Ever since the invention of the little box on your television screen that charts balls and strikes over live baseball action, every fan is an expert on the strike zone. Just try searching Twitter for “umpire” on any given night and you’ll come across hundreds of complaints.
Last week, the Cubs and Phillies played an important four-game series at Wrigley Field. After the series concluded, SB Nation’s ‘Bleed Cubbie Blue’ wrote about umpires and their impact on the series. The post first cites an at-bat by Andrew McCutchen in the eighth inning of Thursday’s game, complete with a visual from MLB.com’s Gameday application showing the fourth pitch of the at-bat catching the entirety of the strike zone.
But if you check the tape, you’ll see that Cubs catcher Victor Caratini set up on the inside part of the plate and reached back across the plate to catch the pitch, not even bothering to frame or ‘stick’ it. The point is, nobody on the professional baseball field expected the pitch to be called a strike, yet the machine registered it as one.
We don’t know whether home plate umpire Mark Carlson was graded incorrectly on this pitch by the umpires’ evaluation system, because those grades are not made public. Fans did, however, get an important glimpse at how the system works after Ben Zobrist was ejected by Phil Cuzzi (coincidentally, at Wrigley Field in Chicago) last August.
Zobrist was called out on the sixth pitch of his at bat, registered as a “ball” in the on-screen strike plot provided by CSN Chicago. Check out the pitch at the 9:00 mark in the video below:
Cuzzi spoke with The Chicago Tribune the next day and said, in part, that he did not receive a negative grade for the pitch.
So without the proper data, fans are often likely criticizing umpires for missing pitches that the umpires were graded as correct on. This year, many have taken to citing a Boston University study on the strike zone that claims umpires missed over 34,000 pitches last season. That study is using much of the same data you’re seeing on your television screen– in other words, once again not the data the umpires are actually graded on!
In an interview with MLB.com in 2012, former big league crew chief and current director of MLB umpires Randy Marsh spoke about how pitches like the one to McCutchen are reviewed by evaluators and could be thrown out of an umpire’s score because of catcher movement. Marsh also noted that internal grading showed the staff average at over 95 percent of pitches called correctly.
So, don’t believe everything you see in the TV strike zone box!