The Worst Called Ball of the Playoffs

In Monday’s pivotal Game 3, the Cubs beat the Nationals because Anthony Rizzo hit a stupid little doink. The inning before, the game was tied up when Albert Almora came off the bench to rip an RBI single. Almora hit for Kyle Schwarber, who had opened the door for the Nationals in the top of the sixth when two errors on the same play gave Daniel Murphy three bases. Almora hit for Schwarber because Dusty Baker relieved Max Scherzer with Sammy Solis for some reason. Scherzer was relieved immediately after allowing his first hit of his entire game, which was 19 outs old.

For a game that had only seven hits and three runs, there’s an awful lot there for people to talk about. The Cubs now find themselves in a commanding position, after coming uncomfortably close to getting shut out. There’s resiliency to discuss. Baseball luck. Managerial second-guessing. There’s almost everything you could possibly want. I’d like to discuss a called ball in the top of the fifth inning that didn’t matter for beans.

When the score was still even at nothing, Jose Quintana needed eight pitches to strike out both Michael Taylor and Max Scherzer. It was one of those innings you assume will end scoreless before it’s complete; many might not have even noticed the third batter up. That batter was Trea Turner, and, this series be damned, he is pretty good. He just hasn’t looked good. Right away, he got off on the wrong foot in the fifth, taking a pitch and falling behind 0-and-1. To make matters worse, the next pitch was a fastball over the middle, and Turner couldn’t pull the trigger. Batters need to offer at those pitches when they’re behind, because such opportunities are few and far between. There’s no sense in just taking an obvious strike. But what if — but what if the obvious strike isn’t such an obvious strike after all?

Trea Turner was behind 0-and-1. Jose Quintana threw a fastball that Turner took, a fastball that flew down the pipe at 91 miles per hour. The pitch arrived in the waiting glove of Willson Contreras, and Contreras was then tasked with returning the ball to Quintana. Yet there was no joy in the toss to the mound. No celebration of having successfully taken Turner by surprise. Contreras has the body language of someone throwing car keys he just lost in a bet. Fastball at the thigh, over the plate. Ball one.

This is not the worst called ball I’ve ever seen. This is not even the worst called ball of 2017. What this is is the worst called ball of the playoffs. Now, I hear you; these playoffs practically just started. But we’re not just talking about this month. According to the pitch trackers, the Quintana fastball missed the literal center of the strike zone by 3.1 inches. That’s the worst playoff called ball in almost exactly five years. Quintana threw his pitch on October 9, 2017. To find a worse playoff ball, you have to go back to October 8, 2012. It was worse by less than half of an inch. Quintana’s was the worst playoff ball in five years, and the third-worst in the decade on record.

How is it that you get a heater down the middle called a ball, when, in theory, playoff umpires have been selected for their expertise? As usual, the blame gets distributed three ways. No umpire ever wants to call a ball like this. Fieldin Culbreth would presumably love to have it back. That a ball like this can happen shouldn’t make sense, and it seems like it should be inexcusable. There are fans out there who always put 100% of the blame on the umpires when things like this happen. But it’s no fun to be so narrow-minded. The world just passes you by. What’s the opposite of inexcusable? Excusable? Culbreth has a partial excuse. He didn’t execute, but neither did Quintana, and neither did Contreras.

This is where Contreras set up. Catcher targets aren’t always the *actual* targets, but I think we can safely assume, in this case. There was no one on base. There was no one to deceive. The pitch was a fastball. Contreras wanted the pitch low and away. Catchers always want pitches low and away.

Here is where the pitch went. This is my best attempt at screenshotting the moment the ball crossed the front plane.

The ball is clearly there, over the plate. Might look a little high, for something supposedly down the gut. Don’t be fooled. Turner crouched. To put these into one single still, here’s the first image again, with the eventual pitch location in yellow.

There’s no question Quintana missed his spot. No one’s intended spot for a fastball is ever down the middle. Quintana missed by, what, a foot or something? Maybe a foot and a half. I don’t know, I’m not God. We’re certainly not looking at an egregious miss. More of a run-of-the-mill miss; possibly something like a 30th-percentile miss. Quintana owns some of the blame, because pitchers don’t want to do that to their catchers. Yet still we’re left with Contreras, and before you go letting him off the hook, here’s where his glove wound up.

There was a bit of a decoy here. Contreras initially set up away, off the plate. As in, where he was set up suggested he wanted to catch a ball, but he had the whole bulk of his body over there, to try to make it seem like he was on the edge. The umpire would assume Contreras’ body was aligned with the edge of the zone, so if Quintana hit the spot, the Cubs could steal a strike. That’s fairly normal catcher behavior, but in this case, it backfired. Because, even though Contreras lobster-clawed the fastball behind the strike zone, the umpire had his perspective shifted. So he thought that Quintana missed in. You can try to blame Culbreth all you want, but it’s just not possible for a human being to not be influenced by the movement of the catcher right in front of him. There’s no such thing as just isolating the pitch and the zone. Brains don’t work that way. Your brain doesn’t work that way. Your brain can do amazing things, but it can’t eliminate moving humans from the immediate field of vision.

I think that Contreras took the blame on the field. I mean, I can’t analyze Culbreth. I don’t know what umpires look like when they make the wrong call, because I don’t think an umpire has ever thought that he made the wrong call. But scroll up and watch Contreras again, in the video clip. It’s not just the way he tosses the ball back to the mound. It’s also this.

For quite a bit longer than would be normal, Contreras just stared at the ball in his glove. It was like he rebooted and temporarily forgot how to do what it is that he does. Contreras, of course, did still catch the baseball, but he didn’t catch it like a catcher should. I think he didn’t think he knew what he was doing. Contreras crouched there, dumbfounded by his own absent-mindedness.

This happened in a playoff game, broadcast by TBS. The men in the booth were Ernie Johnson and Ron Darling. TBS put a helpful little strike-zone map right there, and as Quintana’s fastball crossed the plate, un-struck and un-striked, a fresh new white dot labeled ‘2’ popped up on the screen. Here is how the broadcast responded.

Johnson: /pause
Johnson: /pause
Johnson: A ball and a strike to Trea Turner, now 0-for-10 in the series out of the leadoff spot for Washington.

The at-bat continued.

Something stands out. And yet, incredibly, the Cubs might still have won the strike zone. Here is the pitch just before the ball down the middle.

And here is the pitch that came two pitches later.

In the same at-bat in which Quintana and Contreras gave away a taken middle-middle fastball, they also worked together to get one borderline strike, and then they picked up another strike on a ball clearly away off the plate. The Cubs might say they got a friendlier plate-appearance strike zone than the Nationals did. That, while the Nationals benefited from the worst playoff called ball in five years. Turner was spared an 0-and-2 count, the call instead leveling things at 1-and-1. A few pitches later, Turner struck out.

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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4 years ago

Always fun to see these articles. The Indians / Yankees umpire sure seemed inconsistent calling balls and strikes last night, although maybe I’m just paying closer attention than usual because playoffs.

4 years ago
Reply to  th8_

Wasn’t just last night either. Vic Carrapaza and Dan Iassogna were terrible in Games 1 and 2 as well (Game 2 being FAR worse). Game 3 was just about the only passable zone in that series. I honestly expected something from Game 2 in this article before I read the blurb.