Billy Crystal does not approve of tonight's strike zone. pic.twitter.com/ti4XilbQgE
— CBS Sports MLB (@CBSSportsMLB) October 7, 2015
Here is every Yankees fan in the world (perfectly encapsulated in one wonderful, brilliant comedian and actor who is forgiven his one transgression of being a Yankees fan) while watching the Astros receive more called strikes than the Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game Tuesday night. Don't believe me? See for yourself:
I've never seen so many balls outside the TV strike zone consistently called strikes. Worst balls and strikes calls in a long time #WildCard
— David Zatz (@dzatz) October 7, 2015
Can someone define "strike zone" for me? I'm confused
— Can I Pettitte? (@CANiPETTITTE) October 7, 2015
K Zone is just proving what a crappy strike zone Eric Cooper has.
— Stefanie Gordon (@Stefmara) October 7, 2015
Even our sister SB Nation site Pinstripe Alley, blog for the Yankees, got in on the unhappiness:
Ump calling an unfair strike zone mightttttt have something to do with that offense thing. https://t.co/cPR7lgQxTP
— Pinstripe Alley (@pinstripealley) October 7, 2015
Update on the strike zone: Still garbage.
— Pinstripe Alley (@pinstripealley) October 7, 2015
HOW ABOUT YOU FIX YOUR STRIKE ZONE.
— Pinstripe Alley (@pinstripealley) October 7, 2015
However, not all of Baseballdom wanted to string home plate umpire Eric Cooper up by his shoelaces. Here are some other takes on the strike zone, and not just from Astros fans. These tweets were posted (as were the ones sampled above) from the boroughs of New York:
Lots of complaining about the strike zone, but it looks pretty reasonable by these charts: http://t.co/zzKYI07WGs
— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 7, 2015
I see a lot of complaints about the strike zone, but umpires do not lose games. Teams do. Complaining about an umpire does not change result
— Gershon Rabinowitz (@GershOnline) October 7, 2015
LMAO OUTSIDE PITCH. great framing by Castro
— Ironically Iconic (@davidnunez___) October 7, 2015
On the ESPN radio show "Mike and Mike", Buster Olney weighed in regarding the framing as well. Fast forward to around 1:30 after you click this link to listen.
I imagine you probably get the gist by now.
Here's the full disclosure part from me, ready?
The research on this piece began soon after the Wild Card Game ended, following a discussion with fellow TCB writer Chris Perry (CRPerry13) about the value of pitch framing, which was on fully effectual display in the disparity between Jason Castro's technique and Brian McCann's. After research had begun for this piece, a similar and wonderful piece was published by Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs. I have cited that piece in this article, as it presents several key pieces of evidence cogently and cohesively, and borrowed a series of .gif images that aid in explaining the points. All of this was done with permission from Mr. Sullivan. The rest of the data in this piece appears courtesy of several sites: Brooks Baseball, Baseball Savant, StatCorner, and others, all of which are cited as their images and/or video appear.
With that out of the way, let's really dive in here and examine whether the strike zone was really unfair in the game. Beginning with a separate but related article at FanGraphs (this one by Dave Cameron) we'll examine a particular graphic which plots all called balls and strikes (so it excludes pitches with which contact was made, as an example) from the American League Wild Card Game.
Courtesy of a FanGraphs article which may be found here
An excerpt of Dave Cameron's analysis of these called strikes:
There are a couple of borderline calls on the right and left side of the plate, but by and large, the marginal called strikes are at the bottom of the zone, with a few extra at the top. If you go the box score page, you can actually hover over each point on the zone and see who threw the pitch, who was batting, and what the count was.
The call in that bottom left corner of the image, the one that was both low and inside to a right-handed hitter? That was thrown by Masahiro Tanaka, a first pitch called strike to Evan Gattis. That one went the Yankees way, and it was pretty clearly the worst call of the night.
In another piece (the Jeff Sullivan one from FanGraphs) Mr. Sullivan notes that the Astros benefited by roughly six or seven strikes in the game, and he then illustrates how this happened deftly through a series of .gif images comparing Dallas Keuchel and Tony Sipp with Masahiro Tanaka. Here are the .gifs, in succession:
Keuchelangelo on a 1-0 count
Keuchelangelo on a 2-1 count
Keuchelangelo on a 2-0 count
Another 2-0 count
Tony Sipp on a 1-0 count
Now, examine a couple pitches from Tanaka and Betances:
Tanaka on a 1-1 count
Another of Tanaka, another 1-1 count
Dellin Betances, 0-0 count
Another Betances, 0-1 count
There are a couple of key considerations illustrated in these graphics. First and foremost, the Astros pitchers were throwing borderline pitches when they were behind in counts. It is a well-established phenomenon by now that the strike zone tends to expand when the pitcher is behind, and constrict when the pitcher is ahead. Whether that's conscious on the part of umpires or subconscious is debatable, but the fact that it happens is not. The bottom line there is that the Astros had a better game plan in those situations to achieve called strikes.
Also of note is that Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances, at the least, were far more erratic on their pitch location than Keuchel (especially after the earliest part of the game) was. A comparison of Tanaka's pitches shows spots consistently missed badly. One example:
Courtesy of the Astros.com video archive
The purpose of posting the video above of Rasmus' home run is not to drive the point home about the result, but rather, strictly to illustrate the point of Tanaka missing his location. It happened several times throughout the game (one of those times, Carlos Gomez extracted a toll with a home run of his own) and the direct result wasn't always a home run...the cumulative result, however, was that Tanaka didn't get quite as much leeway with the strike zone as Keuchel, who hit his spots impeccably for the vast majority of the start, did.
The next and arguably most noteworthy piece of the puzzle in this situation comes down to catching ability. Per StatCorner, here is a look at Jason Castro's 2015 pitch framing numbers in comparison with Brian McCann's:
You can find an in-depth explanation of these metrics here, but what it boils down to is that (at least this season) Jason Castro is much, much better at getting extra strikes called for his pitcher. So much so, in fact, that it led Castro to save 12.9 Runs Above Average (12.9 RAA, from the chart) over the course of the 2015 season, while McCann actually cost his pitchers 2.5 Runs Above Average (-2.5 RAA, from the chart) over the course of the 2015 season. Sticking with that chart and its data, Jason Castro earned his pitchers 97 total calls this year with his framing ability (which is good for seventh best in all of baseball, behind only Francisco Cervelli, Tyler Flowers, Yasmani Grandal, Buster Posey, Chris Iannetta, and Miguel Montero) compared to McCann, who actually COST his pitchers a net 19 calls over the course of the season - which is good for 85th among all catchers in Major League Baseball this season. The difference is stark between the two.
As for what leads to the disparity, some involves the pitcher's control, but much more involves the catcher's technique. As Mr. Sullivan elucidated in his article, Jason Castro is very quiet behind the plate, well balanced, and positioned with the majority of his head and body in the strike zone in most times regardless of where the pitch is. It's a small and subtle Jedi trick which subconsciously pulls any umpire's mind back towards the strike zone. This is illustrated in the below pair of graphics (also from Mr. Sullivan's article) from Tuesday's Wild Card game, as is McCann's generally poor balance and body positioning:
This is clearly not an isolated incident this season, judging by the numbers from StatCorner for both catchers, but for further evidence, we can look back at many memorable situations for the Yankees over the course of the season. One such example? In the June 5th game between the Yankees and Angels, the Angels walked nine times in a game McCann started behind the plate. In the below video, you can see McCann is poorly positioned, badly balanced, and exhibits bad framing technique when extending his arm to stab at the ball instead of receiving it quietly and subtly flicking his wrist to frame an otherwise decent pitch:
(Click on this link to open a new window to Baseball Savant's video archive and view the video I'm talking about from June 5th)
The Final Word
The Astros clearly got the benefit of six or seven calls in Tuesday night's Wild Card win over the New York Yankees. No one is disputing this. What is being disputed, however, is that the Astros got more calls because Eric Cooper was biased, or unfair, or even that he's a bad umpire. First of all, Major League Baseball assigns those umpires whose metrics grade out the best over the course of the regular season to the playoffs. It is well established that Eric Cooper does love to call low strikes, but he calls them very close to the strike zone - and he calls them for both teams when all other considerations are equal.
In this game, not all other considerations were equal.
The Astros were possessed of a far more accomplished pitch framing catcher in this game (a feature of the roster shared between both Castro and Hank Conger, which should surprise no one who is aware that the Astros hired Pitch Framing Metrics pioneer Mike Fast, formerly of Baseball Prospectus) who continued, as has been the case all year, greatly outshining Brian McCann with regards to pitch framing and his ability to get his pitcher extra strikes. It is a greatly under-appreciated skill among those who would "Give control over to SkyNet" (read: institute automated balls and strikes in baseball) and, in the process, destroy one of the great, ancient arts of this Grand Old Game.
As a digression, Dallas Keuchel was an incredible force on the mound, and the MVP of this Wild Card game. But perhaps a case could be made that the MVP should have been Jason Castro instead.