Check out Mike Fast over at Baseball Prospectus dishing the latest on the way umpires call the strike zone and making me blush. As to reasons for why the zone seems to get bigger in hitters’ counts (among other situations) and vice-versa, I have a couple of ideas:
- Every so often, an umpire just doesn’t have enough information to make a call one way or the other. Maybe it’s on the exact edge of the zone. Maybe he didn’t get a good look at it. Whatever. It seems obvious that an umpire would be reluctant to ring a guy up, or issue a walk, in those cases. Making a harmless call is both the best thing for the game, and the least likely to result in an angry player blowing up in the umps face, 50,000 fans losing their minds, etc. Consciously, or not, umps can’t ask for a do-over, so they do the next best thing: prolong the at bat. They might be swayed the the situation if it’s really close as well, but they almost certainly are when it’s a 50-50 call in their minds.
- Another likely effect is what is known as “expectation bias”. In a nutshell, it means humans are more likely to think what just happened is what they were expecting to happen anyway. This is a rampant phenomenon among scientists, judges, and even professional poker players — so you bet your ass umpires aren’t immune. When it’s an 0-2 count, and the catcher moves outside, and everyone in the park KNOWS that the pitcher is going to waste one, any human being is going to be biased in favor of calling a close pitch on the corner what was expected, a ball. Same goes for 3-0, when the expectation is a pitch grooved down the middle. In the heat of the moment, your mind will trick you, just a little, into thinking it was closer than it was.
But before we start having pipe dreams about replacing biased humans with superior machines, (they’ve already proved their superiority at chess and Jeopardy…how far can baseball be behind?) here are two strikes against the idea:
- The zone real umpires call, which is missing corners, is superior for the game of baseball than the rulebook one. It removes pitches on the corners that are impossible to hit, and gives a little at the belt, where hitters can actually reach them. It is a strike zone that is subtly altered to the pitches that are actually driveable, and both batters and pitchers have programmed themselves over all the pitches they have seen in their life to know this. Go to a “perfect” zone in order to remove the occasional miscall, and you fundamentally change baseball at the higher levels — and for the worse. Picking out the corners (and an emphasis on control over electric stuff) would become hugely more important to the game, and hitters would have to adjust to be able to slap those pitches away (because there’s not much more you can do with them, really). Less aggressive pitching + weaker hits = BARRFFFFF.
- How would you ever set the vertical height of a hitter’s zone? Nowadays pitch f/x measures it for each hitter before the game and it’s all over the place. Even an extra inch would be huge to a hitter. Do you force hitters to keep the same stances, or measure them in action before each game? It might not be a deal breaker, but I can already hear just as many complaints that the umps used to get being directed towards the poor sap who sets the official strike zones…