Figuring Out the Strike Zone and Umpire Run Values

Rob Carr

We're able to evaluate quite a bit in baseball and the strike zones called by umpires are no different. Should we begin looking at, and judging, missed calls based on their run values?

Umpires have one of the toughest jobs in all of baseball, which is calling balls and strikes at the plate and making calls in the field. If they do an amazing job behind the plate or in the field then you would be hard pressed to find a single fan that cares to know that umpires name. If a particular umpire makes a questionable or blatantly bad call then everyone watching begins searching for the name of that umpire so they can lambaste him as an umpire and a person on various social media websites.

Having the ability to look up the exact location of a pitch and chart it on a virtual strike zone thanks to PITCHf/x data found on various sites across the web have made critiquing the work of the umpire that much easier. The real question, at least in my mind, is how exactly should we judge the strike zone, what we consider a missed call, and the overall performance of the umpire?

In order to get some answers to those questions I’m going to take a page from the book of fellow BtBS analyst Matt Hunter and ask all of your thoughts; how you say … crowdsourcing.

Here are the options we have, at least as I see them so please let me know if I've left something out.

  • Use the standard strike zone (thick bordered box) and any pitch that isn't touching said zone is a ball.
  • Use the "typical" strike zone that shows us what is generally called by umpires and any pitch that isn't touching said zone is a ball.

Does it make more sense to go with the standard zone or the "typical" zone? With interpretation of the strike zone and what it should or should not be, as well as what pitches were or were not in the zone to begin with, being such a subjective process sometimes I’d really like for us to figure out the least subjective way to analyze the strike zone as possible.

For example, according to research done by Mike Fast, the average missed call is worth .13 of a run. If an umpire missed eight calls behind the plate in a game then that adds up to 1.04 runs. Would I say it’s something that would actually lower scoring by a run for every eight missed calls? No, probably not but missed calls can, and do, completely change the approach of a hitter at the plate and can also change the course of a game depending on the situation.

Taking a look at the strike zone plots from the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays game on April 18 you can see what kind of strike zone was being called by home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski. I was watching the game and there were quite a few calls that were well outside what many would consider a standard strike zone and looking at the standard strike zone plots below my feelings about those calls would be correct. However, if we look at the "typical" zone then they would not be.

Which is best? Should the strike zone change based on the batter and what side of the plate they hit from or should it stay the same for everyone?

If we use the standard strike zone then it’s clear that Muchlinski missed at least one call with a left-handed hitter at the plate and around nine with right-handed batters at the plate. That’s 10 missed calls in and of itself which equates to 1.3 runs the umpire theoretically cost the game overall, not even taking into account the exact situations those calls were missed in.

If we were to use the "typical" strike zone then we could say that Muchlinski missed roughly three calls with left-handed hitters at the plate and approximately 11 with right-handed batters at the plate. That, of course, equates to 1.43 runs that he theoretically cost the game.

Fastmap_strikezone_plot_vs_lhh_tbr_vs_bal_04182013_medium

Fastmap_strikezone_plot_vs_rhh_tbr_vs_bal_04182013_medium

In this particular example of the strike zone(s) and the game being used the total, approximate, missed calls weren't that far off at all but the question remains. Which strike zone should we use and how should we judge said strike zone?

Should pitches that even touch the edge of the zone be considered a strike or should the ball have to be entirely in the zone to be considered? We should take into consideration the circumference of the baseball itself when answering that question but just how much of the edge of the zone does the ball have to catch to be considered a strike?

So you see, this can be an entirely subjective assessment based on the analysts (mine) views on what should constitute the strike zone.

What should constitute the strike zone though? Let’s make a concerted effort to figure this out and, collectively, decide which would be the most accurate and least subjective method for doing so.

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