On Monday, frustration in the Red Sox clubhouse boiled over, after Bobby Valentine’s questioned Kevin Youkilis’ focus and took a couple barbs courtesy of team leader Dustin Pedroia. Things didn’t get any better once they got on the field, as James Shields threw a wet towel over the team’s offense for 8 1/3 innings, getting a groundout in the ninth before walking Pedroia and leaving Fernando Rodney the two-out save. Pedroia advanced to second on a groundout, and Rodney then intentionally walked David Ortiz. With the tying run on second and the winning run on base, Rodney set up the matchup with Cody Ross with his intentional walk and then took advantage with a punchout to end the game, marking the 43rd time the Red Sox been shut out 1-0 in Fenway’s century-long history.
Even before this at-bat started, you have to imagine Cody Ross is both a little pissed and very revved up. Ross is up in a situation where he can either lose the game, tie it, or even walk off with an extra base hit. I’d imagine he felt somewhat slighted by Joe Maddon and Rodney, as they broke the conventional wisdom of never purposely allowing the winning run to reach base in favor of skipping Big Papi and pitching to Ross, showing that they have little respect for his abilities with the bat. Ross took the first pitch, a 97 MPH four-seamer which looked low and away, but home plate umpire Larry Vanover called the pitch a strike. Ross looked unhappy with the call, but dug back in. Rodney fired two consecutive balls outside, to run the count to 2-1. Ross then saw another fastball, high but over the outside corner. As we’ll see, the pitch is a borderline strike, but in the presence of the first call he didn’t agree with, Ross may have expected Vanover would give him a make-up call on the next close pitch. He didn’t, and Ross took strike two, once again looking, belt-high on the outside corner for a strike. For the final pitch of the at-bat, after throwing four straight 97-MPH fastballs, Rodney reached back for a little bit extra and threw a 98-MPH four-seamer slightly outside of the location of strike one. Ross assumed the count would run full, giving him a great opportunity to get a pitch to hit. Instead, Vanover called him out on strikes. Ross was livid, believing that he’d just taken five straight balls and gotten rung up to end the game in a situation where he could have tied or even won it. After the game, Ross was quoted as saying, “If I’m going up there and striking out every at-bat, I’m going to get benched. But it’s not that way with [umpires]. They can go out there and make bad calls all day, and they’re not going to be held accountable for it.”
Forgetting for a second that MLB actually does use quality control tools to keep umpires more accountable today than ever before, were Ross’ problems with Vanover legitimate? Fortunately, we have some tools that we can consult to answer just that question. Both maps I’ll use are from brooksbaseball.net’s Pitch F/X tool, which I highly recommend to anyone looking to begin any kind of work with Pitch F/X. From the simple strike zone map, Ross’ concerns appear legitimate. Strike one, low and outside, appears to land 3-4 inches, or about a ball and a half, outside the strike zone. The next two pitches were clearly outside. Pitch 4, high and outside, just touches the outside corner, and given that both Pitch 1 of the at-bat and the pitch that ended the game are at least two inches further outside, it’s tough to have a problem with that call. Finally, Ross was rung up on a pitch that looked to be even an inch further outside than the first pitch of the at-bat, which was the original pitch Ross had a problem with.
However, digging deeper, the outside strikes on the first and last aren’t really important in the context of what the technical strike zone looks like. Far more important is the consistency of Vanover’s zone. Clearly, every umpire in Major League Baseball has a slightly different interpretation of the strike zone, and MLB itself seems to be happy with that as long as it’s within certain parameters and the umps can consistently call the same zone every time. Looking at the rest of the pitches Vanover called on Monday, Ross’ problems don’t seem nearly as justifiable. With the exception of a ball on the outside corner at the top of the strike zone, which Vanover may have seen as high rather than outside, all pitches to righties that were thrown 3-4 inches outside the zone but at a good height were called strikes. Interestingly, this includes 5 pitches Vanover called strikes that Pitch F/X sees as balls thrown to the Red Sox batters, three of which occurred in the Ross at-bat, and four such pitches thrown to the Rays earlier in the night. While the Rays hadn’t really taken advantage of Vanover’s generous strike zone against right-handed hitters, they certainly noticed it, as they’d been getting burned on it all game. Knowing this, the pitches to Ross seem perfectly legitimate, because the same pitches had been strikes all night for the Red Sox’ hurlers.
If you’re having trouble understanding this: green dots are balls, red are strikes, squares are pitches from Boston pitchers, and triangles are pitches from Tampa pitchers.
While I don’t have anything resembling evidence to support this, I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe Maddon or another member of the Rays hyper-talented coaching staff noticed the trend of outside strikes to righties. They may have realized that the Rays’ pitchers had not yet taken full advantage of that trend against Red Sox hitters, throwing only two strikes on the outside edge of the strike zone all game, and instructed Rodney to use that knowledge in locking down the save. The evidence we do have is that Rodney threw five consecutive pitches, none of which were over the plate, but three of which were strikes because of the strike zone set by Vanover over the course of the game. It’s easy to watch Quick Pitch or MLB Tonight, see video of the three pitches and Ross’ reaction, and assume Vanover’s in the wrong. However, in the larger context, Vanover must be applauded for keeping his zone consistent from the first inning through the last, from the away to the home team, and from low-leverage situations to immense pressure ones. Next time you see an eye-popping strike call on Sportscenter, remember, it’s only ridiculous if the pitch was called a ball earlier in the game.
Twitter Question of the Day: Should MLB experiment with calling balls and strikes via a PitchF/X-like system, starting with a dry run in a lower minor league for proof of concept?
Questions or comments are welcome in 140 characters or less @saberbythebay.