There’s a computer system that’s able to tell whether a pitch is in the strike zone or not. The umpires’ union is not into the idea of using it in games, and MLB hasn’t allowed it yet. But the system has existed for a while, and at some point about ten years ago, a bunch of dweebs realized that as long as MLB wouldn’t simply use that computer in games to call balls and strikes correctly, the dweebs could use it to quantify which catchers are the best at getting umpires to do their jobs badly. This was a major advancement in the long-time understanding that some catchers are able to fool umpires to the benefit of their team, some are not, and some actually fool umpires to the detriment of their team.
As the quantification spread, teams were then able to coach their catchers into doing a better job at convincing umpires to make the wrong call, like a defense attorney who specifically seeks out guilty clients. This active deception of the rule-enforcers made it even harder for umpires to call balls and strikes correctly. Then some people decided not that it’s an unavoidable part of a catcher’s job, but that this skill should be valorized. And then they wondered how sticky stuff became rampant and why the Astros decided it was OK to use a camera to steal signs.
The umpires’ failings can be quantified too, of course. The terrific Twitter account @UmpScorecards, presents, usually without comment, how good each game’s umpire is at avoiding the catchers’ chicanery. Saturday’s umpire, Gabe Morales, doesn’t come out looking so hot.
The Mariners won this game, so this isn’t sour grapes. It’s just that the strike zone is an actual thing that exists, and hitting is hard enough without hitters having to guess where the zone is. They shouldn’t have to endure the failings of people with an inherently unpopular task—enforcing the rules.
To be clear, I mostly hate the game and not the player. I don’t begrudge Willson Contreras for doing his job, under the system as it exists. And it’s not jealousy either: Cal Raleigh stole nine runs worth of bad calls last year through his framing, tied for third best out of 60 qualified catchers. But the whole system is bad, and the robo-umps can’t come soon enough, if for no other reason than so that we can all stop having to listen to each other complain about umpires.
To get specific, two of Saturday’s three most impactful calls in terms of changing the win expectancy came in the same at-bat. With a 3-0 count, Teoscar Hernández wisely laid off this pitch.
The reason that it was the third-most impactful missed call was because the Mariners were down two with a runner on. And this was the opportunity to pounce on a gassed Miles Mikolas as he faced his last batter since Oli Marmol had a lefty warmed up to face Jarred Kelenic, as is tradition. In isolation, you can’t get too worked up about a single missed call, but this was part of a pattern on the night, as Contreras had Morales giving Mikolas a Texas-sized strike zone, whereas Luis Castillo was pitching under baseball’s actual rules.
Teoscar did the right thing and stayed within his approach, laying off a ball on the other side of the zone.
But instead, we got the most impactful missed call of the game. And facing this twice in a row, on opposite sides of the plate, is when a lesser person might have lost their cool. But after fouling one off, Teoscar did something better than merely reaching base.
How’s that for impacting the win expectancy?