You’ve Been Framed

The A’s and Tigers are playing Game 3 right now, but they played Game 2 on Saturday night, and that game was umpired by one CB Bucknor. Bucknor is routinely considered one of baseball’s worst umpires, and Saturday he made a few questionable decisions, the most questionable of which was probably a called strike three against Seth Smith in the bottom of the second. Now, granted, the A’s eventually won, and there were two out and none on at the time, so it’s not like anyone really cares anymore. The story isn’t Bucknor — it’s Sonny Gray and Stephen Vogt. But there’s something I want to bring your attention to.

Justin Verlander had fallen behind Smith 3-and-0, then he threw a couple strikes. In a full count, Verlander came with a fastball, and it seemed to miss both down and away. Smith took it, in theory for a ball, but Bucknor ruled it was a strike, and Smith expressed his disapproval before returning to the dugout during the inning break. People on Twitter were upset, and even the TV broadcast noted the pitch looked like a ball. Shortly thereafter, the game resumed, and Bucknor got a little better.

Here’s the pitch in question, from an off-center camera angle:


Here’s a screenshot, where I’ve attempted to capture the ball as it’s crossing the front plane of the plate:


Looks outside, definitely. Looks low, a little. TBS showed its PITCHTRAX graphic live, so it was immediately apparent that the pitch missed whatever that strike zone is. I don’t think anybody argued that Bucknor was right. The consensus was it was a blown call — and a fairly bad one, too. But later on, people weren’t still talking about it.

According to PITCHf/x, here is the pitch’s location:

  • Horizontal: 15.1 inches away, from center of plate
  • Vertical: 18.2 inches above the ground

All right, great. Now I want to go all the way back to April, for what’s considered maybe the worst strike call of the entire season, if not of multiple seasons. We’re going to be looking at Joe Nathan pitching to Ben Zobrist with two outs and a full count in the top of the ninth of a one-run game. You remember this, I bet. Nathan threw a first-pitch strike. His next three pitches were balls. Then he got a called strike, then he got a called strike. The last of these caused immediate distress. Zobrist argued. Joe Maddon said such a call shouldn’t happen in a major-league baseball game. Even Nathan looked surprised. Here’s that pitch, if you can’t recall from memory:


More importantly, a screenshot:


According to PITCHf/x, here is the pitch’s location:

  • Horizontal: 16.7 inches away, from center of plate
  • Vertical: 19.2 inches above the ground

Both Smith and Zobrist have similar lower strike-zone boundaries. Clearly, by the data, the pitch to Zobrist was more outside, by nearly two inches. Two inches doesn’t seem like a lot, but it is a lot when you’re around the edge of a strike zone. That call, therefore, seems worse. However, Ben Lindbergh wrote about the call, and here’s a bit of that article:

But. Raw PITCHf/x data isn’t park-corrected, and when we’re evaluating umpire calls, park corrections matter. As Mike Fast wrote a couple years ago, “Errors of an inch or two are sizable when grading umpire performance, and corrected location data would be useful in that application.” When we import PITCHf/x data into the BP database, we apply park corrections. And our best estimate of the PITCHf/x calibration error in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington last night is that the plate-x values were reported approximately two inches to the right (from the pitcher’s perspective) of where the ball actually was. In other words, the pitch to Zobrist was two inches closer to the center of the plate than the raw PITCHf/x data indicated.

Park factors are everywhere, and applying a park factor to the Nathan pitch makes the Nathan pitch seem a little more acceptable. It also makes it closer to being a strike than the Verlander pitch to Smith, in the same count. Now, I don’t have park-adjusted data for the Verlander pitch, so it’s possible there was a big error there, too. But if you just eyeball it, it does seem about as outside as the numbers assert. In a full count, Joe Nathan struck Ben Zobrist out looking on a really bad call. People lost their minds, even though the season was brand new. In a full count, Justin Verlander struck out Seth Smith looking on a really bad call. People were upset, but they didn’t flip out, even though this was the playoffs. It seems like the pitches were similarly ball-ish, and it’s possible, if not probable, that the Verlander pitch was even more of a ball, by location upon crossing the plane of the plate.

Look at the .gifs again:



The top call looks so much worse. The bottom call looks bad, but it looks at least somewhat understandable. And it’s all about how the pitches move and are received. Up top, granted, we’ve got a breaking ball instead of a heater, but A.J. Pierzynski caught the ball with his glove touching the dirt. He followed the movement of the pitch. Down below, the fastball was tailing away, but Alex Avila stopped it in its tracks and even managed to bring it a little back. Pierzynski got a strike despite himself. Avila got a strike in part because of himself.

Imagine, if you will, that these pitches were up to you. Imagine if you had to make a strike/ball call, based from a dead-center camera angle. Imagine that there weren’t any graphics. None of you would call the top one a strike. Only a few of you would call the bottom one a strike, but you’d think about it longer. There would be more of a question. Umpires have a job, and it’s hard to do, because it’s impossible for a human to not notice and be influenced by how a pitch is received.

The long and short of it: the called strike to Ben Zobrist was supposed to be maybe the worst called strike ever. Saturday, in the playoffs, there was just as bad a called strike. Umpires aren’t the only people who can be fooled. They’re just the only people whose decisions actually matter.

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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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I suspect the best reason for why there was less uproar last night was twofold: One is that the strikeout to Smith was early in the game. Nathan’s pitch literally ended the game. Even if the A’s had lost, it’d be tough to argue that call was why. Not necessarily so on the other.

The other reason is that CB Bucknor was just terrible. At least it appeared that way on the broadcast and based on reactions from players on both teams. That Smith strikeout may have been the worst of the calls, but it was just one of many questionable-at-best strike calls from a notoriously bad umpire.

I think a lot of people were more interested in asking how Bucknor even got the assignment.


Neyer has a pretty good look at Bucknor’s night over at sbnation. I’m a sucker for against-the-grain articles, though, so it may not be as convincing a defense of CB’s work behind the plate as I thought it was.