Chris Flexen and the missed calls from the 18th inning

It was a pleasant surprise to come home last night and find the Mets game on in the top of the 18th inning. It was even more fun to watch them score the go-ahead run. My mWAR was going up! But the bottom of the inning was not fun. The Mets had little choice but to go with Chris Flexen to nail down the win. Flexen had great trouble throwing strikes. And to make it even worse, umpire Angel Hernandez missed pitches to make Flexen’s task virtually impossible.

Two things need to be said immediately. First, Hernandez is in the running for worst umpire in the game. It’s not that just Mets fans have a bias against him. Ask any fan base who the worst umpire in the game is and Hernandez will be top three, if not worst overall. There are 68 umpires working in MLB and assuming there are 68 umps in Triple-A, if we threw them together in one pool and objectively graded their performance, it’s likely Hernandez wouldn’t be in the top 100. He stinks as an umpire.

Second, calling pitches is hard. My opinion is that for the most part, umpires miss ball and strike calls not because of a lack of effort but rather because it’s a task that humans cannot be expected to perform at a near-perfect level. Especially over 18 innings. Just think for a minute how many things are working against the umpires.

Out of necessity, they’re positioned behind the catcher and don’t have an unobstructed view of the plate. Out of necessity, they’re wearing a mask and have their vision impeded. Then they have to call pitches traveling at speeds of up to 104 mph. Or nasty curves and sliders that start off the plate but catch a corner or start out as strikes but don’t cross the plate. And do it in real time without hesitation. Then they have to make those calls for 250-300 pitches per game. Or the 500 pitches (247 Mets, 253 Brewers) from last night’s extra innings contest.

It’s generally a good idea for pitchers to avoid the middle of the strike zone, as hitters tend to crush those offerings. So, they work the corners and the edges. And the issue for umpires – generally – is not the pitches over the heart of the plate but those around the perimeter of the polygon. In a time where when hitters make contact, they do more damage than ever before, pitchers need those pitches that catch a corner or an edge to be called strikes.

Let’s look at two pitches from Flexen in the 18th inning Saturday night. The images for all of these pitches come from the database at TexasLeaguers.com, which is a tremendous resource. This year, they’ve added these images for each pitch. And not only that, they have a nifty brief video showing the pitch in motion. Can you tell which one of these Hernandez called a strike and which one he called a ball?

The one on the left was a called strike to Eric Thames and the one on the right was the pitch where Thames was awarded first base with a walk to lead off the inning.

Flexen also walked Yasmani Grandal with one out but none of those pitches appeared to be strikes. But the PA by Travis Shaw was the one that was so crucial. Flexen threw four pitches and all four were called balls. Three of them seemed to catch an edge or corner.

Maybe Flexen walks Thames even if he got the strike call. But Grandal should have been out on strikes, which would have meant that Ryan Braun comes to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second, rather than one out and bases loaded. With the infield playing at normal depth, perhaps Pete Alonso is able to catch the rocket that Braun hit at him.

Of course, it’s all speculative. Thames could have homered on the next pitch he saw. There’s no telling how any PA would have played out if the umpire had called any of the pitches strikes. It would have affected what was thrown and what was swung at. If the first pitch to Shaw was called a strike, he might have swung at the second one and grounded into a game-ending double play.

Later this season, the Independent Atlantic League will be experimenting with a computerized strike zone. No one’s expectation should be that it will be perfect out of the box. The Atlantic League is implementing several rule changes this year as a lab experiment for MLB. And we’ve seen them blow the relatively simple call of enforcing the new shift rule where two fielders have to be on each side of second base.

Expect there to be problems.

But the beauty is that they can work out the kinks in the Atlantic League for half a year. Or a year and a half, if that’s what it takes. However many months or years it may be to get working better than human umpires in Independent ball, use it. The goal is to be significantly better than humans, not to be perfect. If, umpires miss over 30% of balls on the corner/edge of the strike zone and the computerized strike zone can get that to 10% — that would be an incredible improvement.

Forget banning the shift or tinkering with the mound height or any other idea that’s been thrown out there as a way for Commissioner Rob Manfred to create his legacy – the single most important issue for MLB to address is getting a computerized strike zone implemented – on every pitch, not as part of some wacky challenge system – as soon as possible.

15 comments for “Chris Flexen and the missed calls from the 18th inning

  1. TexasGusCC
    May 5, 2019 at 10:06 am

    Brian, I caught the last four innings, and Hernandez’ strike zone was fine. He called the border pitches perfectly. The problem with Hernandez isn’t his talent, it’s his attitude. No one likes it and I compare him to Joe West before West was severely reprimanded and switched leagues. Also, Hernandez is suing MLB for not being given playoff games. MLB says it’s because of his performance but he claims it’s because he is Hispanic.

    I read every article I could find on last night’s game and not one of them mentioned Hernandez squeezing Flexen, nor did any Mets player. Interesting.

    Finally, I’d love to see how the computerized strike zone recognizes the letters and the knees for each player. But, I have been ready for it since Glavine and Maddox were pitching.

    • May 5, 2019 at 10:20 am

      His strike zone was not fine in the 18th inning.

      Game was five hours long at that point and he had a pitcher who wasn’t throwing strikes. In the old days you’d say that because of his control issues, the ump wasn’t giving him the close ones. That’s human nature and I get it. But we have replay for bang-bang calls on the bases that they use in the 5th inning of a 10-1 game. We need a better strike zone from the first pitch until the last one, regardless of how long the game is or how inconsistent the pitcher is.

      • TexasGusCC
        May 5, 2019 at 10:27 am

        Oh, I agree with you… and when you say “not throwing strikes”, I say that he was.

        I’m sure every person watching that game noticed the difference.

    • José
      May 5, 2019 at 11:47 am

      Hernandez is a jackass. Unlike so many other minorities who have been discriminated against in the workplace and have not been able to provide evidence that an all-white (or nearly so) jury found convincing, we actually have the indisputable proof that Hernandez sucks. His fraudulent claim diminishes all the actual victims

  2. Chris B
    May 5, 2019 at 10:39 am

    Interesting take Brian and thank you for getting this analysis done so quickly after the game. My initial reaction is fearful of a computer calling balls and strikes but that’s because of the unknown. I would love to catch one of those lower level games live to see what it’s all about.

    • May 5, 2019 at 11:01 am

      Thanks Chris!

      FWIW – This was posted about 30 minutes before the MetsBlog piece on the same topic.

  3. NYM6986
    May 5, 2019 at 11:01 am

    Not sure why Hernandez is still umpiring when there have been so many complaints across baseball of his shortcomings. Due umpires have tenure like teachers? Seems easy to set up an electronic strike zone with accurate initial data entry of each players height and therefore their strike zone. Then there would be consistency. Of course the Mets still have to hit. For those who are agonizing comparing where we were last year versus this year so far, hold that comparison until a July 1 and you will see we should be in the .500 hunt and not buried after last year’s disasterous month of June. Let’s also remember that we are not a championship caliber team at this point. Let’s enjoy the improvement over last year.

    • TexasGusCC
      May 6, 2019 at 1:48 am

      This team was assembled with expectations. They took the payroll up about $20MM to levels it hasn’t been in a while, so there had to be expectations.

  4. holmer
    May 5, 2019 at 11:02 am

    Yes, I thought Flexion was squeezed in the 18th however, I agree with Chris B in that I don’t want to see computers making ball and strike calls. Baseball is played by humans and the human element should remain a part of the game, good or bad.

    • José
      May 5, 2019 at 11:52 am

      I agree. The computer should be used only to definitively show that Hernandez sucks

      • Mike Walczak
        May 5, 2019 at 5:01 pm

        I like this solution the best. It is a game that is imperfect, but like the rest of the world, they should have their performance reviewed and if they dont measure up, they should be replaced.

  5. MattyMets
    May 5, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    Great post Brian. I don’t think the answer is to replace umpires with computers but rather to replace incompetent umpires with competent ones.

  6. May 5, 2019 at 1:11 pm

    As a major league player, Chris Flexen’s job is to throw strikes, no matter if Popeye,Olive Oyl, or Angel Hernandez is the umpire. Flexen failed to do this and paid the price. Is Hernandez terrible? No question. However, Flexen has proved to this team that he is not a MLB-caliber pitcher. Flexen’s 11.12 ERA so far this year, coupled with his lousy performance from prior years (2017 ERA -7.88, 2018 ERA 12.79) indicate that he doesn’t belong in the majors because he can’t get major league hitters out–Angel Hernandez or not.

    • May 5, 2019 at 1:29 pm

      It’s entirely possible that Chris Flexen has no hope of being an MLB pitcher.

      But if Jacob deGrom threw the pitches that Flexen did to Shaw, all we would hear is how he was a master of painting the corners. Why should the strike zone that gets called for Flexen be different from any other MLB pitcher?

      A strike from Flexen should be no different than a strike for deGrom. And it shouldn’t matter who the umpire is. It was all well and good when we didn’t have the technology to say that “as long as the umpire is consistent…” But it’s time to find out if we have the technology and I’m thrilled that they are taking the first step in the Atlantic League.

  7. TJ
    May 5, 2019 at 2:18 pm

    There is quite a book on Angel Hernandez’s performance, and as Jose pointed out, a lot of it is indisputable. I agree with Brian that the pitch calling is extremely difficult, and Flexen just happened to paint the black on 3 of 4 pitches and not get a call. Would deGrom have gotten some of those call…I think so, where it was Hernandez or another ump.

    Overall, I am all for the the deployment of the pitch calling technology, and the home plate umpire making the ball/strike call in the moment based on that technology. It provides the best level of fairness and equity that is available, and really has no imposition on the game.

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