The Season’s Strike-iest Called Balls, So Far by Jeff Sullivan July 14, 2014 Used to be I’d refer to these as the worst called balls, or something. But I feel like that puts too much of the blame on the umpire. Which isn’t to say the umpire doesn’t deserve blame, because of course he does, but when an obvious strike gets called a ball, it tends to be due to a number of things, involving a number of people. I’m not here to umpire-shame. I just want to show off some called balls on pitches thrown basically down the heart of the strike zone, because it’s a fun thing to look at while baseball takes a little vacation. According to Baseball Savant, in 2009, there were 111 balls on pitches middle-middle. Here are the year-by-year rates, calculated as balls / all pitches taken down the gut: 2009: 1.01% 2010: 0.37% 2011: 0.28% 2012: 0.34% 2013: 0.27% 2014: 0.25% In a sense, 2014 is showing overall improvement. But 0.25% isn’t 0.00%, and pulling up balls on pitches in the middle third yields 15 different instances. Whenever anything is controlled by human observation, there are going to be mistakes, and when there are mistakes, there are going to be worse mistakes. Standard deviations, and everything. Out of those 15 different instances of pitches down the middle being called balls, here are the top five strike-iest since the start of this regular season. 5 Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija Batter: Devin Mesoraco Catcher: Welington Castillo Umpire: Doug Eddings Date: April 18 Location: 2.8 inches from center of zone I wish I would’ve separated the .gif from the screenshot. I mean, I’m technically still editing this, so it’s entirely up to me, but I don’t want to go backwards. The point being: if you watch the .gif, you don’t think that is a pitch down the middle. It doesn’t look at all like the pitch that’s captured in the screenshot, and this is an insane example of the degree to which we can be biased by the behavior of the catcher, after the ball has already completed its journey to the plate and through the zone. Samardzija’s pitch caught too much of the plate, but Castillo wasn’t able to respond like a good professional catcher, turning his glove over and driving it into the ground. If you can believe it, this pitch was a fastball. I’m going to pull numbers out of thin air. If we’re looking for blame for this one, I’d say it’s about 10% Samardzija, 10% Eddings, and 80% Castillo. Samardzija missed location. Eddings missed a good heater. But catchers have to be able to handle pitches like this, and while this isn’t representative of how Castillo ordinarily catches, the impression you get about him isn’t inaccurate. He’s got some refining to do. 4 Pitcher: Gio Gonzalez Batter: Josh Satin Catcher: Jose Lobaton Umpire: Clint Fagan Date: April 2 Location: 2.8 inches from center of zone The Mets broadcast caught on immediately and aired a few different replays of the pitch in slow motion, showing its height and showing that it crossed over the very center of the plate. After the ball call, Lobaton went out to the mound to have a little chat with Gonzalez, who was growing frustrated by Fagan’s inconsistent zone. Fagan wasn’t a regular major-league umpire, and in this game he was showing it, and apparently Gonzalez has something of a temper that needs to be cooled off before it consumes him. The pitch, sure, was supposed to be a little lower. It was supposed to be a little more in. The way Lobaton reached might’ve made it appear a bit higher than it actually was. But to go with the same approach, I’m going to say this was 10% Gonzalez, 10% Lobaton, and 80% Fagan. As long as we’re here, take notice of Josh Satin’s eyebrows in the above-embedded still. 3 Pitcher: Jeff Samardzija Batter: Matt Carpenter Catcher: Welington Castillo Umpire: Gabe Morales Date: April 11 Location: 2.7 inches from center of zone We’ve seen three pitches so far, and two of them have been from the Samardzija/Castillo battery. That’s something of a coincidence, but it’s not an extraordinary coincidence, because Samardzija has live, fiery stuff, and Castillo could stand to be a better receiver. Here, we have Castillo all but letting a fastball fly by him. The umpire might not have realized how close he came to getting a baseball-sized bruise on the inside of the thigh. It’s a missed spot to a bad spot, to a hittable spot, and I’m not even sure why Carpenter wasn’t swinging behind in the count, but the way Carpenter reacted and the way Castillo reacted, this must’ve looked a lot more inside to Morales than it was in reality. Somewhat clever on Carpenter’s part. But Castillo got caught stabbing. Let’s go with…10% Samardzija, 40% Morales, 50% Castillo. 2 Pitcher: Josh Beckett Batter: DJ LeMahieu Catcher: Drew Butera Umpire: Jeff Kellogg Date: July 6 Location: 2.0 inches from center of zone Something went badly wrong here, and it wasn’t just the television camera angle. You see an exaggerated reception by Butera, as if the ball was running away from him instead of darting in. I’m open to the possibility that Butera was crossed up, or that Beckett got weird movement on the intended pitch. But Butera caught this ball right behind home plate, and when he was done moving around his glove was behind the left-handed batter’s box. Butera did absolutely nothing to try to sell this, because it never could’ve been sold, the way he caught it. Kellogg almost didn’t have a choice. In theory, all umpires should be capable of calling strikes based only on what happens in front of the catcher, but if you allow that umpires, being human, are influenced by the catcher’s behavior, then of course Kellogg was going to be influenced by Butera on this one, because something got futzed up. Right away, I’m comfortable with 10% Kellogg. As for the remaining 90%, I’ll go with 30% Beckett and 60% Butera, pending further word on what, exactly, was supposed to happen. Further word will presumably never arrive. 1 Pitcher: Matt Guerrier Batter: Hunter Pence Catcher: Kurt Suzuki Umpire: Angel Campos Date: May 23 Location: 1.4 inches from center of zone I might’ve already mentioned this here before, but, in spring training, a pitcher noted that Suzuki is quite a fine backstop. He’s got all the fundamentals down, he’s a nice enough blocker, and he can call a ballgame. But the pitcher noted that Suzuki has relatively short arms, so in order to move around the zone, sometimes he has to really reach, and that can cost him and his pitching staff strikes. It’s something I’d never considered before, and it’s something I never would’ve caught on to, but the pitcher believed it and now I just look for instances in which it’s revealed. I think this might be one such instance. Guerrier threw a fastball a little more away than intended, and Suzuki had to reach across such that it looked like he was reaching further than he was. And that reach involves the shoulder, which affects the movement of the head, and from the back it might appear that Suzuki is moving quite a lot. This isn’t the most egregious catch on the list, but you can sort of understand how it went the way it did. In closing! I’ll go 10% Guerrier, 45% Suzuki, 45% Campos. At the end of the day, Angel Campos, you’re still calling balls and strikes on Matt Guerrier, and it seems like there should be more difficult tasks.