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Hey, Ump, These Balls Should’ve Been Strikes

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Seattle Mariners v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

For a number of years, I would eagerly await for when former FanGraphs writer Jeff Sullivan would release his famous worst called ball and strike articles. His series of worst calls were easily one of my favorites within the realm of baseball writing and the detailed breakdown involved was always fascinating to read. While I am no Sullivan when it comes to my baseball writing ability, I decided to take a stab at the topic from an Astros point of view.

For my research, I first went to Baseball Savant and initiated a search on all called balls in 2020 located in the “heart of the plate.” By Tangotiger’s definition, the “heart of the plate” is where the “batter wants to swing, pitcher wants him to take.” This is an area where one can expect to find plenty of strike calls. For context, the green dotted line represents the border of the general strike zone.

To no great shock, I found only four called balls in this area, or 0.5 percent of all pitches, from an Astros hurler to review. Let’s take a quick look to see which ones were truly egregious, simply a missed call, or somewhere in between.

Ball Call Number 1: Bryan Abreu vs. Shohei Ohtani, 7/31/20

Out of the four called balls from the search, Bryan Abreu’s slider to Shohei Ohtani in the second offering of this at-bat wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface. The pitch itself, a slider, wasn’t exactly thrown down main street of the strike zone as it did finish in the upper corner inside to Ohtani. But that location, depending on a particular umpire’s determination, could help construe that pitch as a ball.

That said, with a deeper look, it appears as if the ball ultimately didn’t find its intended destination. Look closely at how low Martin Maldonado was originally set up as Abreu began his pitching motion.

By the time that the ball reaches home plate, Maldonado’s glove has to move across his body and up to the higher region of the zone. It is quite possible that there was miscommunication between Abreu, who is still a rookie in 2020 with only 12 innings of major league experience. We also can’t discount that the right-hander just simply missed with his slider. In any case, Maldonado likely didn’t have the opportunity to exactly frame the pitch exactly as he would have liked. The umpire likely noticed that gradual upward movement from the catcher’s glove and it may have swayed his decision to let pitch be ruled a ball instead of a strike. A catcher who has to move his mitt to catch the pitch will likely have less benefit of the doubt on somewhat close calls. That said, the ump still had the wrong call on this one.

Ball Call Number 2: Cristian Javier vs. Cody Bellinger, 7/29/20

Out of the four pitches that were classified as being thrown in the “heart” of the zone, I did find it somewhat odd that this fastball from Cristian Javier to Cody Bellinger was labeled as such when rewatching. But the heatmap from Baseball Savant does confirm its location, although edging close to truly borderline territory.

Javier’s fastball movement wise is unique as he utilizes loads of backspin to help create the illusion of lift, or rise, with the ball. It is a necessary component to the rookie pitcher as his fastball velocity generally averages from 91 to 93 miles per hour.

In this particular instance, though, Maldonado’s glove did move quite a bit prior to catching that fastball. Look again at where the catcher mitt was located when Javier prepares to throw.

There is also a slight drop with Maldonado’s glove as Javier starts his motion. But when Javier releases the ball, the veteran catcher has to suddenly transition to his glove side and up to corral that spinning orb. This glove movement from Maldonado is reminiscent of a giant check mark in the strike zone or a certain company, who insists on displaying its obtrusive logo front and center on the team’s uniform.

As with Abreu’s pitch a few days later, there may have been a miscommunication between the rookie pitcher and the veteran catcher. More likely than not, Javier just simply missed with his fastball. That miss forced Maldonado’s glove to move quite a bit to catch the ball. In terms of pitch framing, that wasn’t an optimal development.

Ball Call Number 3: Zack Greinke vs. Tyler Heineman, 8/12/20

Unlike the first two balls in this article, Zack Greinke’s fastball was delivered right on the money to Maldonado. It was a pitch designed to catch the low and insider corner to Tyler Heineman, who took it for ball four. Greinke was clearly not pleased by the umpire’s decision and I can’t necessarily blame him for being irritated. Although the pitch location was low and inside, it was clearly a strike.

But there was one aspect of this entire situation that stood out upon a closer look: The sudden movement from Maldonado as he edges more inside to catch the ball. That is the game of baseball sometimes when everything transpires according to plan and it still doesn’t quite work out.

Ball Call Number 4: Lance McCullers Jr. vs. J.P. Crawford, 7/25/20

Easily the most egregious missed strike call of the Astros’ 2020 season, Lance McCullers Jr. missed out on a first pitch strike thanks to this obvious mistake by the umpire. The right-hander was also clearly not pleased by the no call. It isn’t even debatable that the pitch was a strike to J.P. Crawford.

Even with the movement from Maldonado’s glove, it was clearly a strike. McCullers’ body language to the call is even louder than words. If there is an early contender for the worst ball call of the season for an Astro pitcher, it would have to be this doozy.