THE STRIKE ZONE
Sometimes Sports, Sometimes Sportsmanship
Saturday saw some interesting ejections in Major League Baseball. News flash: the umpires were right...again.
In Washington, Bryce Harper (shocker that he's involved) was ejected by home plate umpire Mike Winters in the 10th inning after striking out looking on a pitch that was on the outside corner. Harper slammed his helmet as he began to berate Winters, earning him the automatic ejection. Winters simply stated to him over and over that the pitch was not outside. Ironically, not a single person from the Nationals went out to defend Harper, nor did a single person show any support for him as he walked back to the dugout and directly into the clubhouse.
In Detroit, home plate umpire Mike Everitt ejected a quartet of Tigers all over called strikes. Unfortunately, the golf courses were all closed by that point, so the four of them couldn't get a quick 18 holes in.
In the 3rd inning, Victor Martinez was ejected after arguing a strike one call on him. In the 5th inning, hitting coach Wally Joyner and manager Brad Ausmus were ejected after arguing a strike three call on Ian Kinsler. In the 6th inning, J.D. Martinez was ejected aftering arguing a strike three call on him. According to the official plot of the pitches, Everitt got two of the three pitches correct.
So where do we start?
Let's begin by saying the Harper ejection doesn't need to be dissected anymore than it has been above, but we will use it for the purposes of supporting the following arguments. Harper is a punk whose act is wearing thin across the league. For someone who wants to "make baseball fun again," he does the exact opposite with these shenanigans.
By the way, if you listen to the commentator, you'll hear that Harper had a legitimate gripe because the graphic shows the pitch to be outside. Let's get this disclaimer out of the way right now: the graphics used on television are rarely accurate when depicting pitches on the border of the strike zone. (Sensing another gray comment about the title of this blog?) These graphics show a two-dimensional representation of the zone and usually represent where the ball is caught by the catcher, not where the pitch crosses the plate, which is what determines a strike. Sure, the reception of the ball by the catcher can influence the umpire (what some might call "framing"), but a good umpire tracks the pitch through the zone and only lets a catcher influence a borderline call with poor reception of the pitch.
What does that mean, you ask? Well, I'll tell you!
Growing up as a catcher, many of my coaches worked with me on "framing" pitches, which is defined as how I receive each pitch with my mitt. So many of my coaches would state that moving my mitt back into the strike zone would get me more strikes. As an umpire, I came to find out that this could not be farther from the truth. The best catchers who know how to receive pitches will tell you that no movement of the mitt as I receive the pitch will actually get me more strikes. When a catcher moves his mitt following the reception of the pitch, he's telling the umpire the pitch was not a strike and that he has to change the final location of the caught pitch to influence the umpire of his decision. That's why you hear things about catchers who have "quiet hands" as being the best: the hands don't move!
(And for clarification, catchers wear mitts, just like first basemen. Everyone else wears a glove.)
Now, back to the plot of the strike zone...
It is impossible to properly represent the strike zone with a graphic, even when it is three-dimensional. We can only get asymptotically close to a representation without actually getting to an exact representation with our graphics. Further, since human umpires and making the calls, they will be making judgments based on so many other factors such as reception, consistency, presentation, batting stances, etc. The closest graphic I've seen that can represent the job done by the umpire can be found at Brooks Baseball with their Pitch f/x system. What makes this system superior is that it also superimposes the standard strike zone as called by umpires based on tendencies to different hitters. Take a look at this graphic from the Pitch f/x system that represents Mike Everitt's called balls and strikes to left handed hitters in the above game:
You'll see the dashed lines represent the "accepted" strike zone, whereas the solid lines give the best representation of the actual strike zone. What this doesn't account for, however, is that since different players are different sizes, the height of the zone changes from hitter to hitter, so these graphs are only best read when trying to determine pitches that are inside or outside. The height of the zone is supposed to go from the midpoint between the shoulders and the belt (what some might call the "letters," but really is slightly lower than that) to the hollow of the knee (which is the lower end of the knee just before the shin bone starts).
One of the best part of these graphs, however, is that it shows how consistent an umpire is. If the umpire is consistently calling a pitch that is just off the edge (possibly represented inside the dashed lines), then you can't really formulate an argument. Every player and coach will always say it doesn't matter what the umpire is calling so long as he is consistent.
So then why did that change on Saturday night?
In the case of the Detroit Tigers vs. Mike Everitt, although only one of the three calls that resulted in ejection was deemed "incorrect," in that it truly was below the dashed line on the plot, Everitt was consistent the entire night! No umpire is going to get a 100% accuracy rating when dealing with the gray strike zone; as you can see from the plot to right handed hitters, Everitt missed one pitch low (the one that caused the ejection) and one pitch inside. But it's up to the players to make the adjustments. It's unfortunate that both of those called pitches went against Detroit, but if you go to the next level of borderline pitches, there are two pitches (one high, one outside) that were both called strikes to Angels batters; it's tough to tell if those pitches are on the dashed line, whereas the other two are clearly not.
Each of these ejections for Everitt, however, almost became tangential to the actual call based on the arguments. In the case of Victor Martinez, Martinez turned around to discuss the call with Everitt, and Everitt gave him the chance to state his case. Eventually, Everitt made it clear that the discussion was over and they were to play the game again. Martinez did not let this stop his part of the debate, and Everitt told him enough was enough. When Martinez continued, Everitt had to put a stop to it and make it clear the discussion was over, which resulted in the ejection. Not only is it a great job by Everitt, it is an equally poor job by Martinez to erupt the way he did and make the argument personal.
In the case of Joyner and Ausmus, umpires don't like to hear from coaches. If a manager has a gripe, that's one thing. But when coaches (or anyone who is not acting as the manager) start to run their mouths, it usually results in a quick hook. According to Everitt, both Joyner and Ausmus were warned plenty of times not to continue the argument. When they did, they faced the music.
Finally, with J.D. Martinez, after he struck out, he turned to Everitt and said, "You're having a bad day today, huh?" Everitt gave him the chance to hang himself by asking what he said. Martinez could have just walked away, but he said it again. Gone.
Many of the Tigers involved said postgame that they just thought Everitt was having an off-night. Well, the science says otherwise. Everitt called a consistent game, and if the Tigers didn't like that pitch called a strike at the bottom of the zone, they should have swung at it.
Also, how stupid do you have to be as J.D. Martinez to say something like that to an umpire and not expect that result, especially after three previous ejections? That's like mouthing off to a judge during a court case.
Finally, shame on the Detroit fans. During the second video, you can hear the entire crowd at Comerica Park engage in a derogatory chant towards Everitt. Would you like it if 33,115 people came to your job and shouted at you when they thought you made a mistake? I didn't think so. Every ejection by Everitt was justified.
Enough with these tantrums, please.
Baseball player, umpire, coach, fan; professional musician; founder, President & CEO of The OSIP Foundation, Inc.