Tyler Anderson’s Lucky Day by Ben Clemens December 18, 2020 Let’s talk a little bit about outrage. How would you feel if you were Edwin Rios and this happened to you? Outraged is the way I’d feel. Come on! There’s nothing about that pitch that says strike. 4,356 pitches were thrown over the plate and within an inch up or down from that one, and none of the other 4,355 were called strikes. This call is outrageous! It’s unfair. Sadly, I’m not Jeff Sullivan, so I’m not going to do a post about the worst called balls and strikes of 2020. I wanted to start with that pitch as an appetizer, though, because I do enjoy the genre of “pitch that shouldn’t be a strike gets called a strike.” But forget quality — it’s overrated. Let’s focus on quantity instead. On September 9, Tyler Anderson threw 100 pitches. He received a whopping 22 called strikes — not too shabby! It was his second-best mark of the year in games where he threw at least 50 pitches. Here’s the real kicker — 12 of those 22 weren’t in the strike zone. Let’s look at one of those to set the stage. Here’s a pitch that got Dylan Moore looking for a strikeout: Wait, is that haze in the background? Indeed it is — this game was played under a wildfire-induced haze. No, it’s not that Mariners game against a Bay Area club that was impacted by wildfires — you’re thinking of the Oakland-Seattle clash on September 14, a doubleheader played in and under smoky skies. It’s also not that Mariners game against a bay Area club that was played in San Francisco — you’re thinking of the September 15 decision to relocate the A’s/Mariners tilt to California to avoid the unhealthy Seattle air. 2020 sure was a doozy. In fact, you might not have heard about this Anderson gem at all. If you’re an Online Person (trademark pending), though, you probably saw pictures of it, because this is the day San Francisco went orange. Here was the view from my patio: In the smoky environs of Oracle Park, you can hardly fault the umpire for his missed calls. This one, a called strike just off the corner to J.P. Crawford, is outside of the rulebook strike zone, no doubt: But how different is that pitch, qualitatively, from another one? Here’s a perfectly dotted strike on that same outside corner: And heck, here’s one that caught the edge, though Joey Bart’s late stab at the ball disguised that fact somewhat: That pitch to Ty France was a strike, but this wasn’t a case of 12 strikes that should have been balls and 12 balls that should have been strikes. That single pitch was the only time Anderson threw a pitch in the strike zone and had it called a ball. He simply got the benefit of every corner all game long. This pitch, to Phillip Ervin, was a lovely piece of work: That’s not a strike most days, but it was on this day, and that knowledge gave Anderson a plan. After a ball, he came back for a second helping: Pitchers are already really good these days. You could forgive Ervin for feeling put upon. Protecting a strike zone that just expanded three inches is a punishing task. For example, this pitch: He escaped, but he was lucky to make contact there, and there’s every chance the umpire would have rung him up if he had taken that pitch. The generous zone wasn’t limited to that inside edge against righties. There was that strikeout of Moore, high and away. Anderson ran that one back to get Kyle Lewis: It wasn’t just a matter of getting a few extra horizontal inches either. Too low? The superimposed strike zone thought this one was in, but Statcast disagreed, as did Kyle Seager: Even two-way misses got called. Evan White had a brutal 2020 at the plate, but you can’t blame this one on him: At this point, maybe you’re wondering: how did Anderson fare? Wouldn’t it be great if he got all this bonus strike zone real estate and got shelled? Failing that, maybe a dominant performance with 15 strikeouts and a trail of confused Mariners in his wake? Sadly, it was neither: Anderson was quietly effective, going six scoreless innings with four strikeouts and a walk. He got ahead in the count a lot, but mostly coaxed weak contact out of it instead of strikeouts. Something seems strange about that: Anderson got 12 bonus strikes. That’s four strikeouts worth of strikes. Two of them even ended at-bats. Shouldn’t this have been an overwhelming performance? To some degree, Anderson just didn’t have his best stuff that day. He got only seven swinging strikes in 100 pitches, one of his worst performances of the year. That brings up an important point about the benefit of these borderline pitches that get the benefit of the doubt: Anderson was probably hoping for a swing on a lot of these. The fact that he had a lot of called strikes means that he didn’t have many swings at hard-to-hit pitches. That Phillip Ervin foul ball? Maybe it would have been called a strike, but also maybe not. That swing, on the other hand, is a great outcome for a pitcher. Pitches off the plate but near it just kill batters when they swing. They come up empty more than a third of the time, and even when they do make contact, it’s lousy, to the tune of a .292 wOBA, an absolutely awful result. Called strikes are good, of course; much better than balls, at any rate. If Anderson knew those pitches would be called strikes, I’m sure he’d take that outcome. When I set out to find the game with the most balls called strikes, however, I was expecting more. I was foiled by one pesky truth; the pitches we care about here, the balls that get called strikes, are already good pitches. The fact that Anderson had so many pitches that the umpire could call strikes had a lot to do with his inability to coax bad swings out of the Mariners. If the pitches had been just a little bit better, he would have taken judgment out of the equation. Instead, he left his (still very good!) pitches in the umpire’s hands. Maybe you’re curious, like I was, whether this phenomenon was unique to Anderson. Maybe it was just that weird orange haze in the air that day. Maybe the umpire was feeling particularly generous. Maybe Statcast’s sensors were just slightly miscalibrated and some of these were strikes, though they all looked outside the zone to my eye. Did the other starter get the same treatment? Haha, nope! Anderson and Anderson alone got the benefit of the calls. In fairness, Nick Margevicius was busy getting shelled to the tune of six hits and seven runs, so he didn’t have a lot of time to win some borderline calls, but he threw 101 pitches and got four gift strikes. None of the relievers in the game got more than a single such call. In the end, are these strikes that shouldn’t have been strikes meaningful? I don’t think so. Are they interesting? I’m not sure. Is Anderson particularly adept at getting these calls? I’m also not sure. He finished second among pitchers who threw at least 500 pitches in 2020 in terms of the rate at which he got these bonus strikes. In 2018, his last full season, he was actually below average. For one day, Anderson had tremendous luck. Everything he threw near the zone turned to gold. He rode that all the way to four strikeouts and a solid outing defined by his contact management ability. Sometimes baseball is weird. Sometimes, it’s orange.