TBS, Please Fix Your Strike Zone Graphic

The playoffs have been a bit of a roller coaster so far. The postseason started off with dominating pitching performances from aces on the road, but then yesterday, the four games were mostly slugfests, with batters obliterating the “good pitching always beats good hitting” mantra. We’ve seen teams win with speed, power, pitching, defense, and sometimes just good luck; the games have been wildly different and wildly entertaining.

But if there’s been one consistent theme on a nightly basis, it’s been that fans of of the Cubs, Cardinals, Mets, and/or Dodgers have felt like they were getting absolutely screwed by the home plate umpires strike zone. During nearly every game of the two NLDS series, Twitter has lit up with complaints from fans who think the zone is far too wide to both sides of the plate. Now, you might say Twitter is a platform built on getting people to give knee-jerk reactions in real-time without considering the accuracy of their comments, and I’d agree with you, but the differences in number of complaints between the zones in the ALDS and NLDS have been very obvious.

And that’s because the ALDS games have been broadcast on Fox Sports 1 or MLB Network, while the NLDS games have been broadcast by TBS. And, for whatever reason, the visual box that TBS has chosen to represent the strike zone during their broadcasts is ridiculously small.

Let’s compare and contrast some pitches, showing where TBS put them in their strike zone box, versus where they are in strike zone boxes used here and on Brooks Baseball. Let’s start with Friday night’s Mets/Dodgers game, where the two starting pitchers combined for 24 strikeouts, and Alan Porter was accused of aiding and abetting a game where the two offenses had no chance. For instance, here’s Clayton Kershaw striking David Wright on an 0-2 slider in the third inning.

And here’s a freeze frame of the moment the ball is caught.


Look where TBS says that pitch is: way off the plate, no where close the zone. According to their pitch tracker, Porter screwed Wright and the Mets with a garbage strike three call.

Now, here’s where that pitch is on the Brooks Baseball plot, which overlays the PITCHF/x data onto the rule book strike zone, but also includes the shaded portion around the edges showing the areas where umpires generally call strikes during the season.


And here’s where that pitch was located on our strike zone map on the win probability page; instead of shading, our box includes the areas where umpires typically call strikes.


There’s no question that it’s a borderline pitch — you can see two other pitches in similar areas were called balls in the same game — and in an 0-2 count, when the strike zone shrinks in size the most dramatically, that pitch is called a ball more often than a strike. But it is within the range of where umpires generally call strikes. You can argue that it’s a toss-up call that went against the Mets, especially given the specific count, but TBS’ graphics package makes it look like an egregious miss by Alan Porter. It wasn’t; it was a pitch just off the outside that is called a strike in MLB with a decent amount of frequency.

And look at the rest of the pitches in those plots. This was not only not an extremely wide strike zone, as everyone on Twitter believed while watching the game with the influence of TBS’ strike zone box, it was actually a pretty narrow zone by MLB standards. Notice the black dots on the left-hand side of the map; those are called balls in the “lefty strike” area, as Porter did not really give pitchers too much off the plate against left-handed hitters.

Let’s take a look at another example, this one from the Cubs/Cardinals series. John Lackey dominated the Cubs, and they believed that Phil Cuzzi’s ridiculously wide strike zone was part of the reason. On ESPN, Jesse Rogers wrote about the team was hampered by a “wide strike zone” in the headline of his game recap, and Cubs fans on Twitter were livid with Cuzzi both that night and the next day. Here’s an example of one of the calls that they particularly didn’t like, with Chris Coghlan getting rung up on a fastball away.

Again, freeze-framed for when TBS’ graphic shows where they think the ball was.


And here’s where that pitch were on Brooks’ map.


And where that pitch is on our strike zone map.


Again, this pitch is at the very edge of the lefty strike range, and with two strikes, you’re not going to see that called that often. It’s a marginal strike call that went against the hitter, and the Cubs have some legitimate grips about that pitch being called strike three. But TBS’ graphic makes you think that the pitch was a foot outside, a ridiculous call that is completely unjustifiable.

When you look at the map of Cuzzi’s calls for the whole game, you see that a Cardinals batter did indeed take a pitch as far off the plate, and it was called a ball, so yes, the extreme lefty strike went against the Cubs once and didn’t go against the Cardinals, which is unfortunate and unfair. But Cuzzi’s strike zone wasn’t really abnormally wide, given what MLB umpires call strikes nowadays.

Jon Roegele just published a look at the 2015 called strike zone, showing that the zone grew slightly again this year, and the zone continues to be much wider than the rulebook zone. TBS, for some reason, has decided to build their strike zone graphic on the rulebook zone, which hasn’t been particularly close to the actual strike zone called by MLB umpires in probably close to a decade. ESPN, Fox, MLB Network — channels that broadcast baseball games with regularity, it should be noted — all have strike zone graphics that represent the modern-day reality of the fact that the zone is just larger than the rulebook states, and so, when you’re watching games on those channels, the overlay on TV matches up with what the umpire actually calls.

TBS is the outlier here; their box is tiny. Even on pitches basically down the middle, the very small size of their graphic makes it look like a hitter pulled a pitch on the outside corner. The box is simply deceiving, and does not reflect the reality of what either umpires or players should be expecting in terms of called balls and called strikes.

If we wanted to give them the utmost benefit of the doubt, maybe TBS is trying to draw attention to the fact that umpires don’t call the rulebook strike zone anymore. Maybe they’re trying to shame MLB into getting the strike zone back to a smaller size in order to get more offense in the game. Maybe the guys at TBS really like dingers, and this is their plan to bring back 10-8 slugfests.

More likely, they just drew the rulebook zone because, hey, it’s the rulebook. But in 2015, it just doesn’t make sense to have a broadcaster showing an outdated and unused strike zone graphic that convinces fans of both teams that they’re getting screwed by umpires who are just calling the same pitches they have been all year. Quoting the conclusion of that piece from FiveThirtyEight:

Because MLB bases its postseason crew assignments on merit, we might expect the playoff umpires to have a better accuracy rate than the overall regular-season average. But as my Grantland colleague Ben Lindbergh noted last year, since 2009 there’s been essentially no difference in strike-zone accuracy between regular-season and postseason games. So although it would be nice if the strike zone were being called more precisely in the playoffs, the umpires’ execution so far is almost exactly what we’d expect based on their performance during the regular season.

TBS, please do us all a favor and draw your strike zone graphic to represent the 2015 strike zone before the NLCS starts. I’d like to enjoy those games for the spectacle of watching some of baseball’s best clubs match up without having every game turn into a contest of fans angry that umpires aren’t calling a strike zone that hasn’t existed in years. It’s 2015; let’s show a graphic that represents the the 2015 strike zone.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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8 years ago

At least you aren’t forced to view the entire game with the strike zone outlined in front of the catcher. That, sir, is insufferable.

As for the TBS zone, their interns probably just need a bigger screen before clicking on where they think the pitch was.