing to accept the current reality. Yet under the current reality, the reality of one pitch isn’t always the same as the reality of an identical pitch 20 seconds later. Matt Kemp got the worst of it, and there’s not even anybody to blame.
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.