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.