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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 October 29, 2011 07:05 PM