This is a story all about how an umpire flipped-turned a playoff game upside down.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming the outcome of Saturday night’s marathon game between Washington and San Francisco entirely on fourth-year umpire Vic Carapazza, working in his first MLB postseason. I would never do that. Despite what disgruntled fans might lead you to believe, the blame for a team’s loss can never be placed on the shoulders of one individual. Especially not in a game that lasted 18 innings.
There are countless factors that played into Washington’s loss, and that’s been reflected in the media’s coverage of this game. The offense went scoreless for 15 innings after taking a 1-0 lead in the third. Many have focused on manager Matt Williams‘ decision to remove starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann after a walk in the ninth. Some have focused on… the male genitalia? But a lot of attention has turned to Carapazza, who had a shaky strike zone and ejected Williams and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the 10th for arguing balls and strikes.
Cabrera and Williams need to keep their cool in that situation, but, boy, did Vic Carapazza have himself a rough night.
The first thing we can do to look at an umpire’s performance is evaluate their strike zone plots. In these plots, the squares are pitches thrown by Nationals pitchers, while the triangles are pitches thrown by Giants pitchers. Reds are called strikes, greens are balls.
First, to right-handers:
Carapazza certainly expanded the zone outside to right-handers, and also had a few bad misses, both high and low-and-away. Now, to the left-handers:
Carapazza was a bit better to the lefties, but what these images call to my attention is Carapazza’s consistency. Consistency, as an umpire, is giving the same strike zone to both teams. The Giants got 20 called strikes outside the typical strike zone. The Nationals got just 10. Look at the right-handed plot. Of the 15 pitches called for strikes outside the typical right-handed strike zone, 12 of them were in favor of the Giants. The Nationals didn’t get the same calls up in the zone as the Giants. The Nationals didn’t get the same calls low-and-away as the Giants. Now look at the left-handed plot. Yes, for the most part, Nationals pitchers also threw to an expanded zone, but they also saw several of their pitches within the expanded zone go for balls, whereas nearly every close pitch the Giants threw went for a strike.
But the issue isn’t just that Carapazza was inconsistent in the Giants favor. It’s that he was inconsistent at the worst possible times.
The moment of the game that has received the most attention, understandably, is Brandon Belt’s go-ahead home run in the top of the 18th inning. But perhaps an even bigger moment was Zimmermann’s walk with two outs in the top of the ninth, because if Zimmmermann can retire that batter, Belt’s homer never happens nine innings later. We’ll get to the video of Zimmermann’s walk in a moment, but first, let’s set things up.
Zimmermann’s walk was to second baseman Joe Panik, who hits left-handed. As we’ve discussed, Carapazza established an outside zone to left-handed batters, and he established it early.
From the first inning:
Of the four pitches I’ve selected to help set up the ninth-inning walk, this is actually the one closest to the heart of the plate, but it’s still outside the designated PITCHf/x strike zone and Pablo Sandoval still doesn’t like the call. Regardless, Zimmermann gets his first outside strike in the first inning and continues to get it the majority of the night.
From the third inning:
From the fifth:
And the sixth:
All game long, Jordan Zimmermann was dealing. And all game long, Jordan Zimmermann was getting the outside strike. Until the last batter he faced. One out away from victory, this is the zone Zimmermann dealt with:
That’s ball one to Panik. The first pitch is the biggest pitch of an at-bat. Zimmermann got to the ninth inning with less than 90 pitches because of his ability to work quickly, and working quickly begins with getting first pitch strikes. Here, Zimmermann throws a pitch that he got for a strike all night, but Carapazza calls it a ball. Zimmermann shakes his head in slight disapproval, now behind 1-0 in the count.
Zimmermann comes back to the exact same spot, because, again, that pitch had been a strike all night. But again, Carapazza sticks with his newfound zone and calls a ball. Again, Zimmermann looks like he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do, and it’s tough to blame him.
He misses high on the next pitch to get behind 3-0, and then throws a strike to get to 3-1. Here’s his final pitch of the night:
Zimmermann can’t believe it. He knows his night is over, and he knows his night is over because he inexplicably stopped getting a call he was getting all night long. We all know what happened next. Drew Storen came on in relief, gave up two consecutive singles, the Giants tied the score at 1-1 and the teams played eight more innings of scoreless baseball until Belt’s homer.
The ball four pitch was a shade outside, but the first two were both not only within the boundaries of a typical strike zone, but strikes Carapazza had already called that night, given his expanded zone:
Adding insult to injury is that after Zimmermann’s costly walk, Carapazza went right back to calling this pitch a strike! Not only that, but seemingly all went against Nationals hitters, and their frustration is evident in the following clips. I think it’s worth noting, too, that all of the following came after Carapazza’s ejection of Cabrera and Williams in the 10th inning. Bryce Harper had also been barking from the bench and Zimmermann himself had some words for Carapazza throughout the night. I sure would hope that a major league umpire in a postseason game would be able to put tension aside and not let bias creep into his decision making, but it’s hard not to consider it a possibility.
From the 13th inning:
From the 14th:
And the 16th:
It seems the only time all night that pitch wasn’t a strike was during Panik’s walk. That is, until one pitch before Belt’s game-winning homer in the 18th, when he got this pitch for a ball in a 2-2 count:
Granted, this pitch is little high, and it’s probably a borderline call either way. Granted, catcher Wilson Ramos is not a good receiver and did a terrible job framing this pitch. But both teams had gotten strikes higher than this, and both teams had gotten strikes more outside than this. Proof:
The pitch in question is that green square, firmly planted not only within the boundaries of a typical strike zone, but the very zone Carapazza had called for 18 innings. Had this pitch gone for a strike, Belt would have been out. Instead, Belt got one more pitch that resulted in a bat flip and a trot around the bases.
And this isn’t even getting into the two high strikes that led to Cabrera and Williams’ ejections, because those have been covered enough. The 3-1 pitch was definitely high, the 3-2 pitch was borderline. But that at-bat, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t matter all that much.
More important is that Jordan Zimmermann got the outside strike all night until the moment it mattered most. Vic Carapazza’s strike zone suddenly shrunk, costing Zimmermann a shutout and, perhaps, the Nationals a series-tying victory. Two ejections and nine innings later, Carapazza’s zone suddenly shrunk again, extending Brandon Belt’s at-bat and awarding him the opportunity to be a hero.
Sure, Tanner Roark still needs to get Belt out. Sure, maybe if Williams leaves Zimmermann in the game, Panik doesn’t come around to score the tying run. Sure, Ramos didn’t do his team any favors by being a poor receiver. Sure, the Nationals didn’t do themselves any favors by going scoreless for 15 innings. And sure, umpires are human and these things are going to happen. Vic Carapazza didn’t lose this game for the Nationals, they lost it themselves. But Carapazza’s biggest mistakes helped out the Giants in a big way, and the Nationals have every right to be upset about that.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.