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October 29, 2011

Jerry Layne's Strike Zone

I saw plenty of frustrated tweets and Facebook posts decrying the umpires and MLB's admittedly featherbrained method of determining home-field advantage. In my opinion, blaming Texas's World Series loss on home-field advantage and/or the umps is misguided. As in, "I know we're all upset but let's not be stupid" misguided.

The Rangers twice were one pitch away from victory and couldn't execute one more successful defensive play. They set the Series record for walks allowed. They made myriad other mistakes in the field and from the dugout. They didn't lose because of a blown HBP in Game 1 or a blown tag in Game 3 or the lack of a DH in Game 7. They, themselves, are responsible for the outcome (along with, by the way, a heroic effort by the St. Louis Cardinals).

Having said that, Jerry Layne sure had himself a terrible Game 7 behind the plate. I saw a few status updates claiming precisely "82.3%" of the bad or borderline calls went in St. Louis's favor. Because I wanted to focus on something other than my self-pity, and I currently lack the nerve to write a lengthy "what could have been" post, I did my own strike-zone research. I delineated the balls and called strikes into three categories: pitches clearly within the defined strike zone, pitches on the border (within the baseball's 2.9-inch diameter of the zone), and pitches clearly outside.

Unfortunately, I can only use the term "clear" loosely. Pitch/fx systems aren't perfectly calibrated (although Busch Stadium evidences less error than most), and various studies have proven (as you'd expect) a significant difference between the actual and practiced strike zone. Nevertheless, I'm using the defined zone for this effort and commenting on the typically called zone as needed. I examined every clearly incorrect call and its impact on the at-bat and course of the game.


1. 2-2, top 2nd, 1 on at 1st, 1 out. Pitcher Matt Harrison took a first-pitch low strike that was called a ball. (Located on the blue "1" in the preceding graph.)

Meaningful? Not at all. Harrison was looking to bunt and did so on the third pitch.


1. 2-2. top 3rd, 0 on, 0 out. Josh Hamilton took a first-pitch called strike that was clearly outside (12.9 inches off the center of the plate) and borderline-low. (Located on the red "1" in the preceding graph.)

Meaningful? Yes. Obviously, 1-0 is better than 0-1. Hamilton would eventually ground out on a 2-2 pitch. It's worth noting again that I'm using the rule-book zone for my bad-call judgment, which extends horizontally to 11.4 inches off the center of the plate. In practice, most umps call this pitch a strike (see here, where zone to LHBs extends out to a whopping -14.6 inches). However, most umps do not call the borderline-low strike. Lane's low-pitch calling was exceptionally shaky, as I'll describe later.

2. Texas down 3-2, top 5th, 1 out, Ian Kinsler at second. Josh Hamilton took a clear ball for a called strike on a 2-0 count.

Meaningful? Yes. St. Louis might have quasi-intentionally walked Hamilton with a 3-0 count. Hamilton took one more pitch for a ball and then popped out to third. This pitch does barely fit within the "as typically called" zone.

Incidentally, Kinsler had singled and was on second because Elvis Andrus bunted him over. So: on the road, down a run, with the game not even halfway complete, and with the heart of the lineup to follow Andrus, Ron Washington played for one run. Per Win Probability Added, that successful bunt increased the opponent's chance of winning by 2.6%. Just terrible.

3. Texas down 5-2, top 6th, 0 on, 0 out. Leading off, Adrian Beltre took a first-pitch ball for a called strike.

Meaningful? Yes, particularly in light of the following pitch, a barely borderline strike I marked as "3a." Desperately in need of baserunners, Texas started the inning 0-2 instead of 2-0 or 1-1. Beltre grounded out to the pitcher on an 0-2 pitch.

4. Texas down 5-2, 0 on, 2 out. Mike Napoli took a 1-0 pitch for a strike that was clearly outside.

Meaningful? Not an much as the Beltre pitch, but it didn't help.


1. 2-2, bottom 2nd, 0 out, 0 on. Leadoff hitter Rafael Furcal took an 0-1 pitch from Matt Harrison for a called strike that was clearly high.

Meaningful? Yes, in the sense that it turned a 1-1 count into 0-2, but it didn't affect the result. Notwithstanding the umpire's 1st-inning shakiness (see Unfavorable #1 below), Harrison really was struggling with his control. He would miss badly on his next three pitches before allowing a single. Furcal was subsequently erased on a double play.

2. 2-2, bottom 3rd, 1 out, 0 on. On 1-0, Allen Craig took what should have been a ball for an inside strike.

Meaningful? Not really. The previous pitch was well within the zone and called a ball. The umpire's two wrongs made a right. Craig homered on a 3-2 count to untie the game for good.

3. St. Louis up 6-2, bottom 8th, 1 out, 0 on. Ryan Theriot took a low pitch from Mike Gonzalez for a called first strike.

Meaningful? While it didn't help Theriot, by this point the bad call had no impact. In Game 7, the plate ump gave Texas a strike on only one pitch below the strict regulation zone. This was it.


1. Texas up 2-0, bottom 1st, 2 out, runners on 1st and 2nd. David Freese took a 1st-pitch ball from Harrison that was clearly a strike.

Meaningful? Yes. Harrison was struggling badly, issuing 11 balls in his first 16 pitches. Freese was obviously taking, and a very clear strike by any definition was called a ball. Furthermore, of the five previous borderline calls, four were ruled in St. Louis's favor. Harrison's loss of control was compounded by a tight and erratic zone. Freese would take a borderline strike and two clear balls before doubling in Pujols and Berkman.

2. 2-2, bottom 3rd, 1 out, 1 on. Allen Craig took what should have been a first-pitch strike for a ball. (See Favorable #1 above.)

3 and 4. St. Louis up 3-2, bottom 5th, 0 on, 0 out. Allen Craig takes an incorrectly called 2-0 pitch from Scott Feldman for a ball. After a correctly called strike, Craig took an incorrectly called Ball Four.

Meaningful? Hell, yes. Two of the four balls were strikes. Most umps give the bottom edge of the zone to hitters, but these were well within the zone. Craig would eventually score after a HBP to Pujols, a bewildering intentional walk, and an unintentional walk to Yadier Molina.

Incidentally, Feldman's first three pitches to Molina, who would walk in a run, were clearly balls. After two correctly called strikes, Molina took a borderline ball for the cheap RBI. That pitch is usually called a strike.

5. Texas down 5-2, bottom 7th, 1 out, 1 on. Mike Adams threw a 2-0 pitch to David Freese that was incorrectly called a ball.

Meaningful? Moderately. A ball would have improved the count from 3-0 to 2-1. Freese would walk on five pitches, pushing Lance Berkman to second, and Berkman would score on a Molina single. Adams gave up three straight baserunners after beginning the 7th by striking out Pujols.


In TEX Favor
In STL Favor
Clear Ump Mistakes
Borderline Calls
Clearly Correct Calls

The Cardinals "won" 69% of the bad calls and owned a slight advantage on borderline calls. As noted, some of these bad calls, especially the outside strikes, are made on a routine basis by most umpires. That is to say, many calls were technically bad, but do we want radical refinement of the called zone to take place during Game 7 of the World Series? Imagine the uproar.

Also, none of the bad calls were third strikes, and only one was a fourth ball.


Texas was most badly hurt on low pitches. I filtered the data to include only pitches within a range of 6 inches above to 3 inches below the low end of the zone, and I deleted the extreme inside and outside pitches. The results:

Low Pitches Thrown by STL
Within Zone
Borderline or Outside
Low Pitches Thrown by TEX
Within Zone
Borderline or Outside

St. Louis pitchers earned a coin flip on borderline-or-worse low pitches. Meanwhile,Texas pitchers received no better than 50/50 treatment on low pitches clearly within the strike zone and were nearly shut out otherwise.


Nope. These stats absolutely do not prove any bias on the part of the umpire, bad as they may seem. Nine "unfavorable" bad calls out of 13 doesn't prove bias anymore than nine heads in 13 coin flips proves a biased coin. (The stats also don't prove lack of bias, for what it's worth.)

Posted by Lucas at 07:05 PM

October 28, 2011


Not yet. Tomorrow, I hope. I really hope.

Posted by Lucas at 12:37 AM

October 27, 2011


I want to drink these tonight. Make it happen, Texas.

Posted by Lucas at 06:32 PM

October 22, 2011

Belated Thoughts On Washington's Game 1 PH Decisions

With two on and one out in the 7th inning of Game 1 of the Series, Tony La Russa removed reliever Fernando Salas so LHP Marc Rzepczynski could pitch to lefty David Murphy. Ron Washington pulled the veteran for relatively untested righty Craig Gentry. After Gentry struck out, Washington replaced the pitcher with righty Esteban German instead of veteran righty Yorvit Torrealba, one of three catchers on the roster. German struck out in an especially foolish manner on three pitches.

Fan and media reaction to both moves was mixed at best. Some wanted Murphy to bat despite the wrong-handedness of the matchup. For example:

Most were baffled at German's appearance. German has anchored Texas's AAA squad during the past three seasons but has 79 MLB plate appearances in that span and had never swung a bat in the postseason. Based on my scan of the Twitterverse, many fans see him a defensive specialist, which actually couldn't be father from the truth. While nominally capable of playing just about anywhere on the diamond, German is no better than mediocre at any position and poor at several. When Khalil Greene bailed out of the backup infielder spot in March 2010, German was among the potential replacements. At shortstop in a "B" game, he literally played himself out of the role in the space of two innings. I witnessed the carnage.

Texas under Washington has favored a defense-first fifth infielder, and German doesn't qualify. Instead, German offers on-base skills (career .280/.359/.386) and speed. Per Baseball Reference, German has produced 4.3 wins with his bat (in 1,170 PAs, equivalent to two years for a regular) and lost 3.0 with his glove. If German could defend just a little better, he'd be on a two-year, $6 million contract instead of a miserly split deal ($200k in the minors, $600k in the Majors in 2010).

So, with that background, does the math confirm Washington's decisions? A formula dating back to the 1981 Bill James Baseball Abstract answers just such a question. See here and here for two articles which tested and confirmed its accuracy.

Conceptually, the math says: Given a player's performance against the league, he's going to hit better against below-average pitchers and worse against above-average pitchers. This isn't rocket science. In the specific case of Murphy vs. Rzepczinski:

Given #1: Murphy hits poorly against LHPs relative to the league,

Given #2: Rzepczinski absolutely kills lefties,

Therefore: Against Rzepczinski, Murphy is going to hit even worse than he usually does.

Again, an obvious observation. But the math can be used to suggest optimal matchups. Was there a significantly better choice on the Texas bench than Murphy? If Washington is thinking about replacing Murphy with a righty, but La Russa might counter with a righty reliever, is the resulting matchup so bad that Washington may as well stick with Murphy vs. Rzepczinski?

In this instance, it appears Rzepczinski was going to face whomever Texas offered. I gathered batting averages for Murphy, Gentry, German, Torrealba, and the leagues versus lefties for 2011 and the last three years, and I did the same for Rzepczinski against both lefties and righties. Using one-year averages, here's how Murphy stacks up against Rzepczinski:

Murphy versus lefties: .215
Rzepczinski versus lefties: .166
MLB average, lefty on lefty (excluding pitchers batting): .239

Expected average = (.215*.166/.239) / { ((.215*.166/.239) + (1-.215)*(1-.166)*(1-.239) }
Expected average = .145

You don’t get much worse than that.

Here's the expected batting averages against Rzepczinski for Murphy, Gentry, German and Torrealba based on one-year and three-year stats:

Expected Batting Average vs. Rzepczinski
Based on 1-Year Stats
Based on 3-Year Stats

How bad is the Rzepczynski-Murphy matchup? Pretend you're managing the Cardinals and are given the opportunity to select any St. Louis pitcher and any Texas batter (not just those listed above) for the purpose of getting an out. Who would you chose?

Mathematically, the answers are Rzepczynski and Murphy. No other combination produces a lower expected batting average. (Okay, technically it's not Rzepczinski but Eduardo Sanchez, who produced an .005-lower opposing average against lefties than Rzepczinski. But Sanchez had a stupid-low .204 BABIP combined with far fewer strikeouts.) An Octavio Dotel vs. Nelson Cruz is nearly as bad (purely in terms of expected batting average, not OBP or slugging) and is probably going to come into play at some point in the Series.

If I'm managing Texas in that situation, I PH Gentry without hesitation. The three-year stats bring Murphy and Gentry closer together (.201 vs. .240), and there's an argument to be made for Murphy's "proven playoff composure." On the other hand, in limited exposure Craig Gentry seems quite composed himself, hitting 4-10 and a walk before his Game 1 appearance. As for the pitcher's spot, that's trickier. The math says German, but he hadn't faced live competition in weeks and had never hit in the postseason. Honestly, I probably would have gritted my teeth and sent Torrealba to the plate. No option is palatable, as Texas's bench isn't populated with strong bats. Regardless of what I or any other armchair manager would have done, I think you have to give Washington a ton of credit for batting German. It's a gutsy, inspired decision, despite the dismal results.

Husker Du, "From The Gut," from Everything Falls Apart, 1982.

Posted by Lucas at 02:58 PM

October 15, 2011

Weekend Photo

Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, 8 Oct 2011

Posted by Lucas at 11:42 AM

October 01, 2011


First Pitch

Posted by Lucas at 04:35 PM