The Worst Called Strike of the First Half

As is tradition during the All-Star break, yesterday I wrote about the worst called ball of the first half. Per usual, it was a called ball on a pitch more or less right down the center of the zone. It always has to be that kind of pitch, given the method behind the research in the first place. Called balls like that aren’t very common — there’s no reason for them to be very common — but they always exist. Or, at least, to this point, they have always existed. Baseball has always given me something.

When you write about the worst called ball, it’s also obligatory to write about the worst called strike. The worst called ball is the ball closest to the center of the strike zone. The worst called strike is the strike furthest from the nearest edge of the strike zone. I don’t look forward to this post as much, because the balls down the middle are just funnier to me. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn, or nothing to appreciate. Every bad call is special. Let’s look at the call that’s been the most bad.

Before that, I guess, we can look at some pitches that came close. This was almost the worst called strike of the first half:

When I saw that, I got pretty excited, because when I’ve written about bad strike calls, they’ve always been outside called strikes with lefties in the box. And, well, those are fine, but I was looking forward to writing about some different dimensions. Look at this called strike well below Gregory Polanco’s knees! What a miserable call! But, not the most miserable. This was also almost the worst called strike of the first half:

Less exciting, from my standpoint. Not only is this an outside pitch with a lefty in the box, but we have an off-center camera angle, and a nine-run game in the top of the ninth. Not that it’s ever entirely forgivable to allow the zone to expand, but given the circumstances, the pitch and at-bat were irrelevant. Still not the worst call. This was additionally almost the worst called strike of the first half:

By the best numbers I could put together, you’re looking at a called strike — a called strikeout! — on a pitch 8.1 inches from the nearest edge of the strike zone. You know there’s a margin of error. I know there’s a margin of error. I know that we can know only so much about a pitch’s actual, true location. But, the top of a leaderboard is the top of a leaderboard. The worst called strike of the first half was a pitch 8.2 inches from the nearest edge of the strike zone. The pitch was thrown by Brad Ziegler, taken by Johan Camargo, caught by J.T. Realmuto, and called by Sean Barber.

On the slightly annoying side, it’s another outside called strike with a lefty in the box. Those calls continue to reign supreme. But we have an excellent, dead-on camera angle, which gives us a great perspective, and we also have a save situation, meaning it’s not like the game was out of hand. There was every reason to still be calling the zone like normal. With the outcome still somewhat in question, Johan Camargo deserved to be ahead 2-and-0, and instead he was even at 1-and-1.

Something that’s useful to remember is that the strike zone is three-dimensional. In theory, a pitch can be out of the zone at the front of the plate, and then it can move inside the boundary. The plate, of course, has depth, and the pitches, of course, have movement. I bring this up only to point out that it shouldn’t be a factor here. It’s right-handed Brad Ziegler on the mound, throwing sinkers, and his sinkers run arm-side. This is a strike on a pitch only moving further from the zone. It makes it all that much worse. You can see how the red circle stands out on Gameday:

-and, well, hold on a second. We have a called strike on pitch No. 2. In that image, you’ll notice almost complete overlap with pitch No. 1, which was also a sinker, but which was called a ball. Here is a screenshot of the ball:

For that matter, we can also look at pitch No. 4! Pitch No. 4 was another sinker. Like pitch No. 2, it was thrown with Ziegler behind in the count. A screenshot:

So, if I can review this for you, the first pitch was an outside sinker, 9.0 inches from the nearest edge of the strike zone. Ball. The second pitch was an outside sinker, 8.2 inches from the nearest edge of the strike zone. Strike. The fourth pitch was an outside sinker, 7.2 inches from the nearest edge of the strike zone. Ball. That’s it. There is no good explanation. I mean, there is a good explanation, in that there’s an explanation that explains what happened, but I wouldn’t consider the explanation very satisfying. It’s an explanation that, if you think about it too hard and too deep, will make you worry about every single baseball game you ever watch, provided you watch with a rooting interest.

Let’s go to the video. I’ll just focus on the first two pitches, since they’re virtually identical. Here’s the called ball to open the at-bat:

Everything works as it should. Here’s the called strike to follow:

Ziegler throws the ball almost exactly the same. Realmuto catches the ball almost exactly the same. Barber watches the ball almost exactly the same. The two pitches receive opposite calls. In a way, that’s what makes it even more troubling. It’s one thing for a guy to just have a wide zone. It’s another for him to just suddenly change his mind. And then there’s the ball from later in the same at-bat. Barber seemingly went back and forth. Now, this has selected for a very extreme example, given that we’ve identified the worst called strike of the first three and a half months, but this sheds light on a fundamental truth of human umpiring. It’s something I’m certain I’ve written about before, but you can never have too many reminders of how the game realistically works.

If and when the game ever implements an automated strike zone, the zone will have boundaries. Now, the zone needs boundaries — that’s the definition of a zone in the first place — but the automated boundaries will be abrupt. A given pitch at the boundary will be a strike, but if you move that same pitch out even a hair, it will be a ball. The zone will have the black outline of a box, or an oval, and the outline will be so thin as to be imperceptible. Every pitch will be 100% a strike or 100% a ball.

We’d like to believe human umpires are so capable, but, of course, they are not. Many pitches are 100% strikes or 100% balls, but many are also not, occupying a fairly broad gray area. There are errors in our vision. There are errors in our decision-making. There are errors that come from visual distractions. Human umpires have a zone that looks like a box or an oval, but instead of a thin black outline, it’s fatter and grayer and fuzzy. Pitches inside the fuzzy line are obvious, and pitches outside the fuzzy line are obvious, but when they’re within the fuzzy area, they could go either way. That’s just a necessary, unavoidable consequence of employing human judges, and Barber here is an extreme example of how that can sometimes function. The three pitches to Camargo were somewhere within Barber’s fuzzy zone outline. It’s not wrong for a human umpire to have a fuzzy zone outline, because we just can’t traffic in absolutes. It’s wrong for the outline to extend so far off the plate, granted, but actual zone-edge consistency is an impossible dream. Sometimes identical pitches will go opposite ways. You just hope they don’t influence the score.

Having gone through the video and audio, I can tell you the Braves broadcasts didn’t talk about the calls. Neither did the Marlins TV broadcast. The only notable mentions came from Marlins radio broadcaster Dave Van Horne. After the second pitch:

Van Horne: And here it comes — and it’s right on the outside corner, a called strike.

After the fourth pitch:

Van Horne: The pitch low and outside, and a ball.

We all have our gray areas. We all have our fuzzy outlines. We’re not so different, umpires and you and I. Some people just end up in more visible jobs.

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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5 years ago

It would have been cool to see videos of the strikes that were *almost* the worst called strike as well.