By Larry Dierker
Surrounding the pitch, strike zone, and managers’ confidence, two things have been bothering me all year long. No, it’s longer than that; maybe for the last two or three years. Both of them came into play in the Astros vs. A’s game last Tuesday.
Pet Peeve #1 – Pitches & Strike Zones
With two outs in the top of the third inning, Astros starter Charlie Morton walked Oakland’s Jed Lowrie on a 3-2 pitch. It should have been strike three: inning over.
His next pitch nicked Kris Davis. Matt Olson immediately homered, and the A’s scored three runs after the Astros should have been in the dugout.
The 3-2 pitch was marginal; it could have been a ball. But my perception through the lens of the centerfield camera is seldom wrong.
When I watch a telecast by myself, I speak to the TV: “That’s a strike. Call it.” If it’s a call that helps the Astros, I leave off the “Call it.” If a ball is called a strike, I say, “That’s not a strike.”
The graphic representation used to outline the strike zone is excellent on the local games here in Houston; I was watching a national game recently, and I thought they had the top of the strike zone a little low. Either way, if I were pitching, I would prefer the electronic strike zone to the one the umpires call.
I think the umpires do an amazing job, considering their vantage point. But catchers move around, which causes the plate umpire to move too. Usually, they’re looking across the plate at an angle.
I always thought I could call balls and strikes better from the mound. The vantage point is perfect from that position. It’s the same as the camera.
The ball-four pitch to Lowrie was not replayed with the superimposed strike zone. But when it is used, I’m right about 95 percent of the time; I would cede the other five percent to the camera.
However, in this case, the point is that the call cost the Astros three runs.
My gut tells me that the outcome of more games would change with a consistent (not necessarily perfect) strike zone. I’ve talked to a few pitchers and hitters, and they agree. I’m sure there are a few guys who prefer the umpires’ zone because they think they get an edge for being nice guys.
When I was pitching, I always liked to see Ed Vargo behind the plate, because his strike zone was lower than low. If I had a good sinker/slider combo working, it was pretty tough on the hitters.
Overall, I would have been happy with some consistency.
As far back as 2000, when I was managing, MLB attempted to train umpires to call the same strike zone, instead of their own interpretation of the zone. The human factor made this impossible. So, why doesn’t the umpire have a buzzer in each back pocket to let him know if the ball touched the strike zone or not?
When MLB decided to use replays on calls on the bases, fair-or-foul plays, fan interference, and disputed home-run calls, I was against it. There is no question they are getting those calls right with the aid of the replays, but I think the missed calls would even out over the course of 162 games. The balls-and-strikes probably would, too.
But calling the balls and strikes with technology wouldn’t add one second to the length of a game. The strike zone would be the same at the beginning of an at-bat and at the end of it. It would be the same in the first inning as it is in the ninth.
Believe me, there is nothing more irritating than getting a corner call for strike one, and then walking the same hitter on the same pitch with a 3-2 count. The reverse is true for the hitters.
Every player in baseball would prefer a consistent strike zone.
OK, that’s my first pet peeve.
Pet Peeve #2 – Lack of Confidence
The second thing that bothers me is the lack of confidence most managers seem to have in their relief pitchers.
Later in the same Astros/A’s game, the A’s took starter Edwin Jackson out the game after a game-tying double by Alex Bregman. I thought it was a good decision; Jackson’s control wasn’t the best. Shawn Kelly came in and got Jose Altuve out, and he pitched a scoreless sixth inning. So far, so good for A’s skipper Bob Melvin.
Meanwhile, the three-two pitch and the following homer weren’t Morton’s only problems; he was wild in and out of the strike zone.
With two outs and a man on in the fifth, Olson came up again. With the homer fresh on his mind, Astros manager A. J. Hinch changed pitchers. Perhaps Olson’s success against Morton goes back farther — in which case, the move was a no-brainer.
But if that wasn’t the case, I likely would have left Morton in the game. Doing that would set me up for second-guessing if Olson came through again. But if Morton finished that inning, he could have pitched the sixth, too. He had 89 pitches when he came out, so he probably wouldn’t have pitched the sixth anyway. The pitch count wouldn’t have bothered me as much as his control. As usual, he had great stuff.
I’m sure there is analytic support for removing starting pitchers so early. My uneducated method for changing pitchers was based on simple information: the history of the hitter and the pitcher. When I was concerned about my pitcher, I would try to have relievers throwing who had some success against the upcoming hitters (and I would have, with Morton).
But I never took a guy out because of his pitch count; I used it as a gauge, but I also used my eyes. Sometimes I took a pitcher out because he had been going deep into games, and I thought a low-pitch outing would be good for him — especially if I had relief pitchers who needed work.
But none of this is what bothers me about the way pitchers are used these days by most managers. What bothers me is taking a reliever out of the game after a 1-2-3 inning, when he has good stuff and good command.
Fernando Rodney got the Astros 1-2-3 in the seventh inning, but he was not throwing all that well. The A’s brought Jeurys Familia in for the eighth, and the Astros got two dinky hits; he was nasty. The A’s scored in the ninth, which dictated they use their closer, Blake Treinen, and he was just as good.
So the A’s won 4-3, but they could have still been behind 3-1 if the three-and-two pitch to Lowrie in the third inning had been called a strike.
As I write this, the Astros have placed Morton on the disabled list with shoulder discomfort. Had I known that, I definitely would have lifted him when Hinch did.
As an educated fan, however, I wonder if Morton is really hurt, or he’s just tired.
When the calendar turns to September, teams can expand their rosters. Morton will only miss one start if his arm recovers. More importantly, he will be eligible for the postseason, as will Chris Devenski, who came off the DL to replace him.
This is a trick contending teams use at the end of August to gain flexibility for the playoffs. Every player who is on the active roster at midnight on August 31, plus any player who is on the DL at that time, is eligible. Don’t be surprised if some other contending teams place players on the DL if they can do without them for ten days.
Ryan Pressly pitched a 1-2-3 seventh for the Astros, and he had good stuff and good control. I would have left him in the game for that reason alone, but also because the score was tied, and the game could go into extra innings.
I suppose there is a metric that would tell me how foolish that would be, but I don’t have that program on my computer.
Hector Rondon pitched the eighth, and he was even better than Pressly. I would have left him in, too. But Hinch took him out and brought Roberto Osuna in to pitch the ninth inning. He wasn’t throwing as well as Pressly and Rondon, and his control wasn’t as good, either. Normally he is better. And if he had pitched earlier, and as well as the others, I would have brought him back for another inning too.
All of this works its way back to the starting pitcher — not just in this game, but in every game. As one of the few ex-pitcher managers, I tried to get as many innings as possible from my starter. The reason was really quite simple: as starting pitcher, I knew that on some days I was “in the zone”, and other days I didn’t have my best stuff or control. Most games I was somewhere in between. But even in those games, I was often as good or better than anyone who could replace me.
It’s a zero-sum game: the more innings the starter goes, the fewer innings the bullpen pitches. The fewer innings the fewer pitchers — thus, less risk of catching a guy on his bad day.
So that’s pet peeve number two.
I just don’t understand why managers — not just Hinch — routinely take relief pitchers out of games when they have only pitched one easy inning. It’s not likely, but you may end up in extra innings. What do you do then? The only thing you can do is go back to your middle relievers or use a starter in relief.
Note to Managers…
I have to add one note that absolves all managers from this critique:
It is a lot easier to see if a pitcher is throwing well when you are watching TV. When I went from the booth to the dugout, that’s the first thing I noticed. I could tell if pitches were high or low, but I could not tell if they were on the corner or down the middle. I couldn’t see the movement of the pitches as well, either.
The other part of this issue is conventions. If all of the managers do the same thing, on offense or on defense, it becomes the best strategy for that reason alone.
There is also a subconscious factor: what the broadcasters and writers will say. In general, if you are pro-active in the dugout, they will think you are trying your best. But if you leave the right-handed pitcher in the game to face a lefthanded hitter, when a left-handed relief pitcher is ready in the bullpen, you may have some explaining to do if he doesn’t get them out. If you bring the lefty in and he doesn’t get them out, at least you tried.
This pet peeve can be summarized succinctly: Don’t take pitchers out of the game when they are throwing well. You never know what the next guy will do. And even if the reliever pulls a Jekyll-and-Hyde in his second inning, you can have someone in the bullpen who’s almost ready when the inning starts.
Image: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – Lance McCullers Jr., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61270822