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Entries in called strikes (4)

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
Dec182013

Believing in Edinson Volquez

Poorly as Edinson Volquez pitches, teams just keep coming back for more. It has been half a decade since Volquez vanquished hitters with premium heat and a tumbling changeup, making the All-Star team and finishing fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting with the Reds in 2008. Since then, he has arguably been the lousiest pitcher in baseball not booted out of the rotation. Once you account for park factors and league run-scoring levels, Volquez had the worst ERA (25 percent below average) among starters tossing at least 500 innings from 2009-13.

Despite all of that aggravation -- Tommy John surgery, LaLoosh-like control, quick hooks aplenty -- Volquez continues to get opportunities. The Pirates are the latest club hoping to channel Volquez's '08 form, signing him to a one-year, $5 million free agent deal for rotation depth in case A.J. Burnett retires or refuses to take a below-market deal to remain in Pittsburgh. Let's be honest: Expecting Burnett and ending up with Volquez is kind of like asking Santa for an XBox One and instead unwrapping a Cosby sweater on Christmas morning.

Those who still believe in Volquez point out that he bears some resemblance to the Bucs' 2012 reclamation project, Francisco Liriano -- lots of strikeouts, ground ball tendencies and a fielding-independent ERA (4.24) far lower than his actual ERA (5.71), suggesting better days are ahead. Of course, Volquez could just climb the ranks of starters who continue to get the ball despite getting their heads handed to them on a regular basis (during the Expansion Era, only Jimmy Haynes and Randy Lerch have made more starts while posting a worse adjusted ERA).

If Volquez is ever going to succeed again in the majors, Pittsburgh may be the place. Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped resuscitate the careers of Liriano, Burnett and Charlie Morton. The 30-year-old righty will also benefit from working with two of the best pitch-framing catchers in the business, and a collection of rangy fielders who gobble up grounders and fly balls.

Martin, Stewart steal strikes

Volquez deserves plenty of blame for issuing 4.8 free passes per nine frames during his career, ninth-highest among Expansion Era starters throwing at least 850 innings. But it doesn't help that he also gets squeezed by umps on pitches located on the edges of the zone, and he rarely gets calls on pitches thrown a bit off the plate. Over the past three years, Volquez has a slightly lower called strike rate on pitches thrown within the strike zone (80 percent) than the MLB average (81 percent). On pitches thrown outside of the zone, Volquez has gotten called strikes just 7.7 percent of the time, well below the 9.7 percent average.

Luckily for Volquez, his new battery mates excel at getting strikes on close calls. Russell Martin has an 82.5 percent called strike rate on in-zone pitches since 2011, while backup Chris Stewart (84.3 percent) has fared even better. Both steal strikes on out-of-zone pitches, too (10.9 percent called strike rate for Martin, and 11.1 percent for Stewart). Searage and Volquez have countless video screenings and bullpen sessions ahead of them to address the pitcher's control woes, but the Bucs' catchers give them a head start.

The power of quality D

Part of the reason why Volquez underachieved last year was his .330 batting average on balls in play, fourth-highest among qualified starters and 24 points above his career average. In particular, his BABIP on fly balls (.231) was dead last among starters and over 100 points above the MLB average (.128). With Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen chasing down fly balls in Pittsburgh (and graceful right field prospect Gregory Polanco not far away), Volquez should see fewer pitches reaching the gaps in 2015.

Collectively, Bucs pitchers had a .121 BABIP on fly balls last season. Overall, Pittsburgh converted balls put in play into outs at the fifth-best clip in the majors. By comparison, the Padres and Dodgers (Volquez's 2013 teams) ranked near the middle of the pack. Better luck and better defense should help Volquez get his ERA out of the high fives.

Volquez has some built-in advantages in Pittsburgh, though the same was said in San Diego, where he pitched in spacious Petco Park under the tutelage of Bud Black. His top-tier stuff could be waning, given that he lost a tick on his fastball (from 93.4 MPH in 2012 to 92.4 MPH in 2013) and struck out a career-low 7.5 batters per nine innings last year.

Maybe he is the second coming of Liriano, erasing years of disappointment with a dominant season. But for every Liriano, there are a dozen Kyle Davies who just never figure it out. Volquez keeps getting chances, with pitching coaches thinking he's a few mechanical tweaks away from turning back the clock to 2008. Past promise counts for less with each passing day, though. If Volquez can't make it with the Pirates, he might not get another chance.

Friday
May102013

Which Pitchers are Getting Calls, Getting Squeezed?

Which starting pitchers are benefiting from a generous strike zone this season? Which starters are grumbling as yet another borderline call goes the batter's way? Here's a quick rundown of pitchers with the highest and lowest called strike rates in 2013.

Highest called strike rates on in-zone pitches

 

Overall, umps call about four out of every five pitches taken in the zone a strike. But Jake Peavy is getting more credit for those over-the-plate-pitches than most. So are crafty lefties Mike Minor and Andy Pettitte. None of the guys in the top ten exactly lights up the radar gun. That makes sense, considering lower-velocity fastballs tend to get more called strikes than mid-90s heat.

 

Lowest called strike rate on in-zone pitches

 

On the flip side, Jon Niese has a reason to hold a grudge against Big Blue. The rest of the top ten is a mixed bag of power pitchers, breaking ball and off-speed reliant junk ballers and a knuckleballer. All of them are at a disadvantage in getting called strikes. High-velocity fastballs have lower called strike rates than slower ones, as mentioned above. Curveballs (81% called strike rate on in-zone pitches), sliders (79%) and changeups (78%) have lower called strike rates than fastballs (82%). And umps, like all other human beings on Earth, have a hard time figuring out what the heck a knuckleball is doing. Dating back to 2008, in-zone knucklers (a sample that basically amounts to pitches thrown by R.A. Dickey, Tim Wakefield and a few spot-starter aspirants) have a called strike rate of 73%.

 

Highest called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches

Interestingly, all of the starters getting calls on out-of-zone pitches are right-handers. It looks like they're taking advantage of umpires' tendency to stretch the outside corner for left-handed batters (the called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches thrown away to lefty batters is about 16%). Jeremy Hellickson (29%), Mat Latos (26%), Alex Cobb and Justin Verlander (23%) rank at the top of the list when it comes to getting calls on that outside corner versus lefty batters.

Lowest called strike rate on out-of-zone pitches

Pfft. Like Matt Harvey needs the help. Tim Lincecum, on the other hand...