The playoffs are over, and as balls and strikes go, the tournament wasn’t overly controversial. There were some misses, sure. There was that called strike against Ben Revere at nearly the worst possible time. That wasn’t great, and I’m sure there are some Blue Jays fans who are still fuming. Shortly before that, there was a similar called strike against Dioner Navarro. Rough inning. As for called balls, the Royals didn’t love that one called for Jose Bautista in a full count. There are always going to be arguments, since non-lasered humans are expected to call the strike zone with laser-like precision, but these playoffs could’ve been worse. The controversial calls were at least close to the borders. The calls were forgivable.
The controversial calls aren’t always close to the borders. Sometimes the calls are just bad. Like, take this called ball — according to PITCHf/x, this was 1.3 inches from the center of the strike zone at the front of home plate. Imagine if this had taken place in the playoffs, and led to a rally?
1.3 inches. That means part of the baseball passed through the very center of the zone. Doesn’t seem like a ball like that should ever take place. And this wasn’t even the worst called ball of the season. No, that one was thrown by Jeff Samardzija, literally one day later, on August 19. Samardzija’s called ball was measured at 1.2 inches from the center of the strike zone.
I know that PITCHf/x isn’t quite that accurate. A difference of a tenth of an inch might as well be no difference at all, but I have to rank these things somehow. So from what I’ve done, it certainly appears like this is the worst called ball of 2015, playoffs included:
There’s a lot happening here. And it’s fun if you continue to watch, instead of cutting off and looping. Sometimes announcers try to read a player’s body language. This is usually a bad idea. In this case it would’ve been a fine idea, because in this case, it was pretty obvious from Samardzija’s body language that he knew perfectly well what the umpire seemingly didn’t. And there was not a single thing to be done about it. It’s like if Samardzija said to someone his name is Jeff, and the person said, no, your name is Tom, and so Jeff just had to go by Tom. Here’s Tom Samardzija, coming to terms:
Everybody you see here messed up. Probably even each of the fans, at some point having driven drunk or lied to a loved one. But all the baseball people made mistakes at once. It’s not very often you get to say that. This is one of the upsides of examining an extraordinary event. Extraordinary events are selective for extraordinary actions.
Start with Samardzija. How did Samardzija mess up? This was an 0-and-2 pitch. This is where Tyler Flowers wanted it:
Down and away. Well down and away. Samardzija had shaken off a splitter, and he’d shaken off an inside fastball, to get to this outside fastball. This is where you see a lot of 0-and-2 pitches to lefties go. This is where Samardzija’s pitch went:
In a sense, that’s a really bad mistake. The intent wasn’t to throw a waste pitch, but it was definitely to throw a ball. What actually happened is that Samardzija grooved a fastball to a dangerous hitter in a swinging count. Maybe this can help explain why Samardzija finished with an ERA just under 5. But, oh, that’s only one individual. Go to Kole Calhoun. How did Calhoun mess up? This was an 0-and-2 pitch. A hitter is supposed to protect. You’re taught to fight off potential strikes, so you shouldn’t even need to be told anything about the obvious strikes, literally right down the middle. Calhoun watched the pitch go by. Somehow, it was the only pitch he watched go by, and it was the only pitch clearly in the zone, and it was the only ball:
And Calhoun still didn’t strike out. He took an 0-and-2 fastball over the middle, at the thigh, and he stayed alive. Consider Tyler Flowers. Flowers was rated one of the premier pitch-receivers in the game this season. How did Flowers mess up? You saw his target. Here’s where his glove was when the pitch was already on the way:
That fastball is coming in north of 90 miles per hour, and as you see it above, Flowers’ glove is on the ground. There’s no way that’s going to be caught cleanly. It makes me think Flowers was in some way crossed up — like he was expecting a splitter down, something to smother. This isn’t the position of someone looking to catch a baseball on the fly. But, I watched the signs. I watched Samardzija. I’m almost certain an outside fastball was called and agreed to. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know, but Samardzija was with me, at least. And this ball ultimately sailed right by:
It went between the legs of home-plate umpire Dana DeMuth. DeMuth was to be the judge of this pitch. In theory, the only thing that should matter is the location of the baseball as it’s passing over the plate. In theory, it shouldn’t matter to DeMuth whether a target was hit, or whether a pitch was caught cleanly. How did DeMuth mess up? He was the umpire for an 0-and-2 fastball right down the pipe, and the fastball was taken, and DeMuth called it a ball. That’s the whole reason this post is being written in the first place.
Remember, it’s not even like DeMuth had his line of sight obscured. Flowers was so far over to the side DeMuth practically had a clear lane all the way to the mound:
You don’t really see the catcher with the umpire behind him. The umpire is behind, sure, but visually this looks like Calhoun, then the umpire, then the catcher, from left to right. There was nothing in front of most of DeMuth’s body. Maybe that’s most of what actually caused the mistake — maybe DeMuth recognized the pitch was going really fast, and there wasn’t anything between him and the ball. Survival instinct might take priority over zone determination. But DeMuth didn’t even move. He didn’t physically panic. It could’ve been all in his head. A split-second of going blank, anticipating impact. Ball one.
Samardzija missed his target. Calhoun didn’t pull the trigger. Flowers didn’t catch the ball. DeMuth might as well have not seen the ball. Four actors, all making mistakes within a fraction of a second. As I was watching this, I realized: hey, it’s the White Sox! I switched over to the White Sox broadcast, figuring Hawk Harrelson would surely have something to say about the team being robbed of a strikeout. Transcript:
Harrelson: between the — Tyler, please put some leather on that thing, man.
TV: /shows slow-motion replay
Harrelson: between the wickets!
The slow-motion replay came with a bonus image:
Harrelson didn’t say a word about it. Right down the middle. (laughter)
I then checked with White Sox radio. This was that call. It’s worse.
Two-strike pitch on the ground to home plate; one ball, two strikes.
Harrelson at least didn’t lie. The pitch did split the wickets, and he’s talking over TV, so the viewers can all see what’s going on. When you’re doing radio, you carry a greater burden. You’re supposed to paint a more detailed picture, and in this instance, the picture is one of a two-strike pitch thrown in the dirt. The listener would probably think, okay, just a splitter Samardzija probably spiked. The listener would not think 0-and-2 fastball almost as close to the middle of the strike zone as possible.
Maybe that’s better.
The Angels radio broadcast? Angels radio nailed it:
I don’t know if that’s another cross-up, this — actually, I thought this was a strike. It looked like it catches the inner half of the plate, but Flowers — it skirts right off his glove and right to the backstop. It’s hard for an umpire to raise that right hand when the ball’s going to the backstop. And it’s right there, belt-high.
They had their own chuckles. They knew what the Angels got away with. The White Sox guys either didn’t know, or they didn’t want the public to know. Which is the opposite of their job. But within seconds, it didn’t matter, because Calhoun grounded out weakly on the next pitch. Everything was forgotten, until now. Now it’s preserved forever, assuming the Internet never dies.
Credit to Samardzija for just shaking it off:
That’s an image of a pitcher who just threw what would be the worst called ball of a whole year. It cost that pitcher a strikeout. But, why complain? Why complain, if it won’t make any difference? Smile — none of it’s going to matter, and we all end up equally dead.
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.