The Truth About Balls & Strikes

You have probably seen this chart. It’s from a critical at-bat on August 13 between Philadelphia closer Hector Neris and Chicago Cubs pinch-hitter Tony Kemp. The Phillies led 4-2, and Kemp represented the tying run.

You can see where that fifth pitch was, the one that was called strike three. it was a laughably bad call.

Here it is from the indispensable Twitter account @UmpireAuditor (“The worst calls of the day, every day”) who we will be quoting many, many times in this piece. Special bonus in this one: Listen to the announcer shout, “No! No! No! No!”

OK, that’s one of the worst strike three calls you will ever see …

On the other hand, @UmpireAuditor found this pitch from San Diego’s Eric Lauer to slugging machine Cody Bellinger in Monday’s Padres-Dodgers game to be every bit as offensive:

If you want to see how that looked on the pitching chart, well, yeah … making that 4 green to signify “BALL” doesn’t make sense.

As it turns out, @UmpireAuditor had a busy night on Wednesday. Here are just a few blown calls the account highlighted:

— Charlie Blackmon led off the bottom of the ninth inning of the Boston-Colorado game, with the Red Sox up 7-4. Blackmon worked a 2-2 count against Brandon Workman. Pitch 5 was called strike three:

Blackmon threw his bat, lost his mind, got ejected, Rockies manager Bud Black came out and got ejected too.

— In the tenth inning of the Dodgers-Padres game, facing an 0-2 count, A.J. Pollock took the fourth pitch, which was clearly in the strike zone. If it had been called a strike, the inning would have been over. Instead, it was called a ball and Pollock cracked an RBI single on the next pitch.

— In the Baltimore-Washington game, with two strikes and two outs, Trey Mancini took the fifth pitch here for a ball. He singled on the next pitch, though it caused no damage and the Nationals won big anyway.

In the Mets-Cubs game, the Cubs jumped out to a 6-0 lead in the top of the first inning. Then in the bottom of the first, with one out, Kyle Hendricks threw a first pitch strike to J.D. Davis. His second pitch was clearly a strike … but was called a ball. The announcers had to give home place umpire the “Nobody’s perfect,” reprieve. Davis grounded the ball up the middle for a single on the next pitch.

In the Atlanta-Toronto game, the Braves led 5-1 in the bottom of the fourth inning. With a runner on third and the count 1-1, Braves pitcher Mike Foltynewicz threw what the chart shows to be an obvious strike to Bo Bichette. It was called a ball. It didn’t make any difference in the end; Bichette eventually popped out to end the inning.

There are a couple of points to be made here, one obvious and the other, perhaps, less obvious. The obvious point is that all these happened on Wednesday and that’s not unusual because this sort of thing happens every night in every game — pitches that register as strikes are called balls and pitches that register as balls are called strikes. We’re not even talking about those really, really close pitches. None of the above pitches are borderline. These are clear umpire misses. Some have significant impact on the game. Some have little-to-no impact. But they happen and again and again.

For your enjoyment, Umpire Auditor put together a little montage of the 10 worst called strikeouts of the first half:

These missed calls are so common — and we’re still making the obvious point here — that teams build entire strategies around them. Everybody now wants catchers who can frame pitches because they are extremely valuable. This is true for two reasons:

  1. These catchers can steal strikes. The best ones are so subtle about it, so smooth in the way they catch the ball out of the strike zone and move their glove into the strike zone, that it’s like close-up magic.* But even more important …

  2. The best framers catch the ball with such easy poise and finesse that they don’t LOSE strikes for their pitchers. Most of the time, when you see a strike called a ball it is because the catcher was crossed up or just out of position and had to make a violent and obvious move to catch the ball, thus making it look like the pitch wasn’t good.

*Close-up magic? What?

None of this is sustainable, by the way. I’ve made this point again and again about instant replay — even though, as most of you know, I don’t like it: Once there is an obvious gap between what we see at home and what is called on the field, technology will fill that gap. You can bet on it. It might take a year or several years or even longer, but you can’t have balls consistently called strikes or strikes consistently called balls anymore than you can have fumbles missed or touchdowns called when the player stepped out of bounds. It’s a matter of credibility.

You just can’t consistently have games altered by ball-strike calls that go against what our eyes and minds see.

Again, this is the obvious part.

The less obvious part is that baseball has a big and complicated decision to make about what ACTUALLY constitutes a ball and a strike.

Here’s what I mean: Years ago — I mean, this is more than 25 years ago — I was working in Augusta, Ga., and I wrote about a young and promising minor-league umpire named Tim Timmons. I actually wrote about two umpires who were hoping to make it to the big leagues, but I’ll focus specifically on Tim because he did make it. He has been a big league umpire since 2001, and last year he was behind home plate for Game 1 of the World Series.*

*Umpire auditor ranks Tim roughly middle of the pack as a ball-strike umpire.

Tim — remember this was back in 1993 — was the first guy to explain to me the role that a catcher plays in the ball-strike call. I had just never thought about it that way. I don’t have his exact words, but I remember the gist of it was that the catcher wasn’t just neutral player in the ball and strike. The catcher needed to COMPLETE a strike. Tim said that if the catcher dropped the ball or had to make a desperate stab just to get a glove on it, that, most of the time, WAS NOT A STRIKE even if the pitcher happened to get lucky and the ball happened to go over the plate.

I don’t remember agreeing or disagreeing with Tim, I was just fascinated by the idea. Like I say, I had never even considered the catcher’s part of the ball-strike equation. I had never thought the catcher HAD a part in the ball-strike equation.

That’s basically what the pitcher tracker believes. The only thing that matters is: Does the ball go through the strike zone. And maybe that really is the only thing that matters … but that’s now how it has been for more than 100 years. Take this pitch from Trevor Bauer on Sunday against the Pirates. The bases are loaded and the oft-maligned C.B. Bucknor is behind the plate and this second pitch to Bryan Reynolds looks an AWFUL LOT like a strike:

Had that been called a strike, it would have made the count 0-2, changing the whole situation. As it turned out, it was a ball, Bauer wouldn’t get Reynolds to chase on either of the next two pitches and on the 3-1 count, Reynolds smashed a three-run triple. That was a game-changing call.

But now watch the pitch itself …

I mean, look, sorry, that doesn’t look like a strike. Bauer didn’t come close to hitting his spot, the catcher had to jump outside just to catch it. If the umpire HAD called that a strike, I imagine the fans would have gone crazy over it.

In other words, the gap between what the eyes and minds see and the ball/strike call also exists in computer simulations. Ask yourself the question: Was Trevor Bauer’s pitch a strike?

And once you make that decision, you have chosen your side. What is a strike? Is it that combination of visual factors (and optical illusions) that for more than 100 years have caused umpires to call it a strike? Or is it a ball that camera and laser and radar technology tells us goes through the strike zone?

I don’t think either answer is entirely perfect. And that’s because replay and computer umpiring works best when there’s a RIGHT and a WRONG … and baseball isn’t that sport. You know what is that sport? Tennis. That’s why the challenge system in tennis is the best replay system in all of sports. Tennis has a wonderful clarity about it; everyone in tennis accepts that if a ball lands one millimeter out, it is out, and if it touches even one millimeter of the line, it is in.

We don’t yet have that sort of clarity in baseball. But we could soon with robo-umpiring and we have to ask ourselves: Is that what we want? To quote Umpire auditor figures, there’s a 10 or so percent disagreement between what umpires see and what technology tells us. One out of ten or so pitches would be called something else if we go with the robo-umps. That would fundamentally change the game.

For the better? For the worse? This is the choice that’s coming fast.