The Most Wrong Called Ball of June by Jeff Sullivan July 2, 2013 Imagine, for a second, that Major League Baseball had an automated strike zone, and there weren’t any bugs in the system. Imagine that the zone were specifically defined, changing consistently for each hitter, such that there couldn’t ever be any dispute. The zone would be perfect, and any given pitch would be either a definite strike or a definite ball. What you have imagined doesn’t exist. Instead, we have human brains doing everything, and sometimes human brains fall for magic tricks and infomercials. Umpires make mistakes, and because of that, any pitch could conceivably be called either way. There’s always some probability, however small, that a bad pitch might be called a strike, or that a good pitch might be called a ball. This is the way it is, and for now the rate of mistakes is low enough that we haven’t had a bloody revolt. Because there are mistakes, there is a spectrum of mistakes, with some being the most understandable and some being the most wrong. The most wrong strike-zone call would be a call with the greatest difference between the actual call and what the call should’ve been. Imagine a fastball down the middle. If it’s taken, and called a ball, that would be a big mistake on the umpire’s part. With all this in mind, the month of June is over, so I thought we’d take a look at the month’s most wrong ball call. In part out of curiosity; in part to see what we can learn. Get ready for a little Edwin Jackson. Before we advance to the pitch, I want to note something about the wording. My first instinct was to say “worst,” instead of “most wrong.” It’s stronger, it’s a better raiser of eyebrows. But sometimes a bad call can have explanations that lessen the magnitude of the badness, and so I didn’t want to come off as overly critical. What you’re going to see is a bad call, but you can sort of understand how it happened, so odds are there was a worse call in the month. But there was no more wrong call, by the rule book and the probabilities. There are subtleties here but I wanted to address them. Now then, for the most wrong ball call of June, we head to St. Louis on Wednesday, June 19. The Cardinals are hosting the Cubs in a game that means something to the former and little to the latter. In the bottom of the sixth, it’s knotted up at one apiece, and Edwin Jackson is pitching to Yadier Molina. There’s one out and a runner on first. Jackson’s first pitch is a called strike on the edge. It’s not easy to work against Molina, but it gets easier when you have the count advantage. Jackson comes back with a second-pitch fastball, also taken. 93 miles per hour, right down the middle. According to the PITCHf/x information, the ball was 1.1 inches from the center of the strike zone. One inch to the right side of the middle, right between Molina’s lower and upper limits. This should be the easiest strike to call in baseball, and that’s why I went after video confirmation. Sometimes PITCHf/x just has a little glitch that makes something into something else. In this case, no glitch. But in this case, partial explanation! Screenshots will tell you, first, that Jackson missed his intended low-inside location: But that’s still a fastball over the middle, and fastballs over the middle don’t need any interpretation. This is just a flat-out wrong call by the umpire. Yet the .gif makes clear just why this happened in the way that it happened. Maybe you’ve already figured it out. Over at first, Allen Craig took an optimistic lead. Welington Castillo had the idea that he’d try to pick him off by surprise. Castillo turned his body to prepare to throw down as he was receiving the fastball, but Craig sniffed it out and Castillo thought better of throwing and risking an error. Castillo didn’t give up any bases on the play, but he did basically give up a strike, turning a centered fastball into a virtual pitch-out. Castillo stabbed forward at the baseball, and his entire body shifted position, so to whatever extent a call depends on a catcher’s body, the location of this pitch was exaggerated and the umpire didn’t see a textbook fastball down the middle, even though he did. The pitch looked more outside, and if anyone had any complaint, the call wasn’t noted on either team’s television broadcast. Neither Jackson nor Castillo seemed perturbed, as the attention instantly shifted from home plate to first. It’s meaningful that this was a fastball down the middle, called a ball, and no one came away upset. Because it’s understandable why it was called the way it was. It’s a bad call with a somewhat legitimate excuse. Incidentally, here’s how the showdown later ended: Yadier Molina hit a home run on that 1-and-2 fastball. It’s the pitch Jackson wanted to throw, but it’s also the pitch Molina was looking for, and just like that the Cardinals went ahead 3-1. They won 4-1, with Molina’s at-bat being the turning point. On one hand, the at-bat would’ve likely ended differently had Jackson been given the second strike. On the other hand, it’s not like Jackson was burned because he threw a bad pitch or wound up in a bad count. He threw his pitch in a pitcher-friendly count and still he got beat. Yadier Molina is amazing and a potential MVP. What have we learned? In June, a fastball an inch away from the center of the strike zone was called a ball. Even though it happened in a tight spot, it didn’t make anyone visibly upset, and the call went basically unacknowledged on the broadcasts. The probable reason for the call is the catcher’s behavior, as he prepared to attempt a pick-off throw down to first while in the act of catching the pitch. There still exist out there some pitch-framing skeptics, who don’t believe calls have anything to do with the catchers. They say the umpire makes his decision before the ball gets to the glove. That would be swell if true, but consider this evidence to the contrary, because pointing to the catcher’s behavior is the only way we can explain this, aside from “well the umpire is just stupid.” It’s pretty clear, based on this, that the way a pitch is received matters. There exists a way a fastball down the middle can be caught, such that the pitch is turned into a ball. The body movement in this case is extreme, but if umpires can respond to this movement, it suggests umpires might respond to any movement, if to a lesser degree. The catcher makes a difference, and that’s why pitch-framing researchers keep finding information and correlations. As a final thought, it would be interesting to look at the called strike zone when the catcher subsequently throws or pump-fakes to a base. I guess PITCHf/x doesn’t designate the latter, but it certainly makes note of the former, and I suspect the zone would be relatively little, with lots of strikes called balls because of the distracting body movement. Well now I know the answer so I don’t need to see the actual data. Stand down, PITCHf/x nerds.