The Worst Called Ball of the First Half

Only days ago, the Red Sox trailed the Blue Jays 8-7 going into the top of the eighth. The Blue Jays might be long past the point of playing for anything, but the Red Sox are still actively trying to hold off the Yankees, and so, with that in mind, every game of theirs is important. The eighth inning was given to Joe Kelly, and with his first pitch, he hit the first batter. With his third pitch, he allowed a single to the second batter. The third batter was Justin Smoak, and consecutive changeups ran the count to 1-and-1. Catcher Sandy Leon expected a breaking ball. Kelly threw a changeup instead.

The pitch — that pitch — was called a ball, with Leon ducking out of surprise. The pitch, of course, was down the middle of the plate, but instead of 1-and-2, the count became 2-and-1. Also, because the ball got away, the runner on second moved up to third. Two pitches later, Smoak hit an RBI single. On the very next pitch, Kendrys Morales hit an RBI double. The Blue Jays pulled away, eventually winning by six. Kelly and Leon were left to wonder how they got crossed up. They were left to wonder, as well, how an obvious strike became a critical ball.

That was almost the worst called ball of the season’s first half. The actual worst called ball, however, came only three days before. Leading up to the All-Star break, we had a little run of these things.

The worst called ball of the first half was thrown by Dylan Covey. It was taken by Jedd Gyorko, it was caught by Omar Narvaez, and it was called by Kerwin Danley. The date was July 10, and it happened in a game the Cardinals won 14-2. It also happened before a run was on the board. According to measurements, the pitch was 3.2 inches away from the middle of the strike zone when it crossed the front plane of the plate. That’s only slightly greater than the diameter of a baseball. The measurements we have are not perfectly accurate, and there’s always some margin of error, but given what we have, and what we can use, I can call this the worst called ball with a fairly high degree of confidence. Let us all take a look, at a screenshot.

That’s it. That’s the ball. Don’t pay attention to the little Pitchcast box in the lower right — all you see there is the location of the previous pitch, because our pitch in question is still on the way. Look at the ball and trace it with your eyes. Down the approximate middle of the plate? Check. Somewhere in the vicinity of the hitter’s mid-thigh? Check. We don’t have a catcher who got crossed up. Nor do we have a big, breaking curveball — this is just a regular heater. Ball one, down the pipe.

Should you think your eyes might be lying to you — well, first of all, that doesn’t make any sense, because the image is right there and I assure you it’s un-doctored. But maybe you’re the type who likes to see what Gameday says. Camera angles can be confusing sometimes, right? Yeah, sure, let’s pile on the evidence. Observe the tracked location of pitch No. 2.

This typically goes the other way around. Something looks fishy on Gameday, so then we go to the actual video. What this frequently does is reveal that Gameday had a bug. But we began with the evidence that was already irrefutable. So, you’re wondering: what? Why the called ball? Let’s move on to another screenshot.

There you see Narvaez as the pitch is arriving in his glove. I can do one better, too. That’s a shot from the White Sox broadcast. On the Cardinals broadcast, they had a pitch box. This next screenshot is from the exact same moment as the last.

You see the box. It’s maybe not perfect, but, you see the box. And if you look carefully and closely, just by Narvaez’s left sleeve, you see a little white circle, indicating where the pitch crossed the plate. Look at that circle. Look at Narvaez’s glove. Look at the circle. Look at the glove. Circle. Glove. Circle’s down the middle. Glove’s down and in. We have what has usually been the case with these things: an example of a messed-up pitch reception. These posts always begin with the promise of getting mad at an umpire, but there’s always more than one person at fault.

To be clear, because this is always true: It doesn’t seem like there should be an excuse for calling a ball on a pitch down the middle. No umpire would ever be proud of calling a ball on a pitch down the middle, were said umpire shown video after the fact. Some of you might not be willing to believe it, but umpires really do want to get every call right. Every single one! Ultimately, a mistake just reflects on them, and these days there’s video of everything. All most of us ever want is to not be embarrassed. It’s embarrassing to call a ball on an obvious strike.

You just have to understand that, when calling balls and strikes, it’s genuinely impossible to remove the catcher from your field of vision. Pitch judgment is a function of everything the umpire sees, and the umpire can’t help but see the catcher, which means the umpire can’t help but see how the catcher moves. And that introduces an immediate and subconscious bias. A catcher who moves funny is a catcher who likely didn’t get the pitch he wanted. And a catcher who likely didn’t get the pitch he wanted is a catcher who likely just caught a ball. It’s certainly not true in every single case, but to expect umpires to overlook catcher behavior is to expect too much of the human brain. Our brains can’t help how easy they are to manipulate.

Here’s video of the worst called ball:

Narvaez sets up for a target away. So far away, in fact, his glove is partially behind the other box. With the count 0-and-1, it’s clear that Narvaez is looking for Covey to try to expand. The pitch that Covey throws misses, over the middle of the plate. That forces Narvaez to flip his forearm over. Momentum carries his arm and glove well below the zone, and then a futile effort is made to try to drag the pitch back. In Narvaez’s defense, he only drags the ball back to where it actually was, but the damage is already done. Covey misses, Narvaez misses, and Danley misses. Even Gyorko misses, given that I don’t know why he didn’t swing at an 0-and-1 fastball down the literal middle. What on earth would a hitter be looking for?

Compare that clip to another of Narvaez and a similar pitch, one that resulted in a called strike:

The pitches aren’t identical. And one is thrown with the count 0-and-1, while the other is thrown with the count 1-and-0. That’s meaningful. But in this clip, Narvaez doesn’t set up so far away. He’s still looking for a low-away fastball, but not around the other box. Here, Narvaez’s upper body is in better position to respond to a pitch thrown too far inside. Remember because these are right-handed fastballs, the ball’s motion is going to carry it toward Narvaez’s left, anyway. This pitch, Narvaez catches cleanly, in front of his chest and inside of his elbow. The other looks so much worse, by contrast. It’s perhaps not a coincidence the White Sox have rated as having the worst pitch-framing in baseball. You can’t forgive their pitchers, but you also can’t forgive their catchers.

Here’s another fun clip from only moments after the first one. Just in case you’re thinking Kerwin Danley is a little too susceptible to pitch-framing influence, he deserves credit for getting this right:

Would’ve been easy to look at the stab and call that a ball. It was just about a borderline strike, anyway. Yet Danley was able to make the right decision, because good or bad receiving doesn’t always change the call. It just changes it sometimes. Articles like these are specifically selective for instances in which the whole system breaks down. Most of the time, it’s humming along.

Interestingly, after the called ball, there’s not much to read into in the body language. Covey doesn’t pause, or shout, or slump his shoulders. Narvaez doesn’t really do anything to protest, either. About the only sign of any acknowledgment is that Narvaez’s return throw to the mound is a little bit loopier. Maybe the White Sox are simply beyond giving a shit. Or maybe they just figured mistakes were made, and that was that. Everyone prepared for the following pitch. Gyorko, I suppose, might’ve needed another moment to come to terms with his luck.

Before we close, let’s check in with the various broadcasts. Dylan Covey threw a fastball down the middle, and it was called a ball. From White Sox TV:

Jason Benetti: That was a strike.
Steve Stone: That one had the whole plate, and that was above the knee.

From White Sox radio:

Ed Farmer: Covey’s 0-1 — Gyorko takes a fastball, I guess it’s ball one, 1-and-1. Where was it, I don’t know, but I know this: it looked pretty good for a strike.
Darrin Jackson: Saw a replay of the previous pitch. Was right down the middle, above the knees.
Farmer: How do you miss that? I mean, I’m just asking, I’m not condemning.
Jackson: I don’t know, um, I don’t know if he was blocked out by the catcher or something strange, but it was literally right down the middle of the plate, and above the knees.
Farmer: It’s hard to believe that a missed pitch can get you from 0-and-1 to 3-and-1, but it happens. And you’re right, he could’ve been blocked out by the catcher, or late movement.
Jackson: You’re so right, it should’ve been 0-and-2, the count, and it changes everything.

From Cardinals TV:

Dan McLaughlin: Mentioned that the White Sox have dropped five in a row and nine of their last 11.
Al Hrabosky: Well they’re one of the clubs that’s in a rebuilding phase. Everyone getting excited, saying, well, saw what Houston did last year, what the Cubs did two years ago, but, tanking for a few years — remember, they got rid of a lot of their top players to stock their farm system.

And from Cardinals radio:

Mike Shannon: There’s a sinker low to Gyorko, check swing, one ball one strike.

Both the White Sox broadcasts were on it immediately. They sensed they’d seen something unusual, and they brought it up. Neither of the Cardinals broadcasts issued so much as an acknowledgment. They basically skipped right past the call, either accepting it or flat-out ignoring it. I’m not saying those broadcasts are bad, but, in this day and age, it’s never been more crucial to be media-literate. Part of that is understanding your sources, which means understanding in which directions they lean. Most outlets have some kind of bias, and bias typically isn’t overt. It might not be evident in the things they say. It might be more evident in the things they don’t. The White Sox broadcasts have more of an interest in the White Sox, so they talked about a call that hurt. The Cardinals broadcasts have more of an interest in the Cardinals, so they didn’t talk about a call that helped. It’s nothing nefarious here, and maybe not even anything intentional, but we all give ourselves away. It’s more in the little actions than the big ones.

In the little action around which this article is built, the White Sox had a bad call go against them. In the much bigger picture of the entire first half, the White Sox have had countless good calls also go against them. This is because they’ve been a bad baseball team. At least a bad call is exciting to talk about.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Original Greaser Bob
Original Greaser Bob

Progress? That one doesn’t seem as egregious as pitches that you’ve highlighted in years past.