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November 3, 2014 / Nat Anacostia

Madison Bumgarner and the strike zone in Game 7

Before we completely turn our attention from the World Series to the hot stove league, I wanted to make one comment about Game 7.

With all the attention to whether Alex Gordon should have been sent, or at least should have hustled, to Joe Panik’s great double play, and to Escobar’s odd decision to sacrifice bunt, not much has been said about the strike zone. Since the discussion we had of the influence of the strike zone in Game 2 of the Nationals’ NLDS, I’ve been paying more attention to other critical ball-strike calls. In my opinion, a key turning point in the game came in a bad call on Bumgarner’s first pitch against the last batter he faced in the fifth inning, Lorenzo Cain.

The setting–Bumgarner came on in relief in the bottom of the fifth with a one run lead and on only two days of rest. For the first three batters he faced, he had shaky control and was getting behind in the count. Infante led off with a single. Escobar got ahead 2-0, then laid down a controversial sacrifice bunt. Aoki got ahead 2-0, took a strike, then shot an outside pitch down the left field line that I thought was a sure double. But with good fielding and great positioning, Perez caught it and there were two outs with Infante still at second.

Then Cain came to bat. Bumgarner’s first pitch appeared to miss, as had his first pitches to the previous three batters he’d faced. Pitchf/x (available at Brooks Baseball) shows it as 3 inches below the bottom of the strike zone, but “strike one” was the call. All of the next four pitches were above the top of the strike zone, but Cain chased all but one and swung through the last one for a strikeout. For the rest of the game, Royals batters were chasing pitches outside the zone.

Did this one bad call change the game? You can’t prove that it did. Jeff Nelson actually did a pretty good job calling balls and strikes–according to Close Call Sports, he missed only 4 calls all night. But I do think that one bad call may have been very influential. When an umpire misses a call inside or outside, the batter’s teammates can’t see it and it’s less influential. But everyone in the dugout can see when an umpire misses very low or very high, and I think that might have changed the approach of subsequent Royals batters, as well as Cain’s own approach that at bat. And even though  the Royals were mostly chasing high pitches from Bumgarner, the fact that they knew that they had to guard against the low pitch that had been called as a strike may have affected their ability to guard against the high stuff.

We’ll never know if that bad call affected the game. Bumgarner’s control did improve, and Royals hitters are not known for their pitch selectivity. But it’s easy to imagine that if a couple of things had gone differently that inning–if Escobar had swung away and got a hit, or if Aoki’s line drive had dropped for a double, or if Cain had gotten ahead in the count and gotten something to hit, the outcome could have been much different. Maybe the pundits would all be talking about the folly of bringing back starters on short rest.

The longer term message is that baseball should start preparing for review of ball-strike calls, which I now see as inevitable. The key is can they do it quickly enough to not burden the game with delays. I think the current review system actually suggests a way forward. Limit each team to two (or maybe three) reviews per game, with bonus reviews when the call is reversed. Let’s not have the manager call for the reviews (with all the time wasting looks back to the dugout). Reviews would need to be requested by the batter or the catcher within 5 seconds of the call. The review would be based on the pitchf/x or pitchtrack system, along with a quick visual replay to ensure that the system hasn’t gotten out of sync. The system would obviously need to be routinely checked for accuracy. TV shows can do all of this within 10 to 15 seconds — if the umpiring system  can replicate that time, I’d be good with trying out the system.

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