Many of you know I grew up in a baseball family. The summer rotated around my brother’s games and my dad’s coaching and practice schedule. One of the things I learned early is that you don’t complain about the strike zone because both teams have to deal with it and complaining about it doesn’t help. In the five years I’ve written for this site I’ve written about the strike zone exactly once — as a hook to discuss this very cool Boston University study about balls, strikes and umpire accuracy in 2019. But every now and again a game is called so egregiously poorly that we need to talk about it. Last night’s Cubs vs. Cardinals finale on Sunday Night Baseball was that game.
Erich Bacchus’ zone was consistent, but impossible for hitters. Adam Wainwright didn’t magically morph back into the 2015 version of himself to one-hit the Cubs through eight innings last night. He was given a strike zone that forced hitters to expand resulting in a lot of weak contact and fly outs. As Al noted in another piece earlier today, we are on a record pace for no-hitters in 2021. There are a lot of structural reasons the hitting environment is the most difficult one batters have faced in 121 years. Exactly no one needs umpires giving pitchers 3-5 additional inches off the plate:
Bacchus missed 21 calls over the course of last night’s game — one strike in the zone, but a stunning 20 pitches outside of the zone. Longtime baseball fans will likely see that the zone was consistent and call it good, after all, both teams had the same zone. That misses the point. A consistently unhittable zone is terrible for baseball. You can see the impact this zone had on both teams ability to make quality contact in the batting average for this game — a paltry .132 across ten innings according to Statcast.
One way to visualize this is by looking at the the universe of balls a pitcher threw and what happened with them. Below is a map of all the pitches Wainwright threw to Cubs batters:
Notice in particular the called strikes outside of the zone and the balls in play that resulted in outs outside of the zone. Below is the same map for all Cardinals pitchers followed by that map for all Cubs pitchers:
It’s a little busy because there are just so many dots, but it’s pretty clear that only two batters — both of them Cardinals — were able to make contact on pitches in Bacchus’ expanded zone that resulted in hits. No wonder David Ross got tossed over the strike zone.
MLB is obsessed with increasing offense and action in baseball. They have experiments running across the minor leagues on everything from limiting defensive shifts in Double-A to larger bases that may increase stolen bases in Triple-A. But it seems like one of the best ways to increase offense may be to ensure umpires call the strike zone correctly. Hitters make better contact on balls in the zone. When they are reaching for balls outside of the zone they may hit a ball hard but straight into the ground resulting in a double play rather than a double.
One would hope there is some form of follow-up for umpires after particularly bad home plate performances. Sunday night’s baseball game and 85 percent accuracy outside the zone seems like it should certainly merit some form of feedback before Erich Bacchus suits up behind the plate again.