10 October 2011

Surely and Slyly

Suppose I need to say something, if for no other reason than to finesse Derrick's prostate off my front page. While others confirm our brick red battalion lost an evenly matched NLDS, and before that, won an awful lot, and generally seem pretty happy about it, I'm disillusioned. Not with the club or Gibby or even with Nyjer "Not So Lovely" Morgan. I've lost confidence and trust in Major League Baseball, specificially its arbitration of balls and strikes.

Before you assume I'm a misguided poor sport, let me assert that the Diamondbacks were robbed in Milwaukee, as surely as Jesse James robbed banks and as slyly as banks robbed this country. And the disturbing part is, these games really were pretty well adjudicated, by MLB standards. At least to the naked eye.  So well, in fact, that no one to my knowledge is complaining about it.

But thanks to TBS displaying PitchTrax in an offset window throughout the series, we were able to track the subtle shenanigans of just how one sided umpiring has become. To the naked eye, Game 5 started really well. Unlike Game 1, when Gallardo was visibly gifted with called strikes on the bottom edge that were consistently denied IPK, the Dbacks patiently took many close pitches just off the plate - and the umpire here was resolute before the din of the Milwaukee throng.  He called one outside pitch on Hill a strike, early in the count, but other than that was rock solid.  The Dbacks worked Yovanni's pitch count and the home crowd was not pleased.  

When IPK took the hill, it was clear from PitchTrax that he was painting the edges of the zone better, or at least more aggressively, than Gallardo. IPK was, for the most part, throwing strikes, towards the edges, whereas Gallardo tended to miss one, two or three inches off the outside corner. The umpiring accurately reflected that.

Things fell apart, though, during Justin Upton's second AB in the third inning. The first two pitches were clearly outside to Arizona's most celebrated hitter - yet both were called strikes. Neither was an "edge" location that could be called "either way", less so given the pretty tight zone established over the frst couple innings. So instead of 2-0 to your 30 home run dude, it's 0-2 against a strikeout pitcher. Yovanni preceded with care and Upton worked the count. Justin then got his team's biggest gift, when a high but clear strike on PitchTrax was missed by the ump, and JU later lofted a solo home run in the at bat.

There were three umpire errors in that one PA. Brewer fans were understandably ticked by the missed strike, but the whole AB was messed up and the fact is most of the breaks in it went the Brewers way.

It got worse after the Dbacks took the 1-0 lead on the road. By midgame, I'd tallied eight or nine gifts for Gallardo, one for Kennedy and the one for Upton. Saito relieved and got a couple calls. But the worst was Frankie Rodriguez, who transformed his appropriately French-named battery mate, LeCroy, into an NHL goalie, with an assortment of 55 foot sliders, jerked fastballs soaring over the opposite batters' box and what may have been a couple wrist shots.

After Aaron Hill led off with a walk and Upton took a pair of balls nowhere near the plate, F-Raud was presented with a strike two or three inches outside, per Pitchtrax. It's one thing when you give a pitcher a 2-0 strike when he's more or less hitting spots or if you've established a wide zone for both sides, but neither applied here. No Diamondback pitcher got that call, let alone anyone that wild, begging the question if Frankie's uniform influenced the call. Milwaukee's setup showman followed up with terrific 2-1 slider, eventually whiffing Upton and the Dbacks failed to score, despite a Montero single and a couple walks in the inning.

We'll never know what would've happened if Upton went to 3-0, late in a pressure game with men on, but as this whole series, and particularly the finale, was so evenly contested, one cant help but wonder if one team getting a dozen or more 'breaks' and the other receiving three or four didnt effect the overall outcome.

The big takeaway isnt that Milwaukee got breaks at home. Or any implication their sterling record at Miller Park is more or less tainted than other home marks. And to be fair, I didnt see Pitch Trax for the games at Chase, because I attended both - who knows what transpired, on and off the corners, those nights. The revelation, for me, was the size of the discrepancy between what my naked eye told me was the extent of favoritism - and what PitchTrax objectively exposed it as.

When I say objectively, I dont mean objective balls and strikes. The grid is just a superimposed image over the plate and can be positioned poorly, as in the DET/NYY NLDS, where fastballs in the dirt regularly registered as low strikes on PitchTrax .  I mean that PitchTrax objectively exposed identical pitch locations that were assigned different values by the umpire, and those values correlated quite a bit with the pitcher's uniform. It doesnt really matter if individual pitches were in or out of a "true" zone. What matters is that identical pitch locations were called inconsistently, and that the inconsistency appears somewhat predictable (ie not random).

That's what PitchTrax helps clarify and quantify. Without it, you'd watch a game and say, geez that "looked" a little outside and that pitch looked "about the same" as the one the ump called differently earlier. You get a sense one team's being favored, but you're not sure. Especially on the plethora of borderline pitches, where good teams and pitchers live.

Until Frankie Rodriguez waltzed into the eighth, the naked eye (along with ambient crowd noise) told me this was a well officiated zone, if anything favoring the Diamondbacks. Gallardo's pitch count was up. The crowd was mad about a bunch of called balls from Gallardo that looked close. The pitch before Upton's homer looked darn good. Ian Kennedy didnt struggle much with balls and strikes. A few called strikes to Dbacks looked a little outside, so overall it looked pretty even handed to the naked eye, after discounting the crowd's wrath.  Certainly not a home job, as in Game 1 or the Dbacks final visit to AT&T Park.  But PitchTrax still exposed a litany of more subtle discrepancies that generally favored the home team.

Concerns are obvious. A decade ago, people snickered at the thought NBA games were "fixed", but now we know better. The potential financial benefit to any league ensuring home teams win as often as possible is large.  Local fans have a good time and return. The well established disparity between NBA home and away records is alarming, to a point where home status has a higher correlation with game outcome than the relative strengths of the teams. Baseball, where the relative strengths of starting pitchers often drive daily results, tends to mitigate this home/away effect.

But I wonder if it's getting worse. I'll have to look into that. We know from steroid and free agent history that baseball's barons slyly collude at the expense of competition on the field, and it might be in their perceived (and notoriously shortsighted) interests to once again do so. Make every home team a "winner". Fans will surely love it.

Oh, and congratulations, Milwaukee.

1 comment:

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