Somebody Save Julio Rodríguez

Lindsey Wasson-USA TODAY Sports

When the 2022 season opened to fanfare and excitement, one of the main talking points was the record-setting arrival of top prospects. After countless rebuilds, a global pandemic, and a prolonged lockout, fans deserved to watch budding superstars duke it out in games that matter. Some of them, like Seiya Suzuki and Jeremy Peña, have been thriving right out of the gate; both rank among the top ten in batter WAR as of Thursday’s games. Others like Spencer Torkelson might have fallen a bit off the radar but have still been successful per wRC+ or batted ball metrics.

Much to our annoyance, though, there’s always a flip side we’d like to ignore. Enter Julio Rodríguez, whose triple slash of .136/.208/.159 is terrible not just amongst fellow rookies, but also all of major league baseball. This isn’t to say we should be concerned; Rodríguez remains one of the most talented rookies around, and in the grand scheme of things, 12 games and counting mean next to nothing. Don’t smash that emergency glass just yet!

But in his opportunities to prove himself, Rodríguez hasn’t been offered fair terms. One of the most fundamental and effective traits a hitter can possess is plate discipline, which is partly the ability to ignore unfavorable pitches. It’s something Rodríguez has demonstrated several times in a limited number of plate appearances, with confidence to boot, but that bravado hasn’t quite translated into results:

This is a chart showing all eight (!) called third strikes outside the zone against Rodríguez, a league-leading total. The plotted strike zone is adjusted for his height, by the way, so there’s no ambiguity here. It gets even worse when you actually look at some of these pitches, which the umpires gift-wrapped for pitchers who made objective mistakes. For example, here’s a Sonny Gray sinker that is rarely, if ever, called a strike, especially in a two-strike situation:

Uh-huh. Sure, that’s totally a decision befitting a stadium named Target Field.

You could maybe argue that Rodríguez, whose two-strike swing rate of 40.3% is the third-lowest among all hitters, needs to up his aggression. The cost of taking a third strike is high, so the math tells us that a batter ought to hack away instead. But Suzuki has a similar two-strike swing rate (42.7%), and he’s yet to be punished for his passivity. Whatever flaws Rodríguez might have right now as a hitter don’t excuse the fact that very few calls have went his way. This is a clear problem, one that has Mariners fans understandably angsty.

Naturally, Rodríguez’s string of misfortunes piqued my curiosity. What I first looked at is the track records of home plate umpires who have officiated Mariners games so far. If they’re known for mishaps, that would make me feel a teeny bit better about Rodríguez moving forward; umpire quality tends to come and go, so it’s good that he’s gotten the bad ones out of the way. In the table below, you’ll find the dates on which those inexcusable called strikes occurred, the umpires responsible for them, and their career accuracy rates, all courtesy of the Umpire Scorecards website:

Julio Rodríguez’s Worst Enemies
Date Umpire Accuracy Percentile
4/9/22 Marty Foster 91.3% 19th
4/13/22 Cory Blaser 92.5% 55th
4/14/22 Mark Ripperger 93.0% 77th
4/16/22 Greg Gibson 91.9% 34th
4/20/22 Jeremy Riggs 94.2% 94th
4/21/22 Carlos Torres 92.8% 66th

Well, this is far from satisfying. Here is a mixed bag of umpires: some not very accurate, about average, or excellent across a sample of multiple seasons. There’s no motley crew of incompetent umps conspiring against our young protagonist; what’s shown above seems like the result of picking five of them at random. Any individual, regardless of their aptitude, is capable of committing an error. Perhaps it just so happens that Rodríguez was caught in the middle of eight such instances.

Not willing to let go just yet, though, I next considered the fact that Rodríguez is young, even for a hitter in his first year. If there’s anyone who might abide by the archaic notion that rookie players must earn their place in the bigs, it’s a curmudgeonly umpire. Are all those called strike threes outside the zone a sign of disrespect? Is Rodríguez being penalized for his relative lack of experience? And if so, are older veteran players more likely to have close calls go their way?

To investigate, I sorted every player season from 2015 to ’21 with minimum 100 plate appearances into five different groups by age, then worked out what percent of taken pitches in the “Shadow” zone were called strikes. That’s the region Baseball Savant defines as the borderline between a strike and a ball. For context, 47.2% of all “Shadow” pitches in the Statcast era have been deemed strikes, which makes sense; when the placement of a pitch is vague, you would expect it to go either way at equal probability. After giving more or less weight to certain players based on how many pitches they took, here are the numbers I ended up with:

Called Strike Rate by Age, 2015-21
Age Group Sample Called Strike%
< 24 230 46.9%
24 to 27 1,053 47.1%
28 to 31 888 46.7%
32 to 35 456 46.7%
> 36 106 47.4%

There’s some disparity between different age groups, but not to an extent that would actually matter. The biggest drop-off in called strike rate occurs between ages 24–27 and ages 28–31, but it equates to a loss of four called strikes per 1,000 takes, which (a) is not recognizable whatsoever and (b) has a microscopic impact on offensive performance. Interestingly, it’s the oldest players who see the highest rate of called strikes on borderline pitches. I’m not sure what that indicates or what’s responsible for it, but I appreciate a subversion of expectations.

We’re not here to focus on what a 37-year-old Rodríguez might go through, though; we’re here to focus on the Rodríguez of now. And so far, we’ve yet to unearth an explanation for his current woes. But there is one more angle worth approaching. Maybe what matters more so than a player’s age is his service time. Maybe, rather than how old a player is, umpires are aware of whether he’s new or not. And the more familiar a player becomes to an umpire over the years, maybe the more likely he is to be remembered and receive the benefit of the doubt on close pitches. Sounds plausible enough to me.

It’s time for more methodology talk! This one’s a little tougher to lay out, but here goes: Among the player seasons in my previous sample, I identified which were from rookies. Doing so allowed me work out, for example, that if Miguel Sanó’s 2015 represents his first season, then 2016 must be his second, 2017 his third, and so on. Afterward, I looked at the change in called strike rate between a player’s rookie season and subsequent ones. In theory, the negative difference between year one and year six should be greater than that between year one and year two: more exposure (to umpires), fewer strikes. That was the idea, at least. But hypotheses are all too often proven wrong, as is the case here:

Does More Experience Lead to a Lower Called Strike Rate?
Comparison Sample Rookie Year Comp Year Delta
Year 2 285 47.3% 47.3% 0.0%
Year 3 203 47.1% 47.4% 0.3%
Year 4 135 46.6% 47.2% 0.6%
Year 5 81 46.4% 47.4% 1.0%
Year 6 38 46.4% 47.8% 1.4%

Based on this, it seems as if the longer someone has been a major leaguer, the greater the difference is between his most recent called strike rate and his rookie season rate. But it’s not necessarily because hitters with more experience are subject to more strike calls. Rather, it’s because hitters who eventually made it to years four, five, or even six started off with a lower baseline called strike rate. Consider that among the players I analyzed, those with just two years averaged a rookie season rate of 47.3%, whereas the select few with six years averaged a rate of 46.4%. That isn’t a huge deviation, mind you, but it’s significant compared to the age-based numbers from earlier. Maybe it’s good hitters who are favored by umpires!

Circling back to Rodríguez, if you’re willing to put any stock into my findings — which, admittedly, amounts to junk math — then there’s reason for optimism. Barring a developmental catastrophe, Rodríguez seems like a hitter with a long, prosperous career ahead of him, meaning his high rate of called strikes is more likely to be corrected. But really, the heart of the matter here is sample size. Looking through my data, the outliers are players who saw the fewest number of pitches, and even they saw far more of them than Rodríguez has so far this season. Other than wait, there’s nothing much we can do. Again, 12 games aren’t enough to account for anything, let alone something as fickle as all this. Only time itself can save Julio, as exasperating as that sounds.





Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

122 Comments
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ccovillemember
5 months ago

Bring on the robot umps!

joe_schlabotnik
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

bring on the downvotes:
roboumps will make baseball more sterile and won’t really impact the game that much. the only possible benefit i can think of is marginally less strikeouts, but it would come at the expense of one of the most entertaining parts of baseball. frustration and uncertainty with umpires is a constant point of intrigue for fans. its a dimension that i expect fans will come to sorely miss.
Heres something that would never happen that would be incredible: after three confirmed miss calls a team can petition to toss an ump from a game, wherein he moves to another base and is replaced by a colleague. That would rock

CC AFCmember
5 months ago

Counterpoint: incorrect calls are not one of the most entertaining aspects of baseball.

RonnieDobbs
5 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Counterpoint: Who cares? The sum of all incorrect ball and strike calls have amounted to close to nothing over the history of baseball.

Another counterpoint: I will have absolutely zero tolerance for the robots getting the calls wrong. Like how instant replay fixed all the bad calls in other sports…

isavage
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

The sum of all incorrect ball and strike calls have amounted to close to nothing over the history of baseball.”

Re-watch the 1995 World Series

For the robots getting the calls wrong, I mean right now, with the strike zone box you see on the broadcasts, has there ever been a time where you’re like, “No, that pitch was not where it said it was” or “that strike zone box is malformed”? I would imagine some kind of discretion might be left up to the home plate umpire anyway, where if there’s a borderline pitch the human behind the plate can override or make the final call or whatever

Sooted72
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

mods: can somebody please ban this fucktard already??? all he does is troll the comments section and ofc the people here cant just ingore him, they have to feed.

sadtrombonemember
5 months ago
Reply to  Sooted72

Oh come on, it’s not that bad.

Sooted72
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

dude has like -20 on every comment he makes in every thread. and ofc the dorks on here cant just ignore it they have to thoroughly argue against his strawmanning bc sOmeBoDy is WrOng oN tHe iNteRnet.

dl80member
5 months ago
Reply to  Sooted72

Is this your first day on a website with comments?

Sooted72
5 months ago
Reply to  dl80

so because theres dumb comments all over the internet we should have to put up with somebody trolling literally every single thread??? it would take one minute to ip ban him and not have to deal with this anymore. it just bums me out bc i generally feel like this is one of the smartest groups of baseball minds anywhere on the internet. but what this is compared to what it could potentially be makes me sad.

dl80member
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

I don’t require the robots to be 100% accurate. I just require them to be 100% consistent.

No “This guy’s a rookie so he doesn’t get the call” or “he’s a lefty so the strike zone is different.”

Psychic... Powerless...
5 months ago
Reply to  dl80

Or “He missed his spot by too much so it can’t be a strike.”

descender
5 months ago

There is absolutely nothing entertaining about incorrect calls.

sadtrombonemember
5 months ago
Reply to  descender

Incorrect calls are a second-order form of entertainment. First, you have to not care about the outcome of the game. Second, you have to have a fan you can watch who does care about the outcome of the game. Third, that fan has to be an absolute lunatic. Any one of those three falls apart, it’s not entertaining anymore.

joe_schlabotnik
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

i disagree. my favorite moment as a baseball fan came as the result of an incorrect call. the trea turner “interference call” in g6 of 2019 ws that resulted in davey martinez losing his mind, was the absolute peak of entertainment. my heart was doing things i didn’t know it was capable of. it was absolutely insane. and then it was followed by a home run. that home run would not have felt nearly as insanely cathartic if it weren’t for that call.

Jasper Franciscomember
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Some men aren’t looking for anything logical, like money. They can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn.

hopbittersmember
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I do find it interesting that some (many) umpires have known, consistent…let’s call them “individual strike zones”, to be kind, and that both pitchers and hitters have to try to adjust accordingly. However, it’s not that interesting and it’s definitely not interesting when the umpire is simply inconsistent or biased.

Before I commit to 100% on roboumps, though, I would like to see some data on roboumps calling outliers like say Altuve and Judge or somebody with an Oscar Gamble crouch.

RonnieDobbs
5 months ago
Reply to  descender

You find correct calls entertaining? This is a bunch of people looking at tweets of bad calls pretending that it is a thing that anyone cares about. A bad call for one is a good call for the other. This is a zero sum game and doesn’t matter at all except the reality of internet people being outraged about anything they can.

Luy
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

You find correct calls entertaining?” logic fail 1.

Just because I don’t find bad calls entertaining, it doesn’t follow that I find good calls entertaining.

This is a bunch of people looking at tweets of bad calls pretending that it is a thing that anyone cares about. ” logic fail 2.

Clearly the people who tweet about it care. Your “evidence” that no one cares literally comes from people who care.

A bad call for one is a good call for the other.” logic fail 3.

Good and bad are not the same as favorable and unfavorable. (Though this does enlighten us a bit about your mindset re: umps). Good calls and bad calls are calls that adhere to or do not adhere to the strike zone as defined.

3 for 4 with a closing sentence that is pure unproven, emotional word salad. Good show!

RonnieDobbs
5 months ago

It will be terrible. People who already don’t enjoy watching baseball want robot umps. Go play your baseball simulations people!

CC AFCmember
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

Weird hill to die on, this pro-inaccuracy hill.

Luy
5 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

But you can see why it would be an appealing hill for Ronnie to defend.

justahikermember
5 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

It’s a strange world, CC AFC 🙂

joe_schlabotnik
5 months ago

the haters seem awfully quiet about my incredible idea of tossing umps for being bad… craig edwards.. i know you’re reading this.. youre welcome

si.or.nomember
5 months ago

Amusing. But take my upvote just for calling your own idea incredible.

Ukranian to Vietnamese to French is back
5 months ago

Put below:
Roboumps will make baseball more sterile and will not affect the game much. The only advantage I can give is small delays, but that will come at the expense of one of the most fun games in baseball. Frustration and uncertainty with the referees is a constant point of curiosity for the fans. That is something that I hope the fans will miss a lot.
This is something that will never happen and will never be great: after three confirmed missed calls, the team can ask the UMP to take a break, where he moves to another base and is replaced by a colleague. It will be a stone.

joe_schlabotnik
5 months ago

asking the ump to take a break is even better than my original idea. this worked out great

VinnieDaGooch
5 months ago

This schtick is whack.

si.or.nomember
5 months ago

>  is replaced by a colleague. It will be a stone

Yes.

dl80member
5 months ago

“Hit the showers, blue.”

gavinrendar
5 months ago

Would the NBA be better if the refs just sort of estimated if a jump shot was far enough out to count for three points? Yay human element, right?

lexomatic
5 months ago
Reply to  gavinrendar

That NBA refs should really be calling fouls according to the rules, and not provide preferential treatment to the stars is a more accurate analog. It’s almost the same issue – not calling the strike zone as it’s established in the rules.

jmaicardimember
5 months ago

I can think of one big downside to robot umps, and that’s the near total negation of pitch framing, which is a catcher skill and analytical field Fangraphs has really pushed to develop and one that I’ve really come to appreciate over the years. For example, it’s why we have the ultra rare Buster Posey double digit WAR season.

But that doesn’t negate the positives of better calls, fewer strikeouts and more offense, and history of the sport has shown us repeatedly that fans LOVE more offense. The rise of Babe Ruth and the steroid era are two pretty significant examples.

Last edited 5 months ago by jmaicardi
joe_schlabotnik
5 months ago
Reply to  jmaicardi

foolishly, perhaps, i never considered that robo umps would lead to more offense. if thats the case, i am all for them. If all other things remained equal and all we got was the satisfaction that this or that particular call was correct, then i would prefer to have error prone umpires, cause i really think it just evens out.

Stovokormember
5 months ago
Reply to  jmaicardi

With robo umps, would there even be a need for the pitch to be caught by the catcher? Could the C just take a breather until there were 2 strikes or runners were on base?

dl80member
5 months ago
Reply to  jmaicardi

This is a reasoned take, so I upvoted it. But I see catcher framing as the exact same thing as James Harden’s “throw my leg out to get a foul call on a 3-pointer.”

It’s taking advantage of the rules in a way that was never intended by the rule-creators. And both make for worse games, in my opinion.

catmanwayne
5 months ago

The only time it was ever entertaining to have umps stupidly miss calls is when the manager would stomp out onto the field, scream, yell and cuss at the ump, and kick some dirt. Nowadays you don’t see that anymore because it’s an automatic toss if the nanager even thinks about setting foot on the field after a bad call.

Cheeseballmember
5 months ago

That would indeed rock.

And you’re completely right about the human element. Talking about calls is fun, and the ambiguity inherent in the subjective zone animates the conversation.

RonnieDobbs
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

Lets just stop playing! Any new idea is a great one that is long overdue!

slamcactusmember
5 months ago
Reply to  RonnieDobbs

How is having an automated balls and strikes system remotely like stopping playing?

You do realize the umps don’t play the game, right? If the ump is ever a substantial part of the narrative of a game, it’s for a bad reason. Success for an ump is defined as the absence of failure and the degree to which he/she gets out of the players’ way.

68FCmember
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

I would love to see robot umps for one big league game and watch fans completely melt down when they find out what the rulebook zone actually is. I am certain that there would be significantly more calls that fans and players disagree with.

MikeDmember
5 months ago
Reply to  68FC

I do wonder if they eventually implement a robo-ump/electronic strike zone if it will lead to MLB actually changing the strike zone.

dl80member
5 months ago
Reply to  MikeD

One of the best parts about robo umps is that any changes to the strike zone could be implemented almost immediately. Human umpires take months (years?) to adjust to a lower or higher strike zone.

sadtrombonemember
5 months ago
Reply to  68FC

My big objection to robot umps is that I think they won’t actually work. At least not any better than what we have currently. My concerns are practical / technical and not philosophical.

But my second is this–this is going to really mess with the casual fan who thinks they know what the strike zone is. Do you really want to completely change how the game works? One can argue that everyone will adjust eventually and that it won’t do damage to the game’s popularity in the meantime. But it’s still worth worrying about.

isavage
5 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

I don’t understand this take. We’ve had gameday showing live ball/strikes for years. While it may not be 100% accurate, especially vertically, it’s not like it’s common to see a pitch in gameday show up in the box and watch it live and see that it was actually off of the plate? Even if whatever they introduced was no better than the live strike zone stuff shown on TV, it’s way more accurate than umpires calling balls/strikes

sadtrombonemember
5 months ago
Reply to  isavage

It’s also going to be particularly fun to see the box over home plate on TV not match what the ABS system is calling. On top of not matching what we expect based on our past expectations.

Eventually, everyone will get used to it. I think it’s reasonable to think through what will happen in the meantime. It may not be a big deal, but it also might.

Dag Gummit
4 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Your concerns are rather vaguely described for ones you consider practical/ technical.

In what way practical/ technical way(s) will correcting from the typical umpire accuracy (the best individual season to-date being 94.3% and median is somewhere around 85% to Statcast-level accuracy (while I don’t know, I would expect it to be >95% and wouldn’t be surprised if it is north of 99%)?

How will it “… mess with the casual fan…” when the casual fan is completely dependent on “that box on the TV” to know the zone?

How exactly will it “completely change how the game works” other than making the described most important sport-specific skills (controlling the strike zone) be more important than a soft skill (know the HP ump’s zone)?

I don’t see an expression of worries about anything specific, practical or technical; only vague, anomalous abstracts.

Shirtless George Brett
5 months ago
Reply to  68FC

This is pretty much my feeling as well. The other thing about Robo umps that i think alot of people haven’t considered is that its going to be equally frustrating/confusing to watch, just in a different way, because you are going to see many pitches that look the exact same to us being called differently due to the robo ump seeing a difference that is imperceptible to us.

The people who are losing their minds about umps making questionable calls are probably not going to be any happier with a robot calling two pitches that look the same, differently.

I’m not for or against robo umps, i just dont think they are going to be all that amazing or game changing. Its going to be a “same stuff, different pile” situation.

Dan B
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

I don’t want the market from frame first catchers to implode so I live with the bad calls

NATS Fanmember
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

2030 fan: “What was wrong with that pitch! Is that umpires sensors broken! “
2030 fan starts yelling: “Fix the sensors! Fix the sensors!”

I can’t wait!

Buhners Rocket Armmember
5 months ago
Reply to  ccoville

Robot umps will be the final nail in the coffin that kills MLB. Want to give fans even more reason not to care? Make the professional game look even less like the one every other person in the world is playing.