It has been a little over ten years since Curt Schilling used a bat to smash a QuesTec camera to bits. At the time, QuesTec had cameras installed in 13 major league ballparks to help MLB provide feedback to umpires about their strike zones. Schilling, a control specialist who averaged a meager 1.96 BB/9 over his career, claimed to even have a book filled with every call an umpire had made against him. So, when the home plate umpire didn’t raise his right hand on pitches near the outside corner, allegedly due to concerns that the QuesTec system would contradict his calls, Schilling simply smashed one of the cameras. It was, and still is, the loudest protest against the modernization of the game with technology.
We all know that there have been some bad calls made around baseball this year. Remember Jean Segura’s dropped ball, tag against the Phillies? What about the home run by the A’s Adam Rosales that was ruled a double even after a video review? Or what about the illegal pitching change by Astros manager Bo Porter, which was disputed by Angels manager Mike Scioscia, but still allowed to stand?
While I am a fan of expanding the current replay system, it’s obvious, just from the examples above, that there will always be a human element to the game that a computer or replay system can’t replace. And, as Curt Schilling emphatically showed, that human element is most apparent behind home plate.
If players, like Schilling, can understand the slight variations between different umpire’s strike zones, they can turn that knowledge into an on-field advantage. For the rest of us, the variances between the umpires’ strike zones are more often an annoyance. As observers, there is nothing we can do about it except quietly exhale after receiving a favorable call or, in my case, angrily ask the TV, “where did that miss”, when a strike call isn’t made. Though I’ve received many more strange stares from my girlfriend than responses from the TV, I can’t seem to break myself of this habit.
Of course, there are certain people who have been crunching the numbers associated with umpires. Not surprisingly, these people are gamblers. Now, I’m the type of guy who makes his way to a blackjack table every once in a while but the sports book isn’t really my racket. For those who do enjoy wagering on baseball, I know that the professionals often place bets based on who’s behind the plate instead of who’s throwing at it. If an umpire has a consistently tight strike zone, taking the “over” bet on that game’s line might be the smart choice.
For folks like me, who don’t bet at the sports book but do play fantasy baseball, knowing the numbers behind an umpire’s strike zone can also be useful. A close friend revealed that when he picks up a pitcher for a spot start, the umpire behind the plate often affects his decision. If he needs strike outs, he will avoid games with an umpire that has a low K/BB rate. If he’s chasing a lower ERA and/or WHIP, he double-checks the home plate umpire’s average in both those stats.
For many reasons, including gamblers betting on games based on who’s behind home plate, MLB does not give advanced notice as to which umpiring crew will be working which games. There are sites that post the information once it’s known but there’s also this – 2013 MLB Umpire Data, a table compiling stats from each umpire’s time behind home plate this season.
Last updated on June 30th, it provides an interesting window into the game that’s both familiar and a little strange. Mixed in with some of the baseball stats are gambling ones, which I will be ignoring but are there if that’s your thing. Here are the stats used to access an umpire that we’ll pay attention to –
- Hom Pct – Home team’s winning percentage
- Ave Tot Run – Average Total Runs per game
- H & W per Inn – WHIP (Don’t know why they don’t just list it as this, but I will)
- ERA – Got this one right. Compiled based on the starting pitcher’s performance only
- K/BB Rate – Again, only accessed through the performance of the SP
- BB/9 Inn – Only SP performance calculated
With the secrecy surrounding the umpire’s schedule, and the time I have to write my articles, I thought this four-game series in Arizona would be the perfect time to see what we can gleam by looking at the pitching match-ups and pairing them with who will be behind home plate.
Behind home plate on Thursday night was crew chief Tom Hallion. A 20-year veteran, Hallion called balls and strikes for the first game at the New Yankee Stadium and was also behind the dish for Stephen Strasburg’s major league debut, in which Strasburg struck out 14 batters. Earlier this season, Hallion supposedly told David Price to “throw the [expletive] ball over the plate” after Price became frustrated with his strike zone. After Price told reporters what he heard, Hallion called him a “liar”. This very public war of words was not appreciated by MLB and both parties, plus Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore, received fines.
For further dirt, check out Deadspin’s “Better Know an Umpire” profile on Hallion. Based on the stats listed above, here’s how Hallion’s 2013 season looks compared to the league average amongst umpires –
|Hom Pct||Ave Tot Run||WHIP||ERA||K/BB||BB/9|
Yovani Gallardo and Wade Miley toed the rubber on Thursday night. Prior to the game, here’s how their numbers compared.
Going into this game, I thought that it would be a high scoring affair. Turns out it was much more of a pitcher’s duel. Remember the breakdown of the umpire’s numbers only calculate the starting pitchers’ performances into ERA, K/BB, and BB/9 (not my choice but one I will follow for consistency). Here’s how Thursday night’s affair looks —
Going into the game, I expected Hallion to call a small strike zone. The Brewers’ walked six batters during the game — four occurred during Jim Henderson’s disastrous 8th inning. Here’s Hallion’s strike zone during that half of an inning (remember, four of these pitches were an intentional walk to Paul Goldschmidt).
From the plot, Hallion called two pitches on the edge of the zone balls instead of strikes. Of course, Henderson was so erratic throughout the entire inning that it’s not surprising that he didn’t get those two calls.
What was surprising was Hallion’s strike two call on Logan Schafer during the top of the 9th inning. Hallion’s higher than average BB/9 indicates that he’s a batter’s umpire. That wasn’t the case for Logan Schafer, who took a 1-1 pitch that was clearly outside, but Hallion called for strike two.
Even though Hallion’s season numbers suggested this could be a slugfest, that wasn’t the case.
Now that we know how this works, let’s compare the pitching match-ups to the umpires for the rest of the series. Check back on Monday for my follow-up article that will look into how the game results compared to the predictions. As we’ve already seen, it doesn’t always go the way it might be leaning.
Umpire crews rotate clockwise around the bases. So Thursday night’s first base umpire Phil Cuzzi should be behind home plate for Friday night’s game. Phil Cuzzi is a 14-year MLB veteran. Last year, he was also featured in Deadspin’s “Better Know an Umpire” piece. So, if you want to know where he’s supposedly hated (Chicago, Seattle, and San Francisco), check it out. Cuzzi is known for his light trigger finger. He ejected Tony La Russa and Jim Edmonds from Game 4 of the 2005 NLCS and once, in a Rays/Red Sox game, tossed eight Rays players but not a single Red Sox. Cuzzi also made a controversial foul call on a ball hit by Joe Mauer in the 2009 ALDS. Replay clearly showed that the ball had hit Melky Cabrera’s glove, landed fair, and then bounced into the stands. MLB rules did not permit for the play to be reviewed.
Here’s how Cuzzi’s numbers compare to the umpires’ league average –
|Hom Pct||Ave Tot Run||WHIP||ERA||K/BB||BB/9|
And here’s how Friday’s pitchers, Tom Gorzelanny and Patrick Corbin, compare –
Gorzelanny has spent most of the season pitching out of the bullpen so his WHIP and ERA are a bit deceiving. Corbin has been extremely impressive this season. He’s made 18 starts and has only allowed four earned runs or more three times. In the 15 other games, Corbin has earned a quality start.
Cuzzi’s numbers are closer to league average than Hallion’s but his 2.23 K/BB and 3.13 BB/9 still hint at a smaller strike zone. This could spell trouble for Gorzelanny, whose 3.66 BB/9 translates to him walking 10.3% of batters faced. Meanwhile, Corbin’s 2.26 BB/9 means he’s only walking 6.4% of batters faced.
If Cuzzi calls a tight strike zone, it will probably affect Gorzelanny more than Corbin on Friday night. Based on that factor, and Corbin’s extended first half dominance, the advantage leans toward the Dbacks in second game of the series.
Saturday’s contest should see Chris Guccione dusting off the dish between innings. Guccione has been calling balls and strikes at the major league level for the last six years. Here’s his Deadspin “Better Know an Umpire”, which lists his claim to fame as calling over 1,200 games before getting the invite to the bigs.
Here are his 2013 stats compared to the league average —
|Home Pct||Ave Tot Run||WHIP||ERA||K/BB||BB/9|
Saturday will see Kyle Lohse face Randall Delgado. Here’s how they stack up –
This season, Delgado has only had made five starts, and six total appearances, but his numbers show extremely good command. But compare his K/BB and BB/9 numbers to Lohse’s. Then compare their WHIP numbers. Delgado’s inflated WHIP hints that he’s avoiding the walk at the expense of giving up hits.
Guccione’s numbers are interesting. He’s well above the league average in “Ave Tot Run”, WHIP, and ERA, which suggests he’s a hitter’s umpire. But his K/BB rate is higher than league average and his BB/9 is below, which might indicate a pitcher’s umpire. From that reading, it looks like Guccione might have been frequently behind the plate for pitchers that profile a lot like Delgado, those who would rather give up a hit than issue a walk.
Not sure what to expect from this game. Lohse has more years of MLB experience than Guccione, whose numbers indicate that he has a slightly more forgiving strike zone than normal. With Lohse’s experience, and his recent success, combined with a Brewers’ line up facing a young pitcher not afraid to challenge hitters, the advantage in this game swings to the Crew.
Ron Kulpa will call Sunday’s series finale. During his 13 years of experience, Kulpa called Justin Verlander’s 2007 no-hitter against the Brewers. He was also head-butted by the Red Sox’s Carl Everett during a game in 2000. Check out his Deadspin “Better Know an Umpire” to find out that he was the last umpire to have the pleasure of sending Barry Bonds to the showers early.
|Home Pct||Ave Tot Run||WHIP||ERA||K/BB||BB/9|
Sunday’s game will feature a battle between Wily Peralta and Ian Kennedy —
Both Peralta and Kennedy have struggled with their command this season. With Kulpa issuing more walks than most, this game could get ugly. That said, Peralta has been dealing lately – a 1.99 ERA over the last five games even though his walk rate is up a sliver to 3.69 BB/9. Meanwhile, Kennedy has managed a 4.30 ERA over his last five games while his walk rate increased to 3.68 BB/9.
According to the Deadspin piece, historically, not many runs score when Kulpa is behind the plate. In 2013, his 6.6 “Ave Tot Run” is the third lowest amongst all umpires – only Lance Barrett (5.6) and Jim Wolf (5.8) have a lower total. Kupla’s ERA is also significantly lower than the league average while his WHIP is only slightly under. Fewer batters strike out and more batters walk when he’s calling the game — two factors that would normally benefit hitters.
These contradictions fascinate me. Are they a normal variance, a case of strange luck, or something else? Is it possible that Kupla’s strike zone fluctuates during the game? I haven’t had a chance to dig deeper into to this but I plan to over the weekend.
Though walks may abound, expect a lower scoring affair for the final game of the season series. Recent history suggests that Peralta should have the upper hand. Brewers’ fans are hoping that’s the case come Sunday and Peralta finishes the first half of the season strong.
As I mentioned above, I’m not normally a gambling man. Check back Monday to see how the games shook out compared to my predictions. As Thursday’s game already proved, sometimes the season’s numbers and the game’s outcome don’t always agree.