The biggest decision of the postseason might not be when Ned Yost decides to go to his bullpen in a big moment or who Terry Collins elects to start in his outfield or what pitch Noah Syndergaard throws to Eric Hosmer with two runners on base. The biggest decision might already have happened.
With the Kansas City Royals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the top of the ninth inning of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series, Ben Revere of the Toronto Blue Jays was batting with runners on first and third and one out. Closer extraordinaire Wade Davis was on the mound trying to send the Royals back to the World Series. The count was two balls, one strike. Davis threw a 97 mph fastball, high and away, in a similar location to where he had just gotten a strike called on the previous batter, Dioner Navarro, who ended up striking out.
Revere took the pitch. Plate umpire Jeff Nelson had a decision to make: ball or strike?
As Joe Sheehan wrote about Nelson in particular after that game and umpiring in general, "They're guessing whether this small object moving at ridiculous speed went through an imaginary box. Much of the time, they guess right. Some of the time, they guess wrong."
Ben Revere vs. Wade Davis..2-1 pitch ...#4 pic.twitter.com/ImEa06G6DN— Marc Nichol (@marcnichol10) October 24, 2015
As with the earlier call to Navarro, Nelson decided it was a strike. The replay, the strike-zone graphic on the TV broadcast and the PITCHf/x tracking data suggested Nelson decided wrong.
When I asked Davis on Monday about the pitch, he didn’t break, remaining stone-faced. "I thought it was a strike," he said.
With the count then 2-2, Davis threw a curveball that Revere swung at and missed. After the game, which ended with Josh Donaldson grounding out, Revere was livid about the call.
"It was terrible," Revere said. "It changes the whole game. That should've put me in a 3-1 count. Now he has to throw me a strike. But instead it's 2-2 and that puts me in the hole, and now I'm battling. It was a terrible call. You can't call that. I was so ticked off.
"It was like six inches off the plate. If I swing, I can't hit it."
The first two games of the World Series have been mercifully free of umpiring controversies. The griping about the balls-and-strikes calls hasn't reached the fervor of the earlier rounds of the postseason, at least not yet. New York Mets starter Jacob deGrom might have been squeezed on a couple of pitches when he walked Alex Gordon to kick off the Royals’ four-run fifth inning in Game 2, and Johnny Cueto might have been squeezed a few times early in the same game and Daniel Murphy barked at some strikes, but Twitter didn't escalate into a "kill the ump" campaign.
Mets right fielder Curtis Granderson explained earlier this week how the game revolves around getting these calls right.
"You go from a 0-0 count to start to 1-0 or 0-1 and the at-bat changes," he said. "A strike or a ball changes it drastically, and that's what's often overlooked. It's not just whether it was a ball or strike, but now you've changed my approach, you've changed the pitcher's approach. Maybe I have a chance to do something now, or maybe I don't. The aggression levels changes on both sides. The expansion of the zone changes on both sides."
The numbers Granderson referred to might be even bigger than you realize. Here's the example he presented:
Batters after 1-0: .268/.374/.441
Batters after 0-1: .225/.265/.344
The questionable strike called on Navarro came on a 1-1 pitch. That call creates an even larger split:
Batters after 2-1: .250/.382/.405
Batters after 1-2: .177/.226/.272
And the Revere at-bat? How the pitch is called can mean the batter is nearly twice as likely, or half as likely, to get on base:
Batters after 3-1: .278/.574/.476
Batters after 2-2: .189/.286/.299
That's why everyone gets so worked up over this, why we obsess over the pitch-tracking box, which is now ubiquitous on just about every televised game. "That's a huge part of the formula," Mets veteran Michael Cuddyer said. "The strike zone -- good or bad -- plays an enormous effect into the psychology of a player. In the end, you hope it's a well-officiated game and that the calls don't affect the outcome."
And yes, players can be as focused on that graphic as we are. "It's become more of mental thing; you're sitting there and it's all you're thinking about," Royals reliever Kris Medlen said. "I saw some pitches in some of the other games where I was like, 'Whoa.' As a pitcher, I'll notice pitches that are balls that I may think are strikes, like a curveball where a catcher drops down but maybe it crossed the plate at the knees. But it works both ways. And most of the umpires are really good at their jobs."
As a fan, I've wondered if we'd be better off without the graphic. It can take away from our enjoyment of the game as we grow more and more agitated with every call that we think goes against our team. Plus, the pitch location graphic might not be exactly accurate. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote earlier this postseason, the strike zone on the TBS broadcast didn't exactly correlate with the PITCHf/x data presented on Brooks Baseball and other sites.
All this, of course, has led to calls for robot umpires. In fact, one independent league used the PITCHf/x technology in a robot-umpire experiment this summer. Former MLB player and current MLB Network analyst Eric Byrnes was on hand and said it will change everything. "So if we have a chance to get it right, if we have a chance to get a pitch every time, why would we not?" he asked.
"You have to realize you have a human behind the plate who's trying to eyeball something that's moving very fast," Granderson said. "You have a glove, you have a catcher, you have equipment, we possibly have a bat in that area, and I have to find a white ball and see where it's at and make a call in a short time. Not only that, there are 40,000 or 50,000 fans cheering loud and screaming."
Indeed, it's possible Nelson might simply have been unconsciously influenced by the Kansas City fans. Research has shown that the biggest influence on home-field advantage in baseball is the size and shape of the park, but the home team also gets more favorable ball-and-strike calls.
So Granderson could envision a future with robot umps. "I think you definitely need to consider your options as technology continues to improve. Maybe it's something where the robot umpire is telling the umpire, something like that."
"As technology continues to improve, we'll be able to find ways to improve the game, while not costing people their jobs," he said. "The game will continue to evolve as the technology evolves."
But the technology might not be there yet. Sportvision, creator of the PITCHf/x system that utilizes three cameras to track the speed, location and trajectory of every pitch, notes on its website: "The PITCHf/x service tracks and digitally records the full trajectory of live baseball pitches to within an inch of accuracy, enabling new forms of baseball entertainment and analysis for leagues, teams, broadcasters, and fans. The data-rich technology is the result of more than seven years and millions of dollars of research and development."
Within an inch of accuracy.
OK, that sounds superaccurate, but tell Greg Maddux or Zack Greinke what an extra inch means for a pitcher. So when we -- myself included -- utilize all this terrific data in analysis, understand that there is actually a small margin of error involved. That pitch right off the edge of the plate that you think victimized your team? Maybe it was right on the edge. Plus, when we see the strike zone, either on TV or even in the graphics used on ESPN or other sites, they're always the same size. Umm ... Jose Altuve doesn't have the same size strike zone as Kris Bryant.
Given all that, robot umps might not be any better than the living and breathing ones, at least not right now. They would, however, get the call on Ben Revere correct. (No, don't even suggest instant replay on balls and strikes.)
So we'll be left with batters complaining and pitchers complaining and fans whining at home. Medlen is quick to point out that hitters definitely complain more. "But I don't blame them, I guess," he laughed. "It's hard enough to hit with a consistent strike zone."
Cuddyer joked that it "depends on who's behind the plate" and on who is doing the complaining.
Then there's rookie outfielder Michael Conforto of the Mets, who was called up from the minors in late July. Speaking like the smart rookie he is, he said, "The umpires up here are pretty good."