MLB playoffs: How the umpires fared in Thursday’s action

MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 04: Colorado Rockies second baseman Garrett Hampson (1) slides across home plate against Milwaukee Brewers catcher Manny Pina (9) in the 9th inning from a sac fly hit by Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) to tie the game at 2-2 at Miller Park during the first game of the NLDS October 04, 2018. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - OCTOBER 04: Colorado Rockies second baseman Garrett Hampson (1) slides across home plate against Milwaukee Brewers catcher Manny Pina (9) in the 9th inning from a sac fly hit by Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (28) to tie the game at 2-2 at Miller Park during the first game of the NLDS October 04, 2018. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images) /
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Plate umpires in Thursday’s NLDS MLB playoffs games had uneventful, but not especially glorious, showings

From an umpiring standpoint, Thursday’s two National League Division Series MLB Playoffs games were uneventful. No turning points were driven by a judgment call, and the few potentially disputable events were quickly dispatched with via replay review.

That is not to say, however, the games were called perfectly or – from the standpoint of balls and strikes – even especially well. A review of the Statcast data from the two games demonstrates that the two plate umpires – Mike Muchlinski and Adrian Johnson — should receive lukewarm grades at best for their acuity in discerning called balls from strikes.

The accuracy of called balls and strikes can be critical to the course of a game because those decisions create leverage either for the pitcher or batter. This becomes even more crucial in MLB playoffs games. Research has shown that when an at bat ends in any pitch count short of two strikes, major league batters tend to hit very well. During the 2017 season, the range of those outcomes was from .324 (in 0-1 counts) to .407 (in 3-0 counts.)

However, when an at bat ends on any two-strike pitch count, the average performance falls to .200 or below.

That means when umpires make a call on a 1-1 pitch, their decision will transform an average batter into – depending on the call – either a Hall of Famer or a helpless waif.

The one-sided nature of the Braves-Dodgers game – won by the Dodgers 6-0 – spared Johnson the necessity of making any game-deciding ball and strike calls. He called 165 pitches, and according to Statcast he got 144 of them (87%) correct. If that sounds like a solid performance, it’s actually only mediocre; the average umpire generally nails about 92% of ball and strike calls.

Left to themselves, though, those percentages don’t tell the true story. The principal reason why major league umpires consistently get about 90 percent of balls and strike calls correct is that most of those calls are clear enough that anybody with average eyesight and a rudimentary understanding of the rules could make them. A great majority of pitches that are taken are either clearly within or clearly outside the strike zone. It’s the same reason you would do exceptionally well on a math test if 90% of the questions were “how much is two plus two?”

This was also true for Johnson calling the Braves and Dodgers. Statcast showed that of the 165 pitches he called, only 49 were what might be termed “close”; that is, within a couple inches either way of the strike zone’s edges.  Those 49 are the pitches even a skilled umpire might occasionally miss. On Thursday night, Johnson missed 17 of them (35%). He also missed four of what might be termed “easy” calls, although that still gave him a 96.5% “correct” rate on easy calls.

Muchlinski, behind the plate for Milwaukee’s 3-2 victory over the Rockies, had somewhat the better of it, even though he also had the more competitive game. Muchlinski was required to call 153 pitches, and according to Statcast he got 138 of them correct, a 90% success rate.

Those 153 pitches included just 35 “close” calls, Muchlinski getting 23 of them correct, a 65.7% rate.  Again, studies tend to show that umpires usually miss about one-third of “close” calls. Among his 118 “easy” calls, he missed 3, a 97.4% success rate.

While the umpires’ misses did not betray any consistent error patterns – for instance they did not tend to mis-call strikes as balls when the pitcher was ahead in the count or vice versa – a couple of micro-trends did evince themselves. When they missed, both umpires tended to miss on the first pitch to batters. Of their combined 36 misses, one-third (12) came on the first pitch of an at-bat. One potentially obvious reason for this imbalance is that every batter gets a first pitch, but not every batter gets a second, third or fourth. Beyond that, since the performance difference of batters on a count of 1-0 versus 0-1 is relatively small (about 20 points in batting average), the first pitch is actually the best time for an umpire to miss a call.

By contrast, only five of their misses came on a decisive pitch, either an erroneous fourth ball or third strike. In the sixth inning, Muchlinski mistakenly called out Jesus Aguilar with a runner at first and two out. Two innings later – perhaps the closest thing the evening saw to a truly critical blown call – Muchlinski wrongly rang up Travis Shaw with Brewers at first and second and none out on a 2-2 pitch that Statcast showed to be outside. The Brewers’ effort to add insurance runs died a few minutes later, an outcome that proved to be of some gravity when the Rockies tied the game 2-2 in the top of the ninth.

In Los Angeles, the first of Johnson’s three at-bat deciding misses was – at the time, anyway — potentially critical. With one run already in and runners at first and second, he rang up Manny Machado on a 1-2 pitch that was close but low.  An inning later, he called out Kiki Hernandez on a 2-2 pitch that was just off the plate. Finally in the fourth, Johnson mistakenly called a 3-0 pitch that was in the strike zone high to Dodger third baseman Justin Turner.

When Johnson or Muchlinski missed Thursday, it tended to be on pitches flirting with the outside portion of the strike zone. Fifteen of their 36 incorrect calls were either just on or just off the outside corner. Nine were low or in the low part of the strike zone, 8 were inside-corner questions, and just 4 were errors near the top of the strike zone.

More from Call to the Pen

Although it might be reasonable to expect the umpires to have had a harder time with breaking balls than straight stuff, that was not quantitatively the case. Seventeen of their misses were on four-seam fastballs, and four more came on two-seam heaters.  They missed calls on six sliders, four curveballs, and five miscellaneous pitches. Obviously, the frequency of those errors is influenced by the frequency with which each pitch is thrown – fastball being by far the most common — as well as by pitch movement.

Thursday’s umpires tended to be more likely to mis-call a ball as a strike than the other way round. Of their 36 misses, 21 were on called strikes that were out of the zone, 15 were on called balls in the zone. Both umps have called strikes at about a 63% rate through their careers.

Given that Muchlinski had by far the closer game – a 10-inning nail-biter – the timing of his misses could have been more critical. That wasn’t, however, the case. He only missed three calls during any inning in which a team scored or threatened to score a run, the Shaw call having already been noted. In the third inning, he wrongly called a first-pitch strike on Domingo Santana, who popped up on the next pitch. (Two batters later, Christian Yelich hit a two-run home run.) Then in the 10th, in the midst of what would become Milwaukee’s winning rally, he incorrectly called a 2-1 ball on Ryan Braun, but Braun eventually struck out anyway.

dark. Next. Yankees received most incorrect strike calls

Umpires have been known for their influence on the MLB playoffs for years. Thursday showed that even on a night where they had a fairly good night, there’s still plenty of impact.