In almost every at-bat, there is a call at which fans, the batter, or the pitcher might bristle. Complaining about balls and strikes is an inescapable part of the viewing experience.
But let’s be clear: calling balls and strikes is an incredibly difficult task. It’s also up there on the list of tasks that people love to backseat drive. Credit the blue-blooded umpires who do their best game-in and game-out, but frankly—it’s an absurd task.
Umpires are supposed to accurately frame a tiny white baseball flying in their direction at 100 mph in a 3D zone from the perspective of behind a catcher while wearing a mask. Meanwhile, we scoff at the injustice of every missed call.
That said, they do miss a few. Using Statcast data, we can look at those accuracy metrics and find players who benefited from or were hurt by umpire error. Doing so becomes just another way to sift through the noise in the neverending quest to find the line where random chance ends and true talent begins. In looking at where umpires erred in 2019, we can find pitchers whose true talent might have been obscured.
Umpires made an average of 14 incorrect calls per game in 2019, which I don’t mention to point out the failings of our human adjudicators, but simply to highlight the amount of change that will come to the game with electronic strike zones.
But in 2019, pitchers were at the mercy of human judgment. Here are 5 pitchers who might welcome the advent of our robot overlords.
When Jose Altuve launched a home run off of Aroldis Chapman to end the ALCS, the moment had all the trimmings of classic baseball heroism.
Altuve was one of baseball’s infallible heroes: the rare player whose talent did more than bring good to the game, he was good for the game. At a mere 5’6″ and charming as hell, Altuve opened the eyes of people in and outside of baseball about what was possible for a guy of his stature. He was a role model and the type of star that’s hard to dislike.
By contrast, Chapman is a lean and muscular 6’4″ with a slingshot motion and 100+ mph, mustard-covered heaters. He brought an intimidation factor to the hill unmatched going back to Randy Johnson. But where The Big Unit snarled ugly, rocked a mullet, committed bird-murder, and still found a way to ingratiate himself to fans, Chapman rubs people the wrong way.
Chapman’s complicated relationship with fans starts and ends with his 30-day domestic violence suspension from 2016. Not helping matters, he’s soft-spoken, and as a closer, he traffics in the art of crushing the hopes and dreams of anyone outside of New York. Baseball doesn’t have a lot of villains, but Chapman is one of them.
Months after Altuve’s home run sent Chapman home for the offseason, the Astros’ second baseman has a much different standing in the sport. After Houston’s sign-stealing scandal rocked the baseball world, Altuve has an uphill climb to get back into baseball’s good graces.
Chapman can tell him how difficult a road that can be.
Let me be clear: I’m not here to make you fall in love with him. Baseball’s treatment of domestic violence is too lax, and someone like Chapman makes for an uneasy viewing experience (at best).
Which is why it’s somehow not surprising that Chapman’s strike zone gets squeezed more than almost any pitcher in the game. Using a clustering algorithm on Statcast data, I put pitchers into three categories on a per season basis going back five years: (1) pitchers who receive an average amount of benefit from umpire error, (2) those who get more help than most from umpire error, and (3) those whose zones get squeezed. Chapman was one of only two pitchers to land in the squeezed group in four of the last five seasons. It’s hard to imagine Aroldis Chapman being even more dominant (2.21 career ERA/2.01 career FIP, 14.8 K/9), but by golly, it’s possible.
I’m not suggesting there’s any conscious bias on the part of the umpires against Chapman. I do think that it’s hard for anyone—batters or umpires—to pick up high-velocity, high-spin offerings from a flamethrowing lefty like Chapman who comes in for short-stint outings late in games. That’s a recipe for umpires to get a little gunshy on strike calls.
When Chapman was on the bump in 2019, 5.8% of balls should have been called strikes. That might not seem like a large number, but consider the spread: of pitchers who threw at least 200 pitches in 2019, stolen-strike percentage ranged from a low of less than one percent to a high of 9.6% (MLB average = 4.0%).
Chapman lands more than two standard deviations from the mean (in the 99th percentile). And this is not just about the strike calls he’s not getting, it’s about the extra strike calls he’s not getting.
Umpire error tends in favor of the pitcher, with pitchers getting an average of 16% of their strikes called on pitches outside the zone. Chapman got just 8.1% of his strike calls on pitches outside the zone. Granted, these are not pitches he deserves to get called strikes. Nonetheless, they are calls that his peers are getting – and he is not.
Because of his history in this area and the challenge umpires face correctly spotting a Chapman fastball, he’s probably going to get shorted again so long as humans remain in charge of balls and strikes. Unfortunately for Chapman, by the time electronic strike zones are finally implemented at the major league level, he’s likely to be well past his prime.
Chapman himself is never likely to see the full benefit of a neutral zone, but for the “next Aroldis Chapman,” expect an even more devastating presence.
Kela was the other unfortunate soul whose zone has been squeezed in four of the last five seasons. Kela certainly doesn’t have the public profile that Chapman does, but if the team suspension he served in July for fighting with the bullpen coach is any indication, he’s another combative personality.
He’s also a late-inning hurler whose fastball was in the 90th percentile for velocity in 2019 (96.2 mph). Kela had a short season in 2019, appearing in just 32 games for 29 2/3 innings. His strikeout rate was down to 10.01 K/9, but not enough to cause concern.
In terms of his strike zone metrics, 4.9% of his balls were pitches that should have been called strikes, while just 6.1% of his strikes landed outside the zone. Kela was one of the few pitchers whose stolen strikes and gifted strikes almost came out in the wash. Still, he wasn’t getting much help from the umps, and now that he’s set to take over the closer role in Pittsburgh, it wouldn’t be surprising to find him in this category again next season.
Seeing a trend here? High velocity, late-inning firemen are seeing strike zones tighten late in games. Hicks came closer to any other pitcher in 2019 to have the number of stolen strikes exceed his number of gifted strikes, with a net positive of just 1% going his way.
Again, this might not seem like much to complain about, as there’s clearly not a level playing field here between hitters and pitchers. Still, these pitchers aren’t getting the advantages of their peers, and it’s at least possible that Hicks and others on this list could regress to the mean in future seasons and start seeing some extra strikes go their way.
But maybe not Hicks. He’s on the shortlist for the hardest thrower in the game, and that simply makes it difficult for umpires to give him a fair shake. Hicks has struggled with his control at times, and he’s going to have to continue to rely on the swing-and-miss game when he returns from injury.
Tim Hill/Kyle Zimmer
The highest percentage of stolen strikes in 2019 went to a pair of Royals relievers.
Hill doesn’t fit the mold of the other names on this list: he’s not a hard thrower, he’s not a high spin rate guy, and he wasn’t really a high-leverage arm (just 1 save and 9 holds). But he does come to the plate at a very unusual angle, which could explain a more passive trigger finger on strike calls.
Hill did just fine for himself this season, despite 9.1% stolen strikes and an average amount of gifted strikes. He finished with a 3.63 ERA/3.84 FIP across 39 2/3 innings for a total value of 0.7 rWAR/0.5 fWAR.
As for Zimmer, his 96.4 mph heater puts him more in the mold of the firemen above, though his case comes with a larger grain of salt than the others as he managed just 18 1/3 innings for the big league club in 2019. That said, his inclusion on this list might be one reason to hope for greener pastures ahead for Zimmer after he finished the year with a 10.80 ERA (and much more palatable 5.78 FIP). A missed strike call here or there can definitely snowball on a younger pitcher.
It’s worth noting that neither Royals catchers fared particularly well in Statcast’s catcher framing metrics. Cam Callagher finished 27th overall in the league (+1 run from extra strikes), while Meibrys Viloria finished 45th out of 64 entrants (-3 runs from extra strikes).
Lastly, we have to throw a starter in the mix. Anderson couldn’t catch a break from the umpires on either end of the spectrum. With 7.6% stolen strikes versus 13.4% gifted strikes, Anderson didn’t catch many breaks from umpires. On the whole, his numbers don’t lean enough one way or the other to land him in either the squeezed or the benefited clusters, but he did register an unusually high percentage of stolen strikes. And this wasn’t the first time either—Anderson received a similar mark in 2015.
Finding a reason for Anderson’s inability to get those calls is more complicated. He doesn’t fit the profile at all, as his fastball was in just the 15th percentile for velocity and the 1st percentile for spin. He’s a starter, so umpires should be accustomed to seeing him. He is left-handed, which is the one box that he checks for where umpires tend to squeeze the zone. Otherwise, there aren’t any red flags in Anderson’s profile that speak to why he wasn’t getting those borderline calls.
It’s notable that Anderson didn’t especially suffer from the ill-effects of those missed calls either as he turned in one of the best seasons of his career: 13-9, 176 innings, 3.89 ERA/4.57 FIP, 2.0 fWAR.
We might just chalk this up to an unlucky year for Anderson, but we might also lay some blame at the feet of his catcher. Josh Phegley finished 61st of 64 by Statcast pitch-framing metrics. He was behind the dish for 19 of Anderson’s 31 starts.
If and when baseball gets underway in 2020, Anderson will have a new battery mate in Omar Narvaez as he takes his turns in the Brewers rotation. Narvaez finished 54th on that list, so it’s maybe not a huge upgrade in that department.
Still, it’ll be a new year for Anderson, and maybe this time the calls will go his way.
Featured Image by Rick Orengo