Nobody’s perfect, especially umpires. This is the case at any level of the game. Be it softball, tee ball, or baseball, from Little League to the Big Leagues, you will have undeniably disagreed with a call that an ump has made.
Given the movement, velocity, and the newly anointed skill of pitch framing, it’s becoming more difficult for umpires to get the calls right. The robo ump has been discussed quite a bit but I’m not sure how I feel about a machine making decisions in lieu of accepting the concept of human error. We did it for decades before instant replay was instituted.
Umpires get balls and strikes wrong a lot. It’s the way it goes. Given that understanding, I wanted to know which pitcher has in recent years been the beneficiary of favorable calls.
And, like the umpires, not all (strike zone) charts are 100% accurate; leave a little room for error here.
I’ve parsed data on which pitchers have had the most declared strikes that were actually out of the zone. I decided to stop at 2014 because I felt that four years of information was sufficient for the study.
First, the accumulated data.
From 2014 to 2017, the amount of pitchers with phantom strikes has been increasing at fairly high rate; the biggest leap was from 2014 to 2015 (36 pitchers).
Interestingly, the pitchers with at least 100 ‘phantom strike’ calls has actually decreased.
And, despite the jump in total pitchers involved from ’14 to ’15, the pitchers with <=100 strikes called decreased at the highest rate.
Should we go tin foil hat and infer that umps are no longer favoring certain pitchers as much as they used to? Doubtful, but I’m not investigating integrity here.
So who is getting the most benefit from the perceptively visually impaired? First, I took the last four years of pitching data for our parameters. Then, I cut final the list down to a minimum of 10,000 pitches thrown. Lastly, I included only the top 20 pitchers in the group.
As we can see, Jon Lester of the Chicago Cubs has been the most aided overall; 562 non-strikes in four years.
For the optically minded, here is the pitch chart of Lester’s data.
Now, lets see if the percent of pitches has any impact on our leader(s).
Not a whole lot of variance, at least near the top. Lester clearly wins The MLB Umpires’ “Benefit of the Doubt Award”.
OK, so now we’ve got our man. Case closed, right?
Oh…that little caveat of ‘pitch framing’. Perhaps its that Lester has had great framing from his catchers. Let’s look into that.
For the moment, we are going to focus on Lester and his primary catcher from 2014-2016, David Ross.
Clearly 2014 was Lester’s most favorable year with Ross. That year, Lester ranked third in total pitches called favorably out of the zone (156) and 11th in ratio of calls (4.47).
The subsequent years with Ross are as follows:
2015- 6th (141), 10th (4.43)
2016- 5th (125), 7th (3.95)
Here’s where things get a bit intriguing. Recapping 2017, things appear to fall apart completely for the Cubs in the context of pitch framing.
The only catcher who was able to garner a positive framing rating was Kyle Schwarber, who caught just seven innings that year. But even his stats are far from impressive.
And how did Lester fair in terms of ‘phantom strikes’ that year? He ranked first in overall strikes called out of the zone (150) and fourth in total call ratio to pitches thrown (4.46).
He wasn’t all that far from the top under Ross, but was basically the frontman of the metrics in 2017.
Some things are hopelessly lost in the sphere of the unexplained. But, the research didn’t set out to find reasoning. In this case its more fun to be left with subjective theories. However, it’s a bit silly to think that there is actually an umpire conspiracy allowing Lester to succeed when he apparently shouldn’t.
My best guess is maybe they feel sorry for him since he can’t accurately throw the ball in the infield anywhere other than to the catcher (which did changed a bit in 2017)?
Regardless, Lester is our guy, here; receiving a sizable edge in terms of missed calls. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues this season.