Brewers Round ‘Em Up: The Great Strike Zone Conspiracy | Disciples of Uecker

Disciples of Uecker

We'd like to go to the Playoffs, that would be cool.

Haven’t done one of these in a while; you all have been subjected to my crazy labor rants, stats excursions, and sessions of throwing-spaghetti-on-the-wall. Lucky for you, a part of my community service agreement (we won’t go there) requires that I have the decency to post about news every now and then.

BREWERS DEFEAT CUBS, 2-1

-Ryan Dempster held the Brewers’ bats scoreless into the 7th inning. Mat Gamel started the trouble with a lead-off double. After Alex Gonzalez struck out, George Kottaras homered for the second time of the season. Voila! 2-1 Brewers.

-Yovani Gallardo tossed seven efficient innings, scattering 5 hits and 2 walks against 6 strike outs in 107 pitches. Gallardo provided a slightly different look yesterday, relying heavily on his fastball and slider. The slider cooked, hitting 88 MPH on several occasions, and Gallardo turned to the breaking pitch approximately 35 times. The righty also used his fastballs approximately 54 times, meaning that more than 80% of his selections were fastball/slider yesterday. To place that in context, Gallardo selected his fastballs and slider 78+% in 2011, but the majority of those selections belonged to the two fastballs.

Compared to his last three seasons, as well as his 2011 campaign, Gallardo is going to his slider more frequently. In many ways, this is the endstage of a trend that began a few years ago, completing Gallardo’s steady switch from his curve to his slider as favored pitch. If I’m remembering correctly, Gallardo’s slider was somewhat of a question mark or developing pitch when he first came to the majors; now it’s becoming his favorite secondary pitch:

2009: 10.4% sliders (85+ MPH)
2010: 16.9% sliders (86+ MPH)
2011: 19.3% sliders (87+ MPH)
2012: 26.5% sliders (87+ MPH)

According to TexasLeaguers’ league averages (2008-2010), a slider typically comes in around 84 MPH, with a cutter around 88 MPH (on average). In this regard, over time, Gallardo’s slider is particularly hard, as it typically comes in at only 4-5 MPH slower than his fastballs. Who can blame Gallardo for throwing this thing so frequently over time? To have an 86-88 MPH slider is quite a weapon; especially when it drops more than a cutter while coming in almost as fast.

NEW AT DISCIPLES OF UECKER!

While you’re raiding the dollar bin, make sure to take a look at these hits:
-Jaymes discusses the Greinke contract talks, noting that one shouldn’t count out the Brewers’ chances of re-signing Greinke, even though talks broke down. The comments section is full of interesting theories about Doug Melvin’s infamous press poker face.
-Jack analyzes the effect Carlos Gomez has on defenses when he stands at third base, and notes some of the benefits that a drawn-in infield present the offensive club when the runner is safe at home (as Gomez frequently is). For all the crap someone like me gives Gomez for his bat, baseball sure is a beautiful sport with tons of places for hidden value; certainly, this type of outcome is a perfect example of value that escapes a singular statistical note.
-Mitch Stetter is back! Jim discusses the value of having Stetter as a minor league replacement for Parra.
-As always, check back for Jim’s minor league box scores, in order to track your favorite prospects, as well as the performance of the entire organization. Did you see that Tyler Thornburg pitched six innings of one run ball yesterday?
-By the way, be sure to follow us on Twitter (@DisciplesUecker), and also look out for Live Blogs during Brewers games — there’s a strong community to enjoy a ballgame, and if you’re lucky, we might even meet our quota of 5 Dusty Baker jokes per ballgame (10 when they’re facing the Reds).

STRIKE ZONE CONSPIRACY

Over at Badger State Sports Discussion, I started the idea of a low strike zone conspiracy, and I made a brief note about it on Twitter, too. Now, I am running with it.

It would be accurate to say that I’m a staunch proponent of the automated strike zone in baseball. That probably means I’m a bit hard on home-plate umpires, who undoubtedly have a very difficult job, keeping the pace of the game, keeping everything in line, making calls at the plate, backing up other umpires, etc. All on top of calling balls and strikes. However, one of the reasons I’m consistently vocal about the issue is that (a) I believe too many arguments against automated strike zones begin from absurdist premises (like a pitch f/x operator relaying the call to the home plate umpire through an ear piece, leaving the home plate umpire to then call the pitch; or, using instant replay for balls and strikes); and, (b) I simply believe that the technology is available, it’s advanced enough and reliable enough to effectively provide data for hundreds of MLB pitchers each season, and the technology has the advantage of being unbiased or uninvolved with the undoubted emotional strain of going against a home crowd, calling a veteran pitcher, calling a wild pitcher, etc.

As a current resident of Cleveland, I follow the Indians as well as the Brewers, which gives me the benefit of watching Justin Masterson regularly. It also gave me the advantage of seeing the Indians’ home opener debacle on Thursday; Chris Perez was given no help on low strikes, and Justin Masterson, for as well as he pitched, also received no help. I noticed the same thing during Yovani Gallardo’s opening day start, and I’ve seen it here and there in most other games I’ve watched: home plate umpires are systematically missing the low strike. Furthermore, they’re consistently expanding the strike zone on the arm-side of the plate for right-handed pitchers.

This strange combination effectively forces pitchers to try and get their strikes elsewhere in the zone, as they cannot continually rely on the low zone for strike calls.

Why is this a conspiracy theory? Well, the irrational part of my theory is that MLB is concerned about keeping attendance high during an era of declining run scoring. In the past few years, run scoring consistently regressed, resulting in leagues and ballparks where scoring 715 runs might be as valuable as 825 runs was just a half-decade earlier (depending on the park, of course). Every mind-catching conspiracy theory needs to supply a motive for circumventing normal procedures (in this case, the strike zone): I’d say the MLB’s motive to order umpires to lay off low strike calls would be to subtly increase scoring and keep fans happy.

Okay, now that the crazy is out of my system, check out these strike zone charts from some games I’ve followed thus far. First up, we have the Indians’ home opener. Check out the called pitches for Justin Masterson and Chris Perez.

All charts are from TexasLeaguers, thanks to the work of Trip Somers. Trip Somers holds the copyright to this material, 2009-2012.

Masterson threw over 50 pitches to be called ball or strike, and umpire Tim Welke arguably got 10 calls wrong (8 balls, 2 strikes), and also called 4 borderline pitches (3 balls, 1 strike). Chris Perez suffered a similar fate with the low strike, but he also received two helpful arm-side calls; all-in-all, in 21 opportunities to call a ball or strike on Perez, the umpire arguably called 4 wrong pitches.

Something about Masterson’s arm angle and hard sinker/slider combination must make his pitches difficult to call. Wouldn’t you believe it, nearly a week later, Masterson’s second start yielded 43 opportunities for called pitches, with 10 wrong calls (7 balls, 3 strikes), and 1 borderline call (a ball).

I should say, it’s not always bad. Yesterday, Yovani Gallardo threw approximately 50 pitches that needed to be called, and Lance Barksdale made 1 wrong call (strike), and 3 borderline calls (all strikes).

Dempster received the bad zone, throwing approximately 53 pitches to be called. He received 3 wrong calls (2 balls, 1 strike), and 2 borderline calls (both balls).

Lance Barksdale called approximately 103 pitches, yielding 4 wrong calls (2 balls, 2 strikes), and 5 borderline calls (3 strikes, 2 balls). Masterson probably wonders why he can’t get that kind of zone.

Gallardo threw approximately 60 pitches that needs to be called on opening day, and he received a bizarre strike zone from Angel Hernandez. Of 5 wrong calls, Gallardo received 4 arm-side strikes, and 1 low-strike zone ball. Gallardo also received two borderline calls, split between balls and strikes.

Jaime Garcia received the bad zone that day, which leads me to believe that if this keeps up, pitchers are going to boycott their starts against Gallardo in the future. Garcia threw approximately 45 pitches to be called, with 4 wrong calls (3 balls, 1 strike), and 1 borderline call (a strike).

That’s approximately 105 pitches called, with 9 wrong calls (5 strikes, 4 balls), and 3 borderline calls (2 strikes, 1 ball). Apparently Angel Hernandez’s zone is a strong counterargument to my conspiracy theory about the small strike zone.

We could keep going; Randy Wolf threw 52 called pitches in his start, with 5 wrong calls (4 balls, 1 strike); Greinke received 3 wrong calls (2 balls, 1 strike) on 51 called pitches, with 1 borderline ball, as well. Narveson threw approximately 48 called pitches, with 3 wrong calls (2 strikes, 1 ball), and 2 borderline calls (1 strike, 1 ball).

Overall, I suppose the skeptics among you are underwhelmed. “Why’s this stathead clamoring over 90% accuracy (or better) on called pitches?” Well, frankly, the strike zone could be better. Furthermore, those wrong calls in the low strike zone have an effect on where the pitcher can reasonably throw the ball for a strike; if a pitcher is fine with that missed call, and goes along with their approach, throwing consequences to the wind, that’s one thing. But, if a pitcher adjusts, and either throws the ball higher in the zone, or closer to the middle of the plate, that arguably results in easier pitches to hit. Now, that might not always result in hits, but the point is, the results compound when strike calls are inaccurate; not all pitches are equal, and if umpires consistently take away called strikes on difficult pitches to hit, the result could be more pitches in easier-to-hit zones.

The pendulum swings the other way for the batters. If a right-handed pitcher is getting called strikes on arm-side balls outside of the zone, that forces the batter to change their approach. If a batter takes a pitch that they cannot hit, or that they believe to be a ball outside of the zone, and that pitch results in a strike, they will need to adjust their approach and either swing at a less desirable pitch in the future, or change their expectations for the remainder of the bat. Furthermore, if balls outside of the zone are called for strikes, the batter might reasonably swing at worse pitches in the future, which arguably has a detrimental effect on their approach.

Think about these results as you follow ballgames. I don’t believe I am blowing things out of proportion. Each plate appearance is dynamic, for batters and pitchers alike; shifts in strike or ball calls that are unexpected change the balance in that plate appearance. The benefit of a completely neutral, consistent strike zone is that both pitcher and batter can refine their approach and stick with it, there will be no chance for emotional or retributive calls, and, I gather, umpires can fix their attention to the pace of the game, backing up other calls, and focus on other duties.

Image: http://morethancardboard.blogspot.com/2012/03/meet-my-new-favorite.html

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Comments

Tell us what do you think.

  1. michael says: April 12, 2012

    I’m also in favor of automated strike zones.

    Those strike zones for masterson are all sorts of ugly.

    • Nicholas Zettel says: April 12, 2012

      Aren’t they? Part of me believes that Masterson’s far out, pure side arm influences that. Who knows, the ball could just LOOK different coming from that strange angle, not mentioning the amount of movement / speed on his sinker.

      For instance, yesterday, TexasLeaguers had Masterson’s release point right around 5ft. That’s a rather extreme point.

      Still doesn’t justify poor strike calls, even if it explains it.

  2. Benn says: April 12, 2012

    change is bad. let’s do things how we always have done them. nothing good comes from change and innovation.

    right?

    On a serious note, nice article. I agree that 90% *could be* considered a job well done, but if we can offer 100%, why not do it?

    • Nicholas Zettel says: April 12, 2012

      Thanks for the kind words. I think that it is definitely realistic to expect better, consistent strike calls from an automated zone. And it doesn’t have to be anything ridiculous — it’d be a great excuse to hire an extra umpire to each squad, specifically for the purpose of booth review, and marking the strikes/balls on the scoreboard.

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