Rob Neyer

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Tuesday, May 6
 
Getting a better read on balls and strikes

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Craig Wright is one of the smartest people I know, and I know a lot of smart people. So when Craig e-mails, I listen.

    Fifteen years ago, in a chapter in my book, The Diamond Appraised, I expressed concern over a decline in the quality of umpiring and urged that baseball develop a feedback system for the umpires. I am not involved with it, but I strongly support the new Questec system that has become a subject of contention between the umpires and MLB.

    Mike Mussina
    Mike Mussina has averaged just under 107 pitches per game in his six starts this season.

    I read with interest your note on Randy Massarotti's recent column for the Boston Herald, wherein he supports the theory that Questec is screwing up the game by pressuring the umpires to call a smaller strike zone than what the umpires want to call, which results in fewer called strikes, more walks, and longer games. He cited some weak data about how the walk rate has been higher thus far this year, and then based the rest of his case on the observations of umpire Randy Marsh, catcher Jason Varitek, and Boston manager Grady Little; or as Massarotti put it, "... the men who would know."

    I liked your comments defending the system regardless of whether their theory was correct. The Questec system has the simple goal of providing feedback to the umpires to help them call a uniform strike zone that conforms to the rulebook. If anyone questions the need for this, consider this quote from umpire Marsh in that article: "In the past, there have been pitches that are a little off the plate that are hittable pitches that we'd call strikes. If we call them strikes now, we're wrong."

    Well, duh! That's the point. You're wrong. And if you think that is right, then you really need someone to tell you it is wrong. Questec is not just about helping good umpires become better ones; it also serves a very real need in reining in cowboy umpires like the very ones Marsh has so helpfully described for us.

    But my real reason for writing is to let you know the whole theory is simply bogus to begin with. First of all, the walk increase of 5.1 percent over last year, as reported by Massarotti through games of April 23, has taken a nosedive as the sample size has increased. It is already down to +1.8 percent through games of May 4 (for both seasons). And if the comparison is made via the more logical "walks per inning" rather than "walks per game," the increase falls further, to 1.1 percent.

    And in the realm of statistical significance, that's absolutely nothing. It is so meaningless that the umpires could actually be calling more strikes and still produce by chance a result like that in this sample size.

    And you know what? That is exactly what is happening.

    With the supposed pressure of their calls being tracked by Questec, the umpires are calling a slightly higher -- not lower -- percentage of strikes in 2003 than they did in 2002. When you take out the pitches swung at, you have the pitches that the umpires have had to call either a ball or a strike. Using STATS' Pro-Line service, I see that through the games of May 4, the called-strike percentage on those pitches is 31.4 percent. Rather than being a low level, that is, by a slight margin, the highest mark ever recorded for a season since STATS began keeping track of this in 1991 (it's barely ahead of the 31.3-percent high in 2001; last year, it was it was 30.9 percent).

    In case you are curious, the emphasis on calling higher strikes has resulted in a higher percentage of strike calls. The percentage of strikes called used to routinely be between 29 and 30 percent. As you can see for 2001-03 it has been consistently around 31 percent. The last two seasons and this one have the three highest marks of all the seasons since 1991.

    Craig Wright

Oddly enough, this subject came up Sunday, when I was watching the Braves and Diamondbacks on TV. Bobby Cox got ejected after the top of the first inning, when he carried on an argument that Greg Maddux had started with plate umpire Tony Randazzo. Roughly 24 hours earlier, D-Backs manager Bob Brenly had also been ejected in the first inning (by plate umpire C.B. Bucknor).

This led Braves broadcaster Skip Caray to launch into a diatribe against Questec, which -- according to Caray -- has resulted in a too-small strike zone and longer games. You all know that I think the world of Skip, but he's something of a Luddite, and occasionally his Luddism gets the better of him. I'm probably not getting this exactly right, but Caray said something like, "If they're going to let computers get involved, then why not just get rid of the umpire altogether and let the computer call the balls and strikes?"

He was being sarcastic.

As "proof" that there's a problem, Caray cited the time required to play Saturday's contest: three hours, 40 minutes.

But hell, that's just one game. As anybody knows who's been paying attention, game times have actually dropped. They were lower in 2002 than they'd been in 2001, and they've been lower in 2003 than they were in 2002. So to suggest that Questec somehow works against the goal of shortening the games just isn't supported by any evidence (or at least none that I can see).

As for the strike zone being too small, Craig, everything you say makes sense (nothing new there), but I do have one question ... Shouldn't an increase in the percentage of called strikes (on pitches that aren't swung at) be at least partly attributed to hitters showing more patience? If we assume that there's a movement afoot to take more pitches, wouldn't that necessarily result in more balls and more called strikes?

So I'm not convinced that the umpires are calling a bigger strike zone. But I don't care. All that concerns me is whether or not they're calling the correct strike zone, and I'm pretty convinced they're coming a lot closer with Questec than they did before Questec.

    Rob,

    First, I did not say that the umpires are calling a bigger strike zone. I said the emphasis on calling higher strikes has resulted in a higher called-strike percentage.

    For all I know, the emphasis on calling higher strikes has been accompanied by calling a narrower strike zone at the bottom, and that the higher strike percentage simply means there are more than enough "extra" high strikes being called to make up for the "extra" balls at the bottom, and thus the strike percentage on called pitches has gone up.

    Second, the assumption in your question is wrong. An increase in called strike percentage can take place without being partly attributable to the hitters taking both more balls and strikes.

    Third, there is practically no evidence at all to suggest that batters are actually taking more pitches. And the best evidence suggests they are not.

    The only evidence that suggests they are is that, yes, the number of taken pitches is up, in 2003, for both balls and strikes (but more for strikes than balls). But that has two weaknesses in it for drawing any conclusions: 1) It is a small sample, and 2) in comparing it to other seasons, we are comparing baseball in April and early May to baseball over a whole season.

    But in a much, much larger sample, and better suited for comparison to past full-season data, it is a fact that since MLB changed the strike zone (shrinking it in the rule book but raising the former de facto standard of the umpires) the percentage of pitches taken has gone down, not up, even though the percentage of called strikes has gone up.

    From Opening Day in 2001 to May 5, 2003, the take percentage on pitches has been a combined .5396 (editor's note: that is, MLB hitters have taken 54 percent of all pitches). This has reversed a trend where the take percentage had been slowly rising every year for nearly a decade. (Before 2001, the last time the take percentage had been lower than the year before was way back in 1992).

      1991 .5379
      1992 .5361
      1993 .5367
      1994 .5399
      1995 .5411
      1996 .5424
      1997 .5424
      1998 .5431
      1999 .5459
      2000 .5472
      2001 .5379
      2002 .5383
      2003 .5549

    Got to run.

    Craig

Those numbers are fascinating in their consistency, hovering right around 54 percent for the most part, before a brief foray toward 55 percent in 1999 and 2000. What this suggests to me is that even as hitting philosophies and strike zones change (maybe), everybody adjusts. If the hitters start taking more pitches, the pitchers throw more strikes, and the hitters take a few more swings ... and so the dance continues, with each side probing for an advantage and the other side parrying.

But the key to performing this beautiful dance with skill is a certain knowledge: the knowledge that a strike on Monday is also a strike on Tuesday and Wednesday. That knowledge can only exist if umpires are held to a standard, and that standard can only exist if there's a mechanism in place to objectively evaluate the arbiters' performance.

And there's nothing more objective than a machine. Luddites, prepare for battle.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information, visit Rob's Web site.





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