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Thursday
Feb272014

Umpires Calling Balls and Strikes Better Than Ever Before

The art of calling balls and strikes has long been a topic up for discussion among baseball fans, and if the last century-plus has been any indication, it seems as though professional baseball will have a masked man behind home plate for the prospective future.

But with the advancement of complex technologies such as pitch f/x data, umpires’ jobs have never before come under more scrutiny from the general public. Websites such as ESPN and MLB.com allow fans to visit their websites — for free — and view live game casts in which pitches are tracked and calculated for maximum accuracy and transparency.

Most baseball television broadcasts utilize this, as well, giving an ever bigger segment of the market the ability to say, “What a terrible call! That wasn’t a strike (or ball)! Look at the strike zone box thing!” I’d bet my entire college-student life savings that each of us has said something along these lines at least once.

Yet while the duties of the home plate umpire have never been more transparent in the history of the game, these guys have actually become more efficient at calling balls and strikes in recent years.

League Average Umpire Stats since 2008 (Regular Season)

  Strk% Zone% OOZ Clstk% CC%
2013 63.6 49.4 8.9 88
2012 63.5 48.9 9.5 87.1
2011 63.2 48.6 9.7 86.7
2010 62.8 48.2 10.1 86.4
2009 62.4 48.6 10.5 85.2
2008 62.5 48.6 11.1 84.4


Dating back to 2008, umpires have become progressively less inclined to give called strikes on pitches located out of the zone. In 2008, the league-average ump tagged 11.1% of pitches thrown out of the zone as strikes. Doug Eddings topped all umps in this respect that season, citing a wholesome 14.6% of all out-of-zone offerings as strikes — the highest single-season ‘OOZ’ called strike mark of any ump over the last six years.

The league average OOZ called strike mark dropped more than a half percent in 2009, and with it, the league average ump’s correct call rate (shown by CC% in the table) increased by about the same margin. This perpetuated progressively in the four seasons to follow to the point where the league average home plate umpire accrued a 88% correct call rate last season — highest of any season since our database’s umpire tracking info began in ’08.

These improvements have stretched into the postseason, too. During the 2008 postseason (including the Phillies-Rays World Series), the league average umpire accrued a correct-call rate of 84.6%, juxtaposed to 88.6% last season — mainly due to an out-of-zone called strike rate decrease of 2.1% over that span (11.1% OOZ ClStk% in ’08 versus 9.0% in ’13).

What do these decreasing OOZ called strike rates look like?

Comparing regular-season called strike rate heat maps since 2008

As we can see, the league average umpires’ strike zone has shrunken considerably over the past six seasons. Think that has an effect on a pitcher’s approach? You bet. Due to the lack of calls they’re receiving by umpires, pitchers are focusing in on throwing more ballsin the zone, which is evidenced by an increase in zone rate from 48.6% in 2008 to 49.4% last season and an increasing strike rate (strikes plus balls hit in play) from 62.5% in ’08 to 63.6%.

These increases may seem insignificant, but note that there is a strong correlation between zone rate and in play rate; the more pitches you throw in the zone, the more likely batters are to put those pitches in play.

Which batters and pitchers are most affected by umpires’ shriveling strike zone?

Both righty and lefty hurlers and batters have been affected, but some have been more so than others. Right-handed pitchers have witnessed a 1.5% OOZ called strike rate decrease since 2008 compared to the near identical 1.6% decline for southpaws.

Hitters’ zones have seen more fluctuation in this respect, however. Right-handed batters’ OOZ called strike rate has shrunk 2.0% since ’08 while lefties’ have cut back by 2.4 percent. As for batter-pitcher matchups, it seems that right-handed pitchers and left-handed batters have been most influenced, as umps have called OOZ called strikes 2.5% less since ’08 (2.3% decrease for RHP vs. RHB; 2.1% for LHP vs. LHP;1.4% for LHP vs. RHB).

With this in mind, it seems as though home plate umpires are getting unquestionably better at calling balls and strikes, even in an age where each pitch and subsequent call can be put into question not only in the regular season, but in the postseason, where umpires’ jobs are scrutinized even further. This has directly affected pitchers’ plan of attack against opposing batters, recognizing that stretching the outer and inner corners isn’t working as frequently as it once did.

Expanded replay and challenging rules this season will help the improve the game, especially in situations like this.

But for balls and strikes?

Instant replay can wait. Umps have never been better.

Wednesday
Feb262014

Prince Fielder Losing His Edge Against Righties

Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington is preparing well in advance for his team's opening day series against Philadelphia, telling Drew Davidson of the Star-Telegram last week that he "already has a set lineup." According to the report, Washington's batting order will look similar to this: Shin-Soo Choo, Elvis Andrus, Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Alex Rios, Mitch Moreland, Geovany Soto, Jurickson Profar and Leonys Martin. If anything looks a bit out of place in his batting order, it undoubtedly is the placement of Fielder in the No. 3 hole -- a position that has occupied just 12% of his plate appearances to this juncture of this career compared to the 80% that have transpired out of the cleanup spot with Milwaukee and Detroit.

“Hitting in front of Beltre — that’s not a bad thing,” Fielder told Davidson. “That’s fine with me. I don’t have any problems with it. I’m excited. The top two guys [Choo and Andrus] have speed, and they can hit as well. I think it’s going to set the table for the rest of us, which is going to be a lot of fun.”

While I can say that hitting in front of Beltre will at least somewhat help Fielder's cause this season, and a hitter-friendly Rangers Ballpark to boot, his offensive regressions last season are concerning. Posting a .279/.362/.457 line and 120 OPS+ that are each well below his career .286/.389/.527 and 141 OPS+ marks, Fielder took significant steps back with the Tigers in 2013, mainly when we see his .071 point decrease in slugging percentage from 2012 to last season. Where did Fielder's power go last season? We need not look further then his lefty-righty platoon splits.

Comparing Fielder's results and averages versus LHP

Against same-handed (lefty) pitching last season, Fielder took steps forward in several respects compared to his numbers from 2008 through 2012, including (but not limited to) batting average, OPS and HR/FB rate even though he wasn't able to place better contact against those pitchers (.217 WHAV last season compared to .256 prior). Now let's see his splits versus righties...

Comparing Fielder's results and averages versus RHP

Fielder's success rate against right-handed pitchers went in the opposite direction last season, however. A .302 hitter from 2008-'12, Fielder's average dropped to .271 against them last season and his OPS plummeted by nearly .200 points. His HR/FB rate was essentially cut in half to a career-low 13.2% last season and his WHAV against righties dropped in similar fashion to that against lefties. Now that we understand the primary reason behind Fielder's drop-off last season, we need to figure out what contributed to his relapse.

Fielder's in-play rate vs. RHP relative to pitch location, 2012

Fielder's in-play rate vs. RHP relative to pitch location, 2013

As we can see, Fielder's in-play rates against right-handed pitchers have fluctuated significantly with respect to pitch location. In 2012, the majority of the offerings he put in play were located low-and-away, evidenced by a 51.3% in play rate to the lower and outer portion of the strike zone. Last season, however, his strength in that regard turned into a weakness, posting a 44% in play rate in that region of the zone. Conversely, the biggest chunk of Fielder's in-plays last season were in the upper-and-inner location of the zone.

So Fielder is putting different balls in play. Who cares, right? Wrong. The fact that Fielder is putting significantly fewer low-and-away pitches in play is particularly concerning because opposing right-handers are attacking this area of the zone more often, locating 39% of their pitches to this region of the zone last season compared to 36% in 2012 (and 33% in 2011). Now that right-handers are recognizing and attacking this weakness, it may only get worse if left unaddressed this spring.

Wednesday
Feb262014

Mike Minor: President of the Andrelton Simmons Fan Club

The Atlanta Braves continue to follow the John Hart model of locking up pre-arbitration talent, inking Andrelton Simmons to a seven-year, $58 million contract extension last week. The 24-year-old Simmons must be thrilled with the deal, which makes him the most handsomely compensated domestic player in history with less than two years of major league service time. But those cheers you hear emanating from Atlanta's Disney World Resort spring training complex? It's Braves pitchers celebrating that fact that the dean of shortstop defense will have their backs through the 2020 season.

Simmons is absolute death to grounders hit deep into the hole. In 2013, Atlanta pitchers had a collective .103 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) when opponents hit a ground ball to the left-center portion of the infield. That was over 30 points lower than the next closest club, the Colorado Rockies. Since the advent of Pitch F/X, only the 2008 Rockies (.101) had a lower team BABIP on grounders hit to left-center.

Lowest team BABIP on ground balls hit to left-center, 2013

 

Pretty much all Braves hurlers got a boost from Simmons' mound-worthy arm and exquisite range (the highest BABIP on grounders hit to left-center belonged to Tim Hudson, at .167), but Mike Minor must be giddy that his shortstop is locked up. The lefty enjoyed a .054 BABIP on grounders hit to left-center, lowest among all MLB pitchers who put at least 50 balls in play to that location on the diamond. The since-departed Paul Maholm (.084 BABIP) owes Simmons a debt of gratitude, while Kris Medlen (.154 BABIP) and fellow new millionaire Julio Teheran (.154) will benefit from pitching in front of this generation's Ozzie Smith for years to come.