by on October 24, 2011 · 10 comments

Courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net


It seems like a good bit of Cardinal Nation (myself included) took issue with Ron Kulpa’s strike zone in World Series game 4.  In order to try and remove SOME bias from my opinion based on a SLIGHTLY biased perception, I thought it was a good time to head over to www.BrooksBaseball.net for some actual data.  The graph above shows the non-normalized map for all Cardinal batters in game 4 (it shows the Ranger hitters as well).  This means that the actual pitch height when it crossed the plate is being used, so the vertical portion of the strike zone may be somewhat inaccurate.  However, my interest is only in the horizontal component, because I didn’t perceive a significant variation in strike calls being made too high or too low.

Please note that the black box is a strikezone representation based on an average umpire’s strikezone.  It is neither holy or unholy writ.  The red squares represent strike calls on pitches made by Rangers’ pitchers, and green squares represent balls.  The red triangles represent strike calls on pitches made by the Cardinals, and the green triangles indicate balls.  Got all that?  Alright.

If you only look at the horizontal variations, you’ll notice that the Rangers’ pitchers benefited from 8 pitches that were outside the black box and were still called strikes.  The Cardinals gained the same benefit on only 1 pitch.  Kulpa gave Holland the benefit of the doubt on 4 pitches that were just slightly inside to Cardinal hitters, and all 4 were very close to call.  That’s fine, but there were between 2 and 4 pitches Holland made that were just as close as the 4 that were called for strikes.  That doesn’t mean that things somehow “evened out”.  Instead, it shows that Kulpa was not consistent on giving the inside strike to Holland when he faced right-handed hitters (RHH). 

I have no issue with the 4 inside pitches that were called strikes.  The real problem is the lack of consistency.  Pitches that are 3-4 inches inside to a right-handed hitter are frequently “a pitcher’s pitch”, and not knowing whether the a ball pitched there is going to be a ball or strike leaves hitters guessing (even more than usual).  Give some of those to a pitcher with serious velocity on his fastball, and you get a lot of weak grounders and foul balls even when contact is made.

Kulpa was even more inconsistent on the outside when the Cardinals sent RHH’s to the plate.  He gave away 3 strike calls to Holland, and the most egregious call was on a ball approximately 6-7 inches off of the plate.  Not good.  Just so not good.

Finally, notice the 3 green squares that are clearly inside the black outline.  Those squares represent 3 obvious strikes that were not so obviously strikes to Ron Kulpa.  Those are calls that went against Cardinal pitchers.  One was almost straight down the heart of the plate, so I’m not sure where Ron Kulpa was looking.

To be fair, the Cardinals did benefit from a strike call on a pitch that was clearly outside by about 6 inches.   That’s singular.  Uno.  The loneliest number. 

Does all this agonizing over colored shapes on pretty graphs make me feel any better about the job Kulpa did in game 4?  Yes.  Do I believe that the Rangers benefited more from Kulpa’s “amoeba strike zone” than the Cardinals did.  Yes.  Even so, perception does not match reality as much as I expected.  While the advantage certainly went to Holland, he also deserves credit and a lot of it.

His release point was incredibly consistent all night, and he located his fastball well enough to keep the Cardinals honest.  He certainly did his part, and that’s all he could do.  He isn’t responsible for calling  balls and strikes. 

There will certainly be some complaining, whining, and cussjar filling over Kulpa’s version of the strike zone.  Just don’t go too far with it.  Maybe the strike zone would have been the same for Edwin Jackson had he been able to hit location in the 1st inning.  Maybe not.  The point is that Kulpa’s work wasn’t spectacular, but it wasn’t so terrible that it is worth taking away credit from Derek Holland.  Taking a 2-hitter into the 9th inning requires some seriously good pitching, even if the home plate umpire gives the pitcher the benefit of the doubt a half-dozen times or so.  Yes, that makes the job a bit easier, but Holland still had to make a lot of good pitches, and he succeeded in doing so.  Time to just tip the cap and move on to game 5.

TIDBIT:  Feel free to check out BrooksBaseball for the rest of the pitch data for all of game 4.  Also keep in mind that when you are watching a game on tv and see a ball that appears to be 5-6 inches off the plate that you are probably judging that distance based on where the ball hits the catcher’s mitt.  That pitch quite likely passed by the plane defined by the front edge of the plate a lot closer than 5-6 inches from the strike zone. 

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Cardinals fan since I could hold a fishing pole steady. Accidental blogger. Opinionated. I could care less about what you think of me. Constantly confounded, bemused, and confuzzled (ie I'm a pc and a mac). I'm an IT infrastructure analyst with a penchant for breaking tech toys. I ate a sabermetric primer for breakfast. I love playing "All-powerful GM of MLB". The 2010 Cardinals represented a good, practical definition "cognitive dissonance". The 2011 version got by on duct tape and a prayer, and I'm fine with that. They just need new tape for #12 in 12.
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Joshua October 24, 2011

Thank you for giving proof to what I saw last night!

One thing though that you are missing, or are being too subtle about maybe. Holland is an inside-pitch pitcher. If he gets those few calls, that is all he needs to have a great night. It didn’t take long for the Cardinals batters to see what was happening so had to swing at many pitches they wouldn’t have the night before. That would have gotten Holland behind in the count and he wouldn’t have been able to pound the inside part of the plate with fastballs.

So that one bit of bad calls made a major difference; but nobody should be surprised. As soon as I saw Kulpa was behind the plate I knew he was going to make up for the game before. I think Ron Washington knew it too; that is why he had that pre-game talk with Holland to “Trust his stuff.”

Hopefully the rest of the series will be umpired fairly.

Dennis October 24, 2011

I didn’t mention anything about Holland having a tendency to pitch inside, but I did refer to the uncertainty created by not having a feel for the zone Kulpa was calling.

I’m not convinced that Kulpa was intentionally trying to make up for anything. I do think it is human nature to question yourself a bit right after making a huge blunder in front of millions of people. The fact that he had to be behind the plate the game following his blown call was a terrible coincidence. He probably would have benefited greatly from a night down the left field line or something.

As for the remainder of the series, I’d be happy with just a good job from the umpiring crew. Consistency is one thing, but calling a pitch 4 inches off the plate a strike is wrong no matter what anybody says. Even if the same call is made for both pitchers, one pitcher will always benefit more than the other. That’s why I’m hoping for “good” rather than simply just “fair”.

Thanks for reading, Joshua.

Mark October 24, 2011

Dennis, I think in the third paragraph, you mean “Kulpa was not consistent on giving the inside strike to Holland when he faced right-handed hitters (RHH)”, rather than Holland.

Otherwise, nice analysis. I’d like to see some background on the technology used to track pitches and some opinion about whether or not what’s shown on the broadcasts are accurate enough to be worthwhile.

Dennis October 24, 2011

Mark, you are indeed correct, sir. Thanks for that.

Good point about the accuracy of what is shown for pitch tracking. You can probably debate the accuracy with 12 different people and get 12 different opinions. Personally, I’ve done a little reading on this particular subject in the last few months just out of curiosity. I’ve read some convincing arguments that the magnitude of error at some ballparks is as great as a couple of inches at times. The real problem as I see it is that there is no current competition in the marketplace, so Pitch F/X is the sole provider of data at the moment. Combine that with the assumption that MLB isn’t really too concerned about requiring instrument calibration, and you have a bit of a pickle.

The only response I have for all of that is that a combination of what you perceive on tv along with what the Pitch F/X data shows for a particular pitch or series of pitches gives the informed viewer enough information to make some reasonable statements about strike zone consistency, but a pitch that is just off the plate may fall into a gray area here. I put it this way, because I’m assuming that the accuracy does not vary greatly from pitch to pitch; rather, it varies from game to game, park to park.

Scott October 24, 2011

Just one question: any data on when those pitches were called strikes? It seems several of them came for strike 2 or 3. That has a lot more weight, in my opinion in influencing the outcome of the game. When you call strike 2 this way, you force the batter to swing at bad pitches. When you call strike 3 this way, you of course get a guy out on a pitch that shouldn’t have resulted in an out. But regardless, even this shows that though it wasn’t be a huge space, Holland did have a wider strike zone to work with. Maybe we can chalk it up to Kulpa’s positioning and seeing pitches differently depending on the right or lefthandedness of the pitcher. But it sure makes it look like he wanted to make up for Saturday (the correct way to make up for Saturday would have been to allow ONE walk that shouldn’t have been). Allow one unjust baserunner, for the one unjust baserunner. But if you take when these pitches were called into account with the diagram above, it shows that he took several baserunners away from STL and gave several to TEX. Not right.

Dennis October 24, 2011

Scott – One thing I really appreciate about a discussion like this is that seemingly everyone will have a slightly different take on it. In some select cases, a borderline pitch that gets called a 1st pitch strike may not be as big a deal as a 3rd strike call. That’s simply because the numbers show that some hitters are simply not first pitch guys. They are fine with taking a first pitch strike, and some won’t alter their approach, even if that pitch is called a ball. If you extend that logic, then I think it is safe to say that if a 1st pitch strike is called a ball, and the 2nd pitch is a ball that is called a strike, the hitter is really no worse off for having been on the end of 2 bad calls. However, we’re only talking about 2 scenarios here.

If you consider strikes 2 and 3, then the logic does change somewhat, and the relative importance becomes a bit more subjective in my opinion. Getting that 3rd strike call on a ball 4 inches outside the zone is certainly a big help to the pitcher, but focusing solely on that possibility ignores the rest of the at-bat. Let’s say that the 1st pitch is called a ball, even though it was definitely right down the outer half of the plate. Pitch 2 is a strike, pitch 3 is a strike, pitch 4 is a ball, pitch 5 is a ball, and then the hitter is at a full count. The bad call on the 1st pitch has already altered the at-bat, so how bad is a 3rd strike call on the 6th pitch, if that ball is 2-3 inches off the plate? Logically, I just don’t think that there is really an answer about the relative importance of a single bad call in an at-bat.

If we blame Kulpa’s positioning, then we are most certainly accusing Kulpa of being lousy at his job (I think). I’m fine with people doing that, but I hope that truly interested people take the time to research Kulpa’s history. Try checking out the data on some other games that took place with Kulpa behind the plate. Then compare that data against what other umpires have done. In the grand scheme of things, I think that there are a lot worse umpiring peformances to be uncovered. However, the umpires in the World Series are supposed to be better than that.

Sadly, there is no way to make up for Saturday. Without the blown call, maybe the Rangers utilize their bullpen differently. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t miss the call, and the Cardinals end up scoring 6 runs in that inning. In that instance, maybe Washington waves the white flag and just puts someone out there to take one for the team, thus saving his bullpen to a certain degree. We will just never know.

Confused October 24, 2011

I’m confused. You say green squares represent balls called on Ranger pitchers. The 4 green squares in the zone are bad calls against Ranger pitchers. I only see one real bad call on a ball that was called a strike for the Rangers. All the others on right on the corner. It looks like the Rangers had more bad calls go against them.

Dennis October 24, 2011

Interesting take. Here is the way I counted this up.

4 green squares in the zone -> Rangers lost out on 4 strikes
0 green triangles in the zone -> Cardinals lost out on 0 strikes
8 red squares outside the zone -> Rangers gained 8 strikes that should have been balls
2 red triangles outside the zone -> Cardinals gained 2 strikes that should have been balls

However, I also considered the pitches that both sides could have had, if Kulpa had consistently applied the wider strike zone. On the right side, there are 4 red squares outside the zone that represent “undeserved” strikes. Fine. Inside of those 4 red squares are 2 green triangles and 1 green square. On the left side of the map, there is maybe a single green triangle inside the red square/triangle combe in the bottom area. Note: I disregarded the far left square, because that was just too far out there, and I am treating it like an aberration or an outlier.

In my opinion, there are different ways to count all this and put it together, and the end result should pretty much be the same. The Cardinals didn’t get quite as many breaks as the Rangers did, but the difference isn’t nearly as drastic as many might believe. Then again, I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with that assessment, and I’m completely fine with hearing what they have to say.

Just Wrong October 26, 2011

Although the data only shows only a few bad calls on inside strikes, the impact of the calls was much worse. I recall the bad inside calls starting early and once the word gets back to the dugout then the whole team knows they need to swing at the inside balls because they have to. The results of batters having to swing at pitches way off the plate will turn any pitcher into a super star and that is exactly what happened. I recall during the telecast that they showed the outstanding inside pitching by Holland getting out tough hitters with inside strikes but every one of them was out of the strike box that they displayed for that recount. This unbelievably poor ball/strike calling was nothing short of stealing this game from the cardinals. And unfortunately I don’t think the Cardinals can afford it in conjunction with the masterful TLR’s managing skills demonstrated so far in the series. Good luck Cardinals.

Dennis October 26, 2011

While I agree that the relative timing of the calls had a greater impact than what you can derive from the raw data alone, I think the impact is an entirely subjective call. Some fans certainly agree with you that the game was basically taken away from the Cardinals, and others feel like the impact was less than that. I’m in the latter camp, because they still had an opportunity to win the game in spite of the zone calls. The Cardinals don’t have a huge margin for error, and they certainly cannot afford to have that margin artificially reduced by an inconsistent zone. However, they still missed plenty of pitches and showed little discipline in swinging for the fences early on in the game.

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