There is a desire among some baseball fans for the sport to adopt an automated strike zone because the current strike-zone system is imperfect. The current strike-zone system is imperfect because the current strike-zone system is determined by humans. Because the current strike-zone system is determined by humans, sometimes pitches get called wrong. Because pitches get called wrong, some deserving balls are called strikes, and some deserving strikes are called balls.
Every single one of us knows this, and has always known this. Umpires get pitches wrong, and the overwhelming majority of those are borderline pitches. It's unreasonable to expect any human to get every borderline pitch call correct, especially since we've moved away from the rule-book strike zone anyway. But not every missed call is on a borderline pitch. In any set of data, there will be extremes, and I was wondering about the worst ball call of 2012 to date. I mean the best, most obvious strike that was still called a ball. Since there are extremes in any data set, the data set of should-be strikes called balls will contain a most-borderline strike, and a least-borderline strike. I wanted to identify the latter.
I found it. I searched for pitches in the strike zone called balls, and I limited the search to fastballs and changeups because I can at least understand how a breaking ball might make things more tricky. There were a number of bad calls toward this end of the data set, but here's the worst of them:
On Thursday, May 3, Homer Bailey pitched to Ryan Dempster in the top of the sixth. It was 3-0 Cubs at the time, and the bases were loaded with two outs. Bailey got ahead of Dempster with a borderline strike. He followed that with a fastball down the middle of the zone. It was called a ball by home-plate umpire Kerwin Danley.
You look at that image and you figure something must have gone wrong. There must have been some distraction, or maybe some glitch in the PITCHf/x system. At the front of the plate, that pitch was less than an inch from the estimated center of the strike zone, meaning it was essentially in the center of the strike zone. How could an umpire possibly miss a fastball right down the middle?
There was no PITCHf/x glitch. This pitch really happened as the image shows. And when you watch it, the weird thing is you kind of understand.
Bailey threw the fastball right down the middle, but he didn't want to. Or at least his catcher didn't want him to. The catcher wanted the pitch more inside, and then he kind of lunged to his right in making the catch. He stabbed with his glove, and his entire body shifted. This is an example of how not to frame a baseball. We can't prove that Danley called this a ball because Devin Mesoraco caught it all weird-like, but that seems to be overwhelmingly likely. Mesoraco oversold how badly Bailey missed his spot, and the result was a ball call on an obvious strike.
Said one of the Cubs' broadcasters afterward:
A break for Ryan Dempster -- that was a good pitch right on the outside corner [...] Young catcher Devin Mesoraco pushed it out of the strike zone and didn't get the call from Kerwin Danley and immediately tapped his chest letting his own pitcher know that "that was my fault."
The broadcaster was wrong in saying the pitch was on the outside corner, because it was even better than that. The broadcaster was right in saying that Mesoraco signaled an apology to Bailey after throwing the ball back.
Not that Bailey saw him.
So this was a case of an umpire missing a fastball right down broadway, but also of a young catcher demonstrating poor catching technique. But seriously, this was a fastball right down broadway. This was the fastball that Bailey would throw to impress a young woman during pre-inning warm-ups, without a batter in the box. Let's freeze that fastball, shall we:
Remember that you're looking at home plate at an angle. Take that angle into consideration and the adjusted image in your head mirrors the Gameday image earlier in this article. Fastball, thigh-high, middle of the plate. Ball one.
Thankfully, the bad call didn't do anyone any meaningful harm. On the very next pitch, Dempster popped out to Bailey to end the inning. The Reds eventually rallied and won 4-3 in ten innings. This was a blown call that didn't seem to have a cascading effect, which is the way we'd like all blown calls to be, but which is the way relatively few blown calls are.
So what can we learn from this? First, we've learned which is the worst ball call of the 2012 season to date. Second, we've learned that Devin Mesoraco might need a little defensive fine-tuning. And third, we've learned that pitch-framing really can and does make a difference. You might've thought before that there was no way a catcher could catch a fastball down the middle so poorly the pitch would be ruled a ball. I mean, it's a fastball down the middle, how could an umpire ever miss that? But here we are and what's happened has happened. There's a very interesting argument around whether or not pitch-framing should be a part of the game. It is a part of the game as things stand, and look what can happen! Crazy!