The Worst Called Strike of the First Half

Logically, all of the following is true. We accept that human beings are in charge of calling the strike zone. They try their best to tell the difference between strikes and balls, but you can usually understand if they call a strike on a pitch that missed by an inch. How much is an inch? When’s the last time you tried to do what they do a few hundred times every game? The ball moves incredibly fast, and as an umpire, you never know where it’s going to go, or how it’s going to spin. Anyway, we can be forgiving with an inch. And if we can accept a miss of one inch, it follows that we should accept a miss of two inches. All that is is one more inch, and we already gave them the first inch.

If we can accept a miss of two inches, we can accept a miss of three inches. If three inches, then four inches. If four inches, then five, and if five, then six. On and on it goes, in single-inch increments, and it does all make a certain amount of sense. Humans are great, but humans are flawed, and any human-called strike zone is going to have a gray area.

But, nine inches? Imagine nine inches. You don’t even have to be precisely correct. Your imagination is enough. We know that pitches miss the zone by nine inches. But how does a pitch like that get called a strike? I mean, ever? I don’t want to act like some kind of umpiring authority, because I *haven’t* ever been an ump, and I know sometimes people make mistakes. It’s just — nine inches. Technically, 9.1 inches, in this case. The worst called strike of the 2017 regular season’s first half missed the outer edge of the zone by 9.1 inches. You might’ve seen that Angel Hernandez has been in the news lately.

This isn’t why Angel Hernandez has been in the news, but you could argue it’s related. The veteran umpire has sued the league and the commissioner, alleging racial discrimination. There’s a certain amount of evidence on his side, and I certainly don’t know enough either way to have a full understanding of who’s more in the right. But part of MLB’s argument would presumably be that Hernandez just hasn’t deserved a promotion, or better assignments. Bad calls go against an umpire’s record. What we have here is a bad strike call, from April 8. The pitch was thrown by Trevor Bauer, and it was thrown past a patient Jeff Mathis.

To be totally honest, this isn’t exceptional. This is the worst call I could find, after eliminating glitches, and that’s meaningful, but there were other strikes that missed the zone by eight or so inches. Plenty of them. Strikes called by other umpires, strikes called under other circumstances. It’s even possible that there’s a worse called strike out there, if the pitch-tracking information was mis-calibrated. But this is No. 1 in my book, and I’m the one writing this article. I couldn’t find a call worse than this, and so it’s going to get this unavoidable attention.

One truth of what we’re all looking at: catcher Roberto Perez was set up away, off the plate. That’s roughly where the pitch was supposed to go, and Bauer hit his general spot. We’ve watched enough quality pitch-framing to know how this works, and when a pitcher doesn’t make a catcher work for it, then the pitcher is more likely to get the benefit of the doubt. And since the count above was 3-and-1, we know from the evidence that the strike zone is a little larger than usual. Take all that. Okay, great. The count was 3-and-1. It was the seventh consecutive batter against whom Bauer got to three balls. Bauer by no means earned a large zone. And he didn’t just get an inch or two. He got nine. Instead of Bauer loading the bases, he got a full count. Mathis assumed the walk, but he stopped short of tossing his bat. That would’ve been embarrassing, for somebody.

To the credit of the Indians’ TV broadcast, they noted that the call was awfully generous. And this is the exchange from Diamondbacks radio guys Greg Schulte and Tom Candiotti:

Schulte: Mathis has got a pretty good idea of the strike zone because he’s catching for the Diamondbacks. He thought that was outside.

Candiotti: That was a cutter and it was way off the plate.

Schulte: Oh my goodness.

Candiotti: I mean that’s eight, nine inches off the plate.

Schulte: Oh my goodness. That wasn’t close! That might’ve hit a left-handed hitter in the other part of the batter’s box.

The only thing remotely objectionable in there is the idea that Jeff Mathis has a good idea of the zone just because he’s a defensive specialist. Mathis is a terrible, terrible hitter, and this year he has five walks and 40 strikeouts. Mathis isn’t one of those guys you trust to know the difference between a ball and a strike from the box. He’s not Joey Votto. But in any case, those guys were on top of it. They just didn’t have my favorite call out of everyone. No, that call came courtesy of Diamondbacks TV announcers Steve Berthiaume and Bob Brenly. Forget the usual blockquotes. Play this video with your speakers on. Forgive the horrible quality of the video itself; it’s the audio that really matters.

There’s a slow-motion replay in there, including both the pitch location and some shaded approximation of the strike zone. We can look at that with a higher-resolution image:

That’s what elicited the “good lord.” With the obnoxious off-center camera angle, it can be hard to know when you’re being tricked, so this is helpful. Does it look like the box is appropriately over the plate? Yes! Does the ball look like it’s appropriately being tracked by the yellow tail? Yes! Is the yellow tail anywhere in the proximity of the strike zone? Depends on your definition of “anywhere in the proximity!” That right there cannot be argued, and, why not make it even worse? Here’s another still of the pitch called a strike:

This is the previous pitch, which was called a ball:

This is a .gif comparing the two pitches:

Gray areas are one unavoidable consequence of having human-called strike zones. In theory, with robot umps, there are boundaries, and on one side of the boundary you get 100% strikes, and on the other side you get 0% strikes. With humans, boundaries are thicker, and they appear more like a gradient. There’s no getting around that, and you just hope that a given umpire has a thinner boundary than another one does. Somewhere, for every ump, there’s a 50/50 zone, where calls are effectively coin flips. For Angel Hernandez, at least here, his 50/50 zone was removed from the actual strike zone by roughly nine inches.

I guess we shouldn’t make too big a deal of this. It was one call, in the second inning of a scoreless game in the season’s first week. The batter on deck was pitcher Zack Greinke, so it’s not like the Diamondbacks were robbed of a big giant rally. Mathis got a full-count pitch, instead of a 3-and-1 walk, and, say, Bauer even threw another pitch out of the zone. Mathis took it, and this time he was confident enough to toss his bat away.

To review, Jeff Mathis saw six pitches, and he didn’t swing once. Trevor Bauer punched him out, by way of Angel Hernandez. Here’s Gameday’s opinion:

I don’t know what you’re supposed to do, as a hitter. Especially when you’re both a hitter and a catcher, and you have to go catch your own pitchers in front of the same ump. That last pitch, I don’t know, I guess you could forgive it. It’s at least in the vicinity. But the other pitch, the one around which this whole article is structured? What do you do? Hitters know they can’t argue without getting ejected. They just have to take it. They have to take whatever the umpire says, which puts a lot of faith in the decision-making of other people who aren’t on your side. They act on nobody’s side, but, justice comes slowly, if it ever comes at all. Jeff Mathis took a 3-and-1 pitch nine inches outside, doing absolutely everything right, and then he didn’t get his base. Within moments, he had to go back to catching. Catching, just a couple feet in front of the guy who’d wronged him. Sometimes baseball puts the wrong people in their place.

Mathis has been around a while. I guess if you could say anything for him, he’s dealt with more than his share of offensive frustrations. Some way or another, he’s held back from taking his frustrations out on the people nearest him on the field. Maybe it was better for Angel Hernandez to do this to Jeff Mathis. If he did it to Paul Goldschmidt, Goldschmidt might’ve been furious. You figure Mathis goes up there in the first place with low expectations. I’m speculating. Mathis was ultimately robbed of a walk, and a walk is a good thing, but Mathis all along might’ve been prepared for a bad thing. He’s always drawn raves for his preparation.

Trevor Bauer loaded the bases in the bottom of the second. Only, he didn’t, thanks to an extremely generous call. The call got him out of a jam, and the game proceeded to the top of the third, still scoreless. Bauer and the Indians rode their sudden, unexpected momentum all the way to a nine-run loss. Mathis drew his next official walk on May 14.

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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Schrodingers Bat
6 years ago

All you have to do is watch Angel Hernandez a few times to know that racism isn’t the reason that he doesn’t get postseason assignments. It’s because he’s a terrible umpire and has a bad attitude.

6 years ago

But there are similarly bad white umpires who still get to be crew chiefs and work playoff and world series games, like Joe West and Tom Hallion

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

The difference is Angel Hernandez has a different strike zone on every pitch. The other two are consistent even if their zones aren’t great.

6 years ago
Reply to  Doorknob11

It’s worth noting that Hernandez wasn’t even consistent on this AT BAT. That GIF of pitches 4 and 5 should be all MLB needs to prevail in Hernandez’s case.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Joe West is inexplicable.

6 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Unlike Joe West, Angel Hernandez also has a reputation of being an arrogant asshole.