From time to time, every year, I like to look at bad called strikes and bad called balls. The availability of PITCHf/x information makes this fairly easy, and, when isn’t it fun to examine the extraordinary? The point generally isn’t to rip on a given home-plate umpire. It’s more about trying to figure out why what happened happened. What has to take place for a ball to get called a strike? On the flip side, what has to take place for a strike to get called a ball?
This is the post about last year’s worst called ball, as determined by distance from the center of the strike zone. The pitch was thrown by Jeff Samardzija, and it missed the very middle by 1.2 inches. Still, while it was down the pipe, it was ruled in the hitter’s favor. A distance of 1.2 inches is a very small distance, so you can see why that was extreme. Now skip to 2016! This season is only barely underway. They’ve played less than four percent of the games, but we might’ve already seen the worst called ball. A pitch was ruled a ball even though it was to about the same spot as Samardzija’s, and the pitch was thrown just last Saturday by Clayton Kershaw.
Kershaw could’ve had more than one legitimate dispute. For example, this was called a ball, even though it was five inches from the middle of the zone:
That was a perfectly adequate first pitch to Madison Bumgarner, in the bottom of the fifth, but the umpire wasn’t feeling it. So Kershaw might’ve felt squeezed for a few reasons, but here’s the big one. Kershaw faced Hunter Pence in the bottom of the first, and Pence drew a walk. This was the first pitch — a called ball:
The lines should tell you everything. Even though, sure, it’s impossible to know the exact location of that ball on its way to the plate, we’re looking at a fastball, thigh-high, just about splitting the zone. Okay, the camera angle is off center. That shouldn’t make too much of a difference, but, PITCHf/x isn’t biased, right? PITCHf/x was all over this, too:
1.4 inches. More precisely, 1.35 inches, but the cameras have a margin of error. So we’ll go with 1.4 inches from the center of the strike zone. Add in the error bars and maybe it’s, what, between 1.2 – 1.6? Something like that. It’s comparable to last season’s worst called ball, so it might stand as this season’s worst called ball, even though it happened on April 9. I guess April 9 has roughly the same chance as any other day. We should look at the pitch in action, to try to figure out what happened:
It was a first pitch, so it’s not like the umpire was tightening the zone with two strikes. It was a fastball, so it didn’t have a ton of break, and A.J. Ellis didn’t get crossed up. And, you know, this was Clayton Kershaw, who you’d think would usually get the benefit of the doubt. But when I’ve looked at these events, I’ve seen some commonalities, and this one fits a pattern. Sometimes these calls happen because the catcher immediately tries to throw to a base. Nothing like that here. But look at where Ellis set up. He wanted a fastball down and in. The umpire stood behind Ellis, well inside. The pitch missed up and away, relative to the target. That made it more difficult for Ellis to catch, and the pitch would’ve looked more outside, considering where the umpire stood. This is not to forgive anyone for a called ball on a fastball down the middle, but what’s been true before is true here: these calls generally don’t happen without a missed spot. Kershaw had the right to be annoyed, but it’s not like he wanted that fastball where it went.
Still, I’m surprised. Kershaw didn’t miss horribly, and Ellis didn’t even do a terrible job of receiving. Frequently, catchers drag these pitches out of the zone away. Their glove darts off to the side and they can’t stop its momentum. Ellis, to his credit, did stop this pitch about where it was, and where it was was right down the middle. So I put this one mostly on the umpire. You can examine the body language. When Ellis caught the ball, he was clearly caught off guard by the lack of a strike. And Kershaw didn’t quite know where to look for help:
There wasn’t going to be any help. There was nothing anyone could do to help. Balls and strikes can’t be argued without an ejection, and it’s not like Kershaw is in the business of getting tossed. You just can’t blame him for his visual bewilderment, because for one pitch, everything he’d ever been taught about the strike zone was a lie. There was a tear in the fabric of baseball, and for a fleeting moment, Kershaw looked into the void. For an instant, one and one was three. In all other instances, one and one is two, but there was a little hiccup in the code. I don’t know what that feels like, but I know it would be weird to throw the next pitch. And A.J. Ellis, for his part, had something in store for that one:
It was another questionable called ball, although plenty more defensible than the first. Watch Ellis, though. After the first pitch, Ellis held the ball frozen for 0.4 seconds. After this pitch, Ellis held the ball frozen for 1.4 seconds. A whole extra second of holding the baseball in place, just to make sure the umpire knew where it was. It’s passive-aggressive, but it was a way for Ellis to stand up for himself and for his pitcher without getting the boot. There are surprisingly few ways to do that.
I always enjoy seeing how the various broadcasts respond to these. The Giants’ TV broadcast was right on it:
Kuiper: And the first pitch is wide, one ball and no strikes.
Krukow: Kershaw wants to know why that was wide.
Kuiper: Yeah, that looked like a strike.
Krukow: I think for the most part with Brian O’Nora, the plate umpire, you have to put it between the catcher’s knees. If you go outside the knees, even if it goes across the plate, rare do you get that strike. That last pitch was an example of it.
I don’t know if Krukow is right, but at least it’s a theory. It’s something, to address what the viewers had just seen. There’s observation here, and objectivity, and an attempt at an explanation. Meanwhile, on the Dodgers’ TV broadcast:
“Hunter Pence out of the cleanup spot.”
“…both the cleanup hitters today have struggled against the opposing ace.”
Didn’t just ignore the weirdness of the pitch. Ignored the pitch entirely. Didn’t say a thing. As for radio broadcasts? Giants radio called the pitch outside. Giants Spanish-language radio called the pitch “afuera,” or outside. Dodgers radio called the pitch low and outside. Dodgers Spanish-language radio called the pitch “bajito,” or a little low. Technically, all of them were wrong — the pitch was none of those things, because it was down the middle. But Dodgers English-language radio was the most wrong, because it accused the pitch of having two problems, instead of one. Low and outside? There’s a decent chance the announcer wasn’t looking and decided to just make something up. I guess it isn’t important, outside of these blog posts.
Clayton Kershaw: called ball, right down the middle. If it can happen to him, it can happen to anyone. From start to finish, Kershaw threw 91 pitches, and none of them were closer to the center of the zone than the first pitch to Pence, which put Kershaw behind 1-and-0.
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.