At the time of writing this, the 2016 MLB playoffs have completed both Wild Card games and Game 1 of both American League Division Series. Game 2 of the series between Texas and Toronto is approximately half complete.
Every television broadcast of a playoff game thus far has included some form of a "strike zone" graphic. TBS uses the "TBStrike Zone;" ESPN uses "K Zone;" Fox uses "Fox Trax;" and nobody talks about how umpires call games.
Well, let me amend that. Some of the commentators have made comments about the home plate umpires, and every single comment has been proven to be less than 100% accurate. Even Yankees broadcaster Michael Kay went off on Mike Winters, who was behind the plate for the NL Wild Card game, but kept calling him Bill Miller...it wasn't until I tweeted at him about his mistake that he finally caught the mistake.
This fallacy of poor umpiring is being perpetuated by the networks who show the graphics of the pitches in relation to the strike zone, then further expanded when commentators try to discuss a topic about which they have no clue.
Yes, I said it. As smart as someone like Ron Darling is, he, like everyone else in the booth, has no clue how umpires call balls and strikes. Darling is as smart as any analyst, and he can't get this right. On the other side, the ESPN crew of Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone, and Jessica Mendoza have a combined baseball I.Q. in the single digits. When people complain about Mendoza calling baseball games, they constantly reference the fact that she's a female. News flash: being a female has nothing to do whether you are qualified to call baseball games. People who know things about baseball are the ones qualified to do it, and those three simply do not have the knowledge required to competently call a game, regardless of gender. I don't care who calls a game, be it a man, woman, child, dog, cat, or alien...if they don't understand the game, I don't want to listen to them.
And don't even get me started on Aaron Boone. Remember, this is the guy who scored 1 out of 10 on the infamous baseball quiz from Jayson Stark a few years ago. As for Dan Shulman, he's a Blue Jays broadcaster, and if you have read any of my articles on the Blue Jays, you know where I'm going.
I'm sure they're all nice people, but when referencing the ability to understand how umpires call balls and strikes, none of these people understand.
Back to balls and strikes...
When these graphics shown on your television screen try to represent the strike zone, they show one zone that does not change according to the batter. Remember, the zone is defined in height by the midway point between the shoulders and the belt down to the hollow of the knee. Last time I checked, not every baseball player is the same height. Therefore, each hitter's zone will be different. Yet, the graphics you see do not change.
Further, remember that the zone is three dimensional. Whether dealing with height or width, the graphic shows a two dimensional representation. Rarely will the graphics show you a precise path of where the ball traveled in relation to crossing any part of that zone.
At no point are topics such as catcher reception, consistency and accuracy of the pitcher, and the mentality of the umpire discussed.
People constantly discuss the fallacy of a catcher's ability to "frame" a pitch, which ultimately tries to trick an umpire into thinking a pitch was a strike when it really wasn't. What people don't understand is that a catcher who frames pitches is a catcher who actually loses strikes for his pitcher. If an umpire seeing the mitt of a catcher move immediately following the reception of a pitch, that usually tells an umpire that the pitch was out of the zone and the catcher felt like he had to move the mitt into the zone to make it look like a strike. (Conversely, if the mitt moves out of the zone on a borderline pitch, that tells the umpire the catcher also did not think it was a strike.) If a catcher simply "sticks it," that is, catches the pitch where it is thrown and holds the mitt perfectly still, the umpire is more likely to call that pitch a strike.
Regarding the accuracy of a pitcher, some of the best pitchers would constantly get pitches called strikes that are clearly outside the zone based on their command of pitches and their ability to repeat location. The biggest example of this is Greg Maddux. Maddux had the insane ability to literally put the ball where he wanted it. He would begin the game by hitting the corners precisely. Then as he would get that pitch called a strike every time, he would move the pitch about a half inch off the plate. Guess what? The umpire would call that a strike too. After that was consistent, he would move it one inch off the plate. Before you knew it, any pitch that was not so far inside or outside to be hitting the white line of the batter's boxes would be called a strike.
Finally, the mentality of an umpire plays a role that so many people simply do not understand as part of being human. Obviously, each umpire has a different interpretation of the strike zone, and many teams have developed scouting reports on each umpire. Some umpires give a little more off each corner; some call the high strike; some have a small zone. But what people do not consider are things such as nerves and pressure. Umpires are human. They desperately want to be perfect. People expect them to be perfect, then improve! So to criticize umpires for not being 100% accurate is really just a lack of human understanding and compassion. Any person who says someone should not be behind home plate because they're not 100% accurate probably shouldn't be trusted with anything in life!
Consider these statistics. The league average for MLB umpires is around 90% accuracy for balls and strikes. If an umpire does better than 90%, he has done a fantastic job. MLB has a responsibility to assign umpires who have shown a consistency to call games at 90% accuracy or better; after that, let the chips fall where they may!
Here are some more statistics, brought to us by our friends at Close Call Sports and the Umpire Ejection Fantasy League:
-Gary Cederstrom worked home plate in the AL Wild Card game. He had a 95.8% accuracy rating.
-Mike Winters worked home plate in the NL Wild Card game. He had a 91.4% accuracy rating.
-Chad Fairchild worked home plate for Game 1 between Texas and Toronto. He had a 96.2% accuracy rating.
-Brian Knight worked home plate for Game 1 between Cleveland and Boston. He had a 96.9% accuracy rating.
Summary: do your research. Don't listen to the commentary. Listen to those of us who actually strap it on and get behind the plate. Think outside the box.