According to PITCH/fx, umpires weren’t giving Josh Outman the benefit of a doubt in 2011. If their called-strike data is accurate, only 65.3% of pitches the lefthander threw in the strike zone went in his favor. A remarkable 34.7% of would-be-strikes were called balls. He was among the most-squeezed pitchers in baseball that season.
Outman holds no grudges against umpires’ judgment. The 28-year-old recognizes they have a difficult job, and not all of them will interpret the strike zone in exactly the same way. Umpires aren’t machines, and in Outman’s opinion, that’s just the way it should be.
Outman — currently pitching out of the bullpen for the Colorado Rockies — discussed the strike zone, and its interpretation, on a recent visit to Fenway Park.
Josh Outman on the major-league strike zone: “According to data I saw, two years ago I was the most-squeezed pitcher in baseball. It seemed to be when I was going in on left-handers around the thigh portion of the strike zone, and around the knees, in, on right-handers. Those were the ones they were missing. I haven’t been able to actually talk to an umpire about it, to find out if it’s something in the way I deliver the ball, or the way the ball comes across the plate when I throw it.
“It was an interesting statistic to see. I didn’t deliver nearly as many pitches as a lot of other guys that year, but at the same time, according to the software they were using, a lot of the strikes I threw weren’t called strikes. My strikeouts-to-walks ratio wasn’t very good that year — my first year back after Tommy John surgery — but not getting so many pitches kind of skewed that statistic a little bit.”
“There’s human element involved. Every umpire has his own strike zone — their own interpretation of it — but that’s the history of the game. Everyone can call the zone how they see fit. There’s a standard definition of what it’s supposed to be, and umpires are graded on that definition, but a lot of these guys have been in the game for a number of years and are kind of set in their ways. You don’t expect them to change that much.
“Generally, the top of the strike zone is missed most often. Most umpires won’t call the top. That’s something they’ve really tried to change over the years — making sure the top, by definition, is called — but it is what it is. You hope for that strike, but as a pitcher, you don’t really want to be working up there anyway.
“As far as either side — in or out — it really depends on the umpire. Some guys, with where they set up, get a better view of the inside. Other guys see the outside better, so on the inside they stay pretty tight. Some umpires are just going to have a bigger strike zone than others.
“We have data for every umpire — things like strikes called — so we know going in, ‘Okay, this guy has the third-smallest strike zone in baseball.’ We know if we maybe need to be a little more on the plate than usual, because it won’t be as easy to get called strikes. If a guy has a bigger strike zone, it’s ‘If he’ll give me that, let’s see if he’ll give me this.’ You have to ebb and flow with how the game is being called.
“Through history with them, we kind of know, ’Okay, this guy likes to give the low strike, but the rest of his zone is probably going be tighter.’ Or he’ll call the high strike, so we can use the top of the zone to work down. But mostly we just know if a guy has a bigger zone or a tighter zone. You know that going in, and as the game goes on you’ll se if he’s being more lenient here, or more lenient there.
“I don’t know if there’s one particular pitch I have trouble getting called a strike right now. Maybe my changeup when it’s down in the bottom of the zone, but I don’t really have too many complaints. The strike zone is up for interpretation, and it’s tighter than it used to be, but the umpires get graded and generally do a good job.
“You need to have an umpire behind the plate. It always sucks when they miss a strike for you, but that’s just the game — it’s always been there. It wouldn’t be baseball if we had some machine calling balls and strikes.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.